Profiles in History: Nellie Bly/Elizabeth Jane Cochran

This month, in honor of Women’s History Month, the Radical Idea is profiling women who made important contributions to feminism or to their respective fields throughout history.  These profiles in history are intended to honor the work and the accomplishments of some incredible women.  Some of these names may sound familiar, but I think some of the best stories are the ones not enough of us actually know.

So here’s a name you might not be so familiar with: Elizabeth Jane Cochran.  Cochran was an American journalist writing in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, under the pen name Nellie Bly.  She was an early investigative reporter, which in and of itself would probably make her an interesting figure, but even more importantly, she pioneered the practice of undercover reporting, making enormous contributions to the field of journalism and to our knowledge of mental healthcare in the United States.

Bly started out at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, after an editor offered her a job in response to a letter she penned reacting to a highly misogynistic column that appeared in the paper.  The editor originally rescinded the job offer because of Bly’s gender, but eventually she convinced him.  At 21, dissatisfied with the way the paper relegated her to covering fashion and gardening because she was a woman, Bly relocated to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent.  She returned to the US after her reporting resulted in her receiving threats from the Mexican government.

In 1887, Bly ended up in New York and took a job going undercover for the New York World.  She feigned insanity in order to investigate complaints of brutality and neglect at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island.  Bly discovered that the staff at the asylum was abusive, both verbally and physically, and that the facilities were kept in poor conditions (we’re talking rats, terrible food, etc).  She also became convinced that some of the other patients were sane, as sane as she was.  After ten days the New York World got her released from the asylum, and her reporting resulted in a grand jury investigation and significant changes being made to improve the quality of care and ensure that only the truly mentally ill were sent to the asylum.

As if all of that were not cool enough, Bly also traveled around the world in 72 days, again for a story for the New York World.

Nellie Bly is one of those names that, if you aren’t a journalist, you might not know.  But the reality is that Bly had to defy tremendous sexism in her field in order to pursue a career as she saw fit.  Many female newspaper writers of her time were only able to publish on arts, theater, fashion, etc., and it was only Bly’s willingness to take chances and attempt difficult assignments that made her so extraordinary.  Moreover, she undertook some real risks in investigating the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, and underwent a painful experience in doing so.

Investigative reporting is a tremendously important part of modern journalism, and throughout the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first, undercover reporting has permitted journalists to access stories that may otherwise have never been told.  Undercover reporters have been able to tackle issues such as sex slavery, crime in schools, and human rights issues impacting migrant workers, in ways that overt reporting would never have permitted.

For more on undercover reporting, please visit NYU’s database on undercover journalism here.

For more on Nellie Bly, please see our original source here.


~ by Randi Saunders on March 4, 2013.

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