Awesome Women in History: Nellie Bly
Born in this day in 1864, today would be the 151st birthday of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, better known by her pen name Nellie Bly, who was a groundbreaking journalist, world-record breaker, and women’s rights activist.
In a nutshell, Nellie Bly left a lasting mark on investigative journalism as well as on the landscape of American politics. She even made a name for herself in the adventuring scene. And all of this she achieved by a relatively young age, as she tragically succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 57 years.
The Beginning of a Pioneer in Investigative Journalism
In 1885, the woman who would become known as Nellie Bly wrote a furious letter to a Pittsburgh newspaper in response to a column titled “What Girls Are Good For,” which referred to the working woman as a “monstrosity” and which also said that women were best suited for domestic chores. Her letter so impressed editor George Madden at the Pittsburgh Dispatch that he hired her as a full-time reporter under the pen name Nellie Bly.
Bly’s early work included a series on female factory workers and she often focused on the working woman. She also spent six months as a foreign correspondent in Mexico but left the country after being threatened with arrest for criticizing the current political powers that be.
Exposé of Maltreatment of the Mentally Ill
Bly was one of the earliest exposé journalists, probably most famous for her undercover investigation of the condition of state asylums for women. Ms. Bly feigned mental illness in order to gain admittance into an asylum, what we would call a psychiatric hospital today. Her courageous act allowed her to expose the horrors of the New York City Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.
Bly’s series of articles led to a grand jury investigation and, subsequently, to improved care for the patients and increased funding for the care of people with mental illness. This work, in particular, not only brought to light the condition of the treatment of mentally ill patients but, also to the process of screening individuals for such an extreme setting. As a result, new standards were created for making sure that only the seriously mentally ill were committed to asylums.
Bly, the World Traveler
Nellie Bly was also well-known for her record-setting trip around the world, inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Bly took on the challenge in 1889 and completed her journey in seventy-two days.
Although her record would bested, hers was important in that it garnered public attention and involved making several stops, including a visit to a leper colony in China as well as meeting Jules Verne in person in France.
The Later Years
Nellie Bly later became the president of her husband’s iron manufacturing company. She also received patents for several different inventions of hers, under her married name of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, and continued to conduct journalistic assignments. Bly was also particularly interested in the plight of orphaned children and continued to work towards the improvement of orphanages.
In 1998, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
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