This has been a depressing week for female journalists, so let's celebrate one at the end of it.
Nellie Bly is practically an American folk hero, I know. Likely you encountered her name in some social studies classes or in the many children's books that have been written about her. If you have not dug any deeper, that kind of vague pop-culture hagiography might give you an image of someone staid and proper and respectable, but Nellie Bly was not those things, not really at all. She was more of a celebrity. As Alice Gregory put it at the New Yorker yesterday,
Her name was, at one time, on the tip of every literate and tabloid-loving person's tongue. Her work changed public policy, her outfits influenced fashion trends, and her adventures inspired board games.
Note the use of the word "tabloid," there, because by any modern standard Bly was a thrill-seeker, her subjects were all on what we now call the trashy side of things: insane asylums, getting herself arrested, working in one of the awful factories in the Lower East Side. She took a trip around the world, she wrote advice columns, she did basically everything you can imagine, sometimes with personal and financial risks attached, since she went from riches to poverty a couple of times over the course of her life.
It meant that she appeared under some killer headlines in her time, like:
In short, Bly was a sensationalist, and as Maureen Corrigan notes in the introduction to a new collection of Bly's work that Penguin has just put out, wrote in a way that rather offends the tastes of the modern, objective, reasonable, tell-both-sides, never-use-I journalist. Here, for example, is Bly on leaving that insane asylum after a few day's commitment:
I had looked forward so eagerly to leaving the horrible place, yet when my release came and I knew that God's sunlight was to be free for me again, there was a certain pain in leaving. For ten days I had been one of them. Foolishly enough, it seemed intensely selfish to leave them to their sufferings. I felt a Quixotic desire to help them by sympathy and presence. But only for a moment. The bars were down and freedom was sweeter to me than ever.
Her dispatches, in other words, were not dispassionate and fair. They were combative and heavily felt. They were "emotional," even, if that's the term you prefer. But their emotionalism recommended them, actually. It was a selling point, the particularity of her personal experience back then.
Her sensationalism was also the only way a woman could break into the industry in her day, according to a hilarious article I dug up from the Washington Post, circa 1889. It is entitled,
and it goes on to hold that,
Women seldom succeed in all-round reporting; even more rarely in editorial writing, and practically never in important executive work. Most of those who win fame and a comfortable living, do it either through sensational work of one kind or another or through specialties.
Considering Bly's particular case, the article goes on to say that when she started, "Her English was distinctly bad, but she was pretty, clever, and courageous." And she made of it what she could. There is some kind of hope in that, I think, insofar as her work happened in what we'd now call a cartoonishly bad personal environment for women, clearly, as that Post article on her helpfully concludes:
Newspaper row is haunted by a host of women, young and old, who are the special horror of managing editors. Some are tearful, some coquettish, some shrinking, all persistent. Those who hold on long enough finally gain a footing; but the spectacle of the ordinary woman in the downtown struggle is a thing to make a man's heart ache.
I'm sure it made a few women's hearts ache, too. The best thing to learn from Nellie Bly, though, is that she saw it as a reason to keep going, rather than to quit.