Elizabeth Jane Cochrane (May 5, 1864 — January 27, 1922), better known by her pen name, Nellie Bly, was a trailblazing journalist who not only paved the way for women in media at a time when women still didn’t have the right to vote, but also also championed the power of journalism as a tool of social justice.
In 1887, writing for Joseph Pulitzer’s pioneering New York World newspaper, she went undercover and feigned insanity for an investigative story on Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island after hearing of the appalling neglect, patient abuse, and brutality taking place at the institution. She went to extraordinary lengths to enact her diagnosis, then subjected herself to insufferable indignities. The exposé she wrote led to a grand jury investigation into the practices of the asylum, on which Bly was invited to collaborate and which spurred a $850,000 increase in the Department of Public Charities and Corrections budget for treating the mentally ill.
As Matthew Goodman aptly puts it in Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World ,No female reporter before her had ever seemed quite so audacious, so willing to risk personal safety in pursuit of a story.
Indeed, only two years later, in November of 1889, Bly packed a single bag and set out to circumnavigate the globe, aiming to beat Jules Verne’s fantasy journey of Eighty Days Around the World. She braved formidable weather, risked deadly illness, and returned in “seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds.” So remarkable was her feat that it reverberated in a radio dramatization more than two decades after Bly’s death.
Early in her career, she went around and interviewed every major newspaper editor in New York at the time — all, of course, white males — about why there were so few, if any, women in journalism. The answers ranged from the unabashedly, matter-of-factly sexist (“Accuracy,” said Charles Anderson Dana, editor of the Sun, “is the greatest gift in a journalist. … Women are generally worse than men in this regard. They find it impossible not to exaggerate.”) to the misguidedly mannered (Reverend Dr. Hepworth, editor of the Herald, pointed out that papers were mainly in the business of scandal and sensation, and “a gentleman could not in delicacy ask a woman to have anything to do with that class of news.”) Bly’s resulting essay caused a furor as arguably the first major piece on gender politics in the media world.
But perhaps most admirable of all was how indefatigably she embodied that highest journalistic ideal of integrity and passion. Bly herself articulated it best, writing in The Evening-Journal a mere nineteen days before her death:I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall.