Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran (also spelled Cochrane) in Pennsylvania in 1864, Nelly Bly didn’t have the easiest childhood. She was the thirteenth of 15 children, born into a wealthy family. Her father died when she was six years old and left everything to the children of his first wife. This left Nelly, her mother, and several of her siblings destitute. When her mother went on to marry, then divorce, a physically abusive man, Nellie stepped into the role of provider. She was only a teenager.
Whether she was born with a fiery side, or it came from being one of 15 kids, Bly had an unapologetic grit. She earned her tenacity from working paycheck to paycheck at such a young age. In today’s parlance, she’d be celebrated. In the 1880’s, women with edge and perseverance weren’t as readily welcomed. Though she was studying to be a teacher and had dreams of becoming a writer, her focus was as basic as keeping food on the table for her and her mother. She took on odd jobs to make ends meet, and struggled to find work considered “proper for a woman.”
Her big break came when she wrote a charged rebuttal letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Dispatch. An op/ed piece in the paper had argued that a woman’s place was in the home, not in the workplace. Bly railed back with a letter articulate enough to earn her a job at the newspaper. She began working as a reporter for the Dispatch, and took the pen name Nellie Bly.
Not one to pussyfoot her way into any situation, Bly jumped into investigative journalism without restraint. While it was true, a good many women were working outside the home in the 1880s, this was still a rarity. Women weren’t allowed to vote. In most states, unmarried women legally were not even “allowed” to own property or manage their own earnings. Married women were provided a few more rights, though largely only in the case of an incapacitated husband. With Bly’s life experience, she had plenty to say on the status quo of women’s roles and responsibilities.
The Dispatch, however, attempted to quarantine her to the domesticity and niceties of the “Ladies Section” of the paper. Bly held her line by tackling the more serious social issues of women and poverty, female employment, and divorce laws. Somehow she finagled her way to becoming a foreign correspondent in Mexico for six months. Her exposés on how the government kept its own people in poverty earned her a one-way ticket back to Pennsylvania, under threat of the Mexican government. When her editors reverted to assigning her pieces on beauty, fashion, and home entertaining, Bly quit with a saucy note and headed to New York City to pursue a serious career in journalism.
New York didn’t prove on the surface to be any more egalitarian than blue collar Pittsburgh. Even so, Bly found a job at the New York World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer. She established her name almost immediately, through turning a simple assignment on the status of New York mental institutions into an in-depth investigation on treatment of the mentally ill. Proving her dedication to getting the story, Bly went undercover as a mental patient and exposed cruelty, abuse, and mismanagement by the institutions. She was only 23 at the time. FULL STORY>>>
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