One of the most well-known journalists in pop culture is Lois Lane. The DC comic character, typically portrayed as Superman’s girlfriend, was introduced as a hard-hitting reporter for the Daily Planet in the late 1930s. Her endurance as both a journalist and a counterpart to Superman has made her one of the most long-lasting romantic interests in the DC canon. But writers Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster drew from many real-life women as inspiration for Lois Lane. Among them was a pioneer of investigative journalism, Nellie Bly.
Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864. At 18 years old, she had dropped out of college and was working for her family business when she read the Pittsburg Dispatch article “What Girls Are Good For.” The article faced criticism for its portrayal of working-class women as immoral, but none so seething as Bly’s letter to the editor. Her response dragged the newspaper so hard, that the editor offered her a job in response. She was hired as a women’s columnist and began writing under the name Nellie Bly, a reference to the Stephen Foster song. Soon after, Bly hit the pavement running, covering women’s labor laws, divorce laws, and the Mexican government. But as a women’s columnist, she was often pigeonholed by her male editors into covering flower shows and fashion.
Fed up, Bly ditched the Dispatch and headed to New York where she took up freelance writing. It was not an easy hustle. It required long hours of pitching and writing, and never the guarantee of securing a lead. But her big break came when an editor at New York World asked her to investigate Blackwell’s Island (today known as Roosevelt Island), one of New York’s most notorious mental hospitals. Bly plunged headfirst into the project…and feigned insanity in order to be admitted to Blackwell’s Island, experiencing first-hand the mistreatment of patients at the hospital.
But she didn’t have a clear plan on how to get out other than to stop (as insensitive as it sounds today) “acting crazy.” When that didn’t pan out, to anyone’s surprise, the New York World had to send an attorney to get her back. But the exposé of her 10-day stay at Blackwell’s Island revealed widespread mistreatment and abuse of patients. In the series published by the New York World, Bly wrote, “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?” For Blackwell’s Island, the story led to a grand jury trial and its eventual closure; for Bly, the story made her the first investigative journalist.
This led to a branch of journalism known for its “stunt girls.” Although dismissed as sensationalist and yellow journalism, this style of news reporting provided an opportunity for many young women to finally enter the industry. With Bly’s work as a pioneer, it proved that women had the capacity and skills to deliver serious, hard-hitting reporting.
Bly didn’t stop with Blackwell’s Island. She covered sweatshops, jails, and corruption. After reading Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, she decided to challenge the protagonist by taking up her own journey around the globe. She traveled on ships, trains, rickshaws, horses, and burrows—even stopping to meet Verne in his hometown of Amiens, France. Meanwhile, the New York World covered her travels like The Amazing Race. Everyone was hooked. They even ran a contest to guess her final time, with half a million submissions sent in. The answer: 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds.
Nellie Bly is widely known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days, but she did even more, working undercover to report on a mental institution (Women's Lunatic Asylum) from within, launching a new kind of investigative journalism.
— Marina Amaral (@marinamaral2) August 27, 2021
Eventually, in 1895, Bly married the millionaire Robert Seaman and briefly retired from journalism. But she returned to the news and continued working into her old age, covering women’s suffrage rights and World War I. She passed away in 1922, just 16 years before Lois Lane appears in cartoons. Bly’s work as a woman in journalism is not only the foundation for the enduring character of Lois Lane, but also for the real-life women in the news industry today.
Looking back, I consider how I ended up on the path that I am, pursuing a career that focuses on writing and journalism. So much of my childhood hopes were founded on the representation that exists for women in this career path—both in fiction and real life. The popularity of women journalists in pop culture made it feel like a dream. After all, Lois Lane might be the most famous in the comics, but she is joined by Cat Grant, Kara Danvers, Sally Floyd, Vickie Vale, Jane Arden, and Karen Page to name a few.
But the journalists and writers like Yamiche Alcindor, Helene Cooper, and Joan Didion made a career in journalism, political or literary, a reality to me. Moreover, these women followed in the steps of other female journalism pioneers—a long history and tradition that included the likes of Martha Gellhorn, Ida B. Wells, Margaret Fuller, and of course, Nellie Bly.
To read the real account of Bly’s time as a patient on Blackwell’s Island, read Ten Days in a Madhouse by Nellie Bly.
Bly launched her career criticizing the Dispatch article, “What Girls Are Good For,” and put her money where her mouth was, proving to the world that women reporters are always a force to be reckoned with.
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