Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, Nellie Bly was one of the first and best female journalists in America and quickly became a national phenomenon in the late 1800s, with a board game based on her adventures and merchandise inspired by the clothes she wore. Bly gained fame for being the first “girl stunt reporter,” writing stories that no one at the time thought a woman could or should write, including an exposé of patient treatment at an insane asylum and a travelogue from her record-breaking race around the world without a chaperone. This volume, the only printed and edited collection of Bly’s writings, includes her best known works—Ten Days in a Mad-House, Six Months in Mexico, and Around the World in Seventy-Two Days—as well as many lesser known pieces that capture the breadth of her career from her fierce opinion pieces to her remarkable World War I reporting. As 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of Bly’s birth, this collection celebrates her work, spirit, and vital place in history.
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About the Author
Jean M. Lutes is an associate professor of English and director of academics for Gender and Women’s Studies at Villanova University.
Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air, a lecturer at Georgetown University, and the author of the literary memoir, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading! She lives in Washington, D.C.
Read an Excerpt
THE GIRL PUZZLE
Some Suggestions on What to Do With the Daughters of Mother Eve
What shall we do with our girls?
Not our Madame Neilsons; nor our Mary Andersons; not our Bessie Brambles nor Maggie Mitchells;5not our beauty or our heiress; not any of these, but those without talent, without beauty, without money.
What shall we do with them?
The anxious father still wants to know what to do with his five daughters. Well indeed may he inquire and wonder. Girls, since the existence of Eve, have been a source of worriment, to themselves as well as to their parents, as to what shall be done with them. They cannot, or will not, as the case may be, all marry. Few, very few, possess the mighty pen of the late Jane Grey Swisshelm, and even writers, lecturers, doctors, preachers and editors must have money as well as ability to fit them to be such. What is to be done with the poor ones?
The schools are overrun with teachers, the stores with clerks, the factories with employees. There are more cooks, chambermaids and washerwomen than can find employment. In fact, all places that are filled by women are overrun, and still there are idle girls, some that have aged parents depending on them. We cannot let them starve. Can they that have full and plenty of this world’s goods realize what it is to be a poor working woman, abiding in one or two bare rooms, without fire enough to keep warm, while her threadbare clothes refuse to protect her from the wind and cold, and denying herself necessary food that her little ones may not go hungry; fearing the landlord’s frown and threat to cast her out and sell what little she has, begging for employment of any kind that she may earn enough to pay for the bare rooms she calls home, no one to speak kindly to or encourage her, nothing to make life worth the living? If sin in the form of man comes forward with a wily smile and says “fear no more, your debts shall be paid,” she cannot let her children freeze or starve, and so falls. Well, who shall blame her? Will it be you that have a comfortable home, a loving husband, sturdy, healthy children, fond friends—shall you cast the first stone? It must be so; assuredly it would not be cast by one similarly situated. Not only the widow, but the poor maiden needs employment. Perhaps father is dead and mother helpless, or just the reverse; or may be both are depending on her exertions, or an orphan entirely, as the case may be.
GIRLS POORLY PAID
What is she to do? Perhaps she had not the advantage of a good education, consequently cannot teach; or, providing she is capable, the girl that needs it not half as much, but has the influential friends, gets the preference. Let her get a position as clerk. The salary given would not pay for food, without counting rent and clothing. Let her go to the factory; the pay may in some instances be better, but from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m., except for 30 minutes at noon, she is shut up in a noisy, unwholesome place. When duties are over for the day, with tired limbs and aching head, she hastens sadly to a cheerless home. How eagerly she looks forward to pay day, for that little mite means so much at home. Thus day after day, week after week, sick or well, she labors on that she may live. What think you of this, butterflies of fashions, ladies of leisure? This poor girl does not win fame by running off with a coachman; she does not hug and kiss a pug dog nor judge people by their clothes and grammar; and some of them are ladies, perfect ladies, more so than many who have had every advantage.
Some say: “Well, such people are used to such things and do not mind it.” Ah, yes, Heaven pity them. They are in most cases used to it. Poor little ones put in factories while yet not in their teens so they can assist a widowed mother, or perhaps father is a drunkard or has run away; well they are used to it, but they mind it. They will very quickly see you draw your dress away that they may not touch it; they will very quickly hear your light remarks and sarcastic laugh about their exquisite taste in dress, and they mind it as much as you would, perhaps more. They soon learn of the vast difference between you and them. They often think of your life and compare it with theirs. They read of what your last pug dog cost and think of what that vast sum would have done for them—paid father’s doctor bill, bought mother a new dress, shoes for the little ones, and imagine how nice it would be could baby have the beef tea that is made for your favorite pug, or the care and kindness that is bestowed upon it.
But what is to be done with the girls? Mr. Quiet Observations says: “In China they kill girl babies. Who knows but that this country may have to resort to this sometime.”7 Would it not be well, as in some cases it would save a life of misery and sin and many a lost soul?
IF GIRLS WERE BOYS
If girls were boys quickly would it be said: start them where they will, they can, if ambitious, win a name and fortune. How many wealthy and great men could be pointed out who started in the depths; but where are the many women? Let a youth start as errand boy and he will work his way up until he is one of the firm. Girls are just as smart, a great deal quicker to learn; why, then, can they not do the same? As all occupations for women are filled why not start some new ones. Instead of putting the little girls in factories let them be employed in the capacity of messenger boys or office boys. It would be healthier. They would have a chance to learn; their ideas would become broader and they would make as good, if not better, women in the end. It is asserted by storekeepers that women make the best clerks. Why not send them out as merchant travelers? They can talk as well as men—at least men claim that it is a noted fact that they talk a great deal more and faster. If their ability at home for selling exceeds a man’s why would it not abroad? Their lives would be brighter, their health better, their pocketbooks fuller, unless their employers would do as now—give them half wages because they are women.
We have in mind an incident that happened in your city. A girl was engaged to fill a position that had always been occupied by men, who, for the same, received $2.00 a day. Her employer stated that he never had anyone in the same position that was as accurate, speedy and gave the same satisfaction; however, as she was “just a girl” he gave her $5.00 a week. Some call this equality.
The position of conductor on the Pullman Palace car is an easy, clean and good paying business.8 Why not put girls at that? They do many things that are more difficult and more laborious.9
GIVE THE GIRLS A CHANCE
They can do the work as well, and, as a gentleman remarked, “It would have a purifying effect on the conversation.” Some people claim it would not do to put woman where she will not be protected. In being a merchant traveler or filling similar positions a true woman will protect herself anywhere—as easily on the road as behind the counter, as easily as a Pullman conductor as in an office or factory. In such positions, receiving men’s wages, she would feel independent; she could support herself. No more pinching and starving, no more hard work for little pay; in short, she would be a woman and would not be half as liable to forget the duty she owed to her own true womanhood as one pinched by poverty and without means of support. Here would be a good field for believers in women’s rights. Let them forego their lecturing and writing and go to work; more work and less talk. Take some girls that have the ability, procure for them situations, start them on their way, and by so doing accomplish more than by years of talking. Instead of gathering up the “real smart young men” gather up the real smart girls, pull them out of the mire, give them a shove up the ladder of life, and be amply repaid both by their success and unforgetfulness of those that held out the helping hand.
However visionary this may sound, those who are interested in humankind and wonder what to do with the girls might try it. George M. Pullman has tried and succeeded in bettering this poorer class.10 Some of our purse-filled citizens might try it by way of variety, for, as some one says: “Variety is the spice of life.” We all like the “spice of life”: we long for it, except when it comes in the form of hash on our boarding-house table. We shall talk of amusements for our girls after we find them employment.
The Pittsburg Dispatch,
NELLIE IN MEXICO
In 1886, after only nine months as a paid journalist, the twenty-one-year-old Bly grew impatient with her women’s page assignments on fashion, gardening, and hair care. Although she spoke no Spanish and had never traveled abroad, she persuaded her very reluctant editor at the Pittsburg Dispatch to allow her to serve as the paper’s correspondent to Mexico, got her mother to agree to accompany her, and embarked on the long train ride south. Within a month, the Dispatch published the first of more than thirty features that appeared under the headline “Nellie in Mexico.” They included descriptions of working people, socialites, native Indians, tourist attractions, and ordinary life in both cities and rural areas, as well as details about the government’s strict censorship of the press. Two years later, when her New York madhouse series had earned Bly even more name recognition, the reports were collected in a book titled Six Months in Mexico.1 Bly actually spent only five months in Mexico; she planned to spend six, but she cut her visit short when she was threatened with jail for writing an article about the arrest of a local newspaper editor who had criticized the government.
NELLIE IN MEXICO
Random Notes Gathered from the Streets of the Ancient City
PEEPS AT THE LIVES OF THE LOWLY
Meat Markets Established on the Backs of Rickety Old Mules
AMUSING SCENES, AS WELL AS SAD
Special Correspondence of theDispatch
CITY OF MEXICO, FEBRUARY 25.
In Mexico, as in all other countries, the average tourist rushes to the cathedrals and places of historic note, wholly unmindful of the most intensely interesting feature the country contains: the people.
Street scenes in the City of Mexico form a brilliant and entertaining panorama, for which no charge is made. Even photographers slight this wonderful picture. If you ask for Mexican scenes they show you cathedrals, saints, cities and mountains, but never the wonderful things that are right under their eyes daily. Likewise, journalists describe this cathedral, tell you the age of that one, paint you the beauties of another, but the people, the living, moving masses that go so far toward making the population of Mexico, are passed by with scarce a mention.
It is not a clean, inviting crowd, with blue eyes and sunny hair I would take you among, but a short, heavy-set people, with almost black skins, topped off with the blackest eyes and masses of raven hair. Their lives are as dark as their skins and hair, and are invaded by no hope that through effort their lives may amount to something.
Excerpted from "Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings"
Copyright © 2014 Nellie Bly.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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What People are Saying About This
"Absolutely fantastic...superb in its entirety"
—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
"A classic from one of the first prominent female journalists in America."
—Kathryn Schulz, New York Magazine
"Splendid...The only thing unbelievable about Nellie Bly is that it’s taken this long for her work to be recognized—and with a life story this rich, where is the biopic? Thanks to this new collection at least, Bly’s life work will be accessible for a whole new world of readers."
—The Daily Beast
"From the start, Bly is a natural writer. Her voice is caustic and confident, lilting effortlessly between the gush and private wonder of a schoolgirl’s diary and the rigor of the most celebrated political reporters of her time. "
—The New Inquiry
“If you’ve never read any of 19th-century journalist Nellie Bly’s work, this is the place to start. And if you’re a longtime fan of the first ‘girl stunt reporter,’ this is definitely a tome worth adding to your library…. [Bly] made indelible observations about a woman’s place in the world that are no less valuable today than they were 150 years ago.”
"The editing is outstanding, providing the backstory for this important but all too often neglected figure in American journalism."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Yes, she was unique for her time. Her journalistic writings are great fun to read and give a good education into times and challenges facing an independent woman traveler. The Foreward and Introduction give an overall glimpse into the background and character of Ms Bly. Her own articles and essays are surprisingly well written. I would definitely reccommend the book.