Freedom Forum: “Nellie Bly’s Forgotten Sisters”

September 22, 1993




 Speech to Fellows of

The Freedom Forum Media Studies Center (and at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.)

NELLIE BLY’S FORGOTTEN SISTERS: Recovering the Long-Lost History of Women in Journalism

September 22, 1993

Brooke Kroeger


Listen to this list of indictments against women reporters:

“They are slovenly in their habits of mind, and in workmanship.

“They are impolite, scream for “service” … [and regard] the whole organization as something created for their own convenience and whims.

“They sulk at reproof, disdain well meant advice, and, if rebuked sharply for a heinous offense, either burst into tears or lament that a monster office cabal has been formed against them.

“…They depend, even the good ones, too much upon their male colleagues to help them over the tough places in their assignments. They accept these courtesies as a matter of course, and then, without thanking the man, double-cross him as often as possible.

“…They do not understand honor, and fair play, and the code of human and professional conduct as men understand it.

Would anyone like to guess when this was written? Stanley Walker, the legendary city editor of the New York Herald Tribune compiled it and published it in his memoir of 1934. Walker did acknowledge that some of these accusations were outrageously prejudiced. Others, he said, were the result of “sad experience.” He did not delineate which were which.

Substitute the word “African American” or “homosexual” for the word “woman” and imagine the outrage a list like this has the potential to provoke in these very corrected times. When my own outrage subsided, and I stopped shaking my head and muttering the words, “No wonder…” I had a second reflection: There must have been an enormous number of women in general assignment reporting BEFORE 1934 for such damaging bigotry to harden into stereotype by that time.

The fact is, I’d never given any thought to the subject until I happened on Walker’s book in the course of research for the biography of Nellie Bly that I have just completed. Perhaps I am splaying my own ignorance, but until then, my impression had been that except for Rosie the Riveter’s counterparts in the newsrooms of World War II, it was the early 1970s that brought the first mass of women into the field, including myself. We were largely helped in this pursuit by Equal Opportunity, the draft-intensive Vietnam war and the revolutionary fervor of the Women’s Movement. Before us, I thought, the only women in journalism had been those early luminaries whose names still popped up occasionally: Fanny Fern, Jennie June, Margaret Fuller and Jane Grey Swisshelm of the mid-19th century, then Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell, Polly Pry, Annie Laurie, Dorothy Dix and the rest of the sob-sisters, Anne McCormick, Helen Thomas and then, a couple of other aberrations and nobody else. This attitude was reinforced by the empirical evidence: There were 10 women in my class of 100 here at Columbia, 1971-72, and the newsrooms where we went to work were a sea of male faces, dotted like buoys with a few frizzy-permed holdovers from World War II along side the spinsterly characters who covered society, fashion and home. Not exactly role models. We really thought we were blazing trails.

It seems this wasn’t an isolated notion. Kay Mills, writing in the forum’s journal just this year makes this statement: “While there have almost always been a few women who wrote for newspapers — even published them in colonial times — there were sufficiently few well into the 20th century that one could easily recite their names.” She lists a total of nine American women as representing the full roster of female journalists up to the 1930s.

As Stanley Walker’s nasty little list makes clear, this was certainly not the case. So how did we lose track of the history? As the feminists are quick to point out, because until very recently, it was men who wrote it. To them, the situation of women in journalism was pretty much beside the point. This, of course, is the phenomenon known as marginalization of women’s achievements, which we all know something about. Biographers of legendary publishers, editors and writers give minuscule attention, if any, to the women who worked along side these men. Journalism historians have done likewise. And as women historians have gotten into the act over the past two decades, it has been their tendency to concentrate on the field’s most famous female exponents rather than the ins and outs of the long, slow-motion dive of women reporters into the mainstream. This has all served to reinforce our wrongheadedness, insofar as anyone has thought about it at all.

It is true that the late Edwin Emery’s classic journalism text, The Press and America, does mention, even in its earliest editions, the influx of several hundred women into the field in the 1880s and 1890s. One sentence — in a 780-page volume. I may not be the only one whose notice it escaped back in journalism school.

What I’d like to do today is re-create some of that early history, specifically the 1880s and 1890s, through the voices of some of the men and women who were living it. This era of Joseph Pulitzer’s New Journalism was a time of radical and incredibly rapid change in the industry at large and for women in particular — not unlike our own. Indeed, it was the first opportunity for women to enter the fray in relatively large numbers. They also reflected in print with fine insight on what was happening to them as it was happening. And so did men.

The easiest way for me to tell this tale is in reference to the undisputed stand-out of the age, Nellie Bly, who began her career in Pittsburg in 1885 on the staff of the Pittsburg Dispatch. Though she had dazzled the editor with her polemics on the role of women in the modern age, she was put to work on the gardening and fashion beat, which she abhorred. Undeterred, she took off after a year on a self-styled foreign assignment to Mexico, convincing the Dispatch editor to buy her reports and quietly hoping that when she got back, he would reward her with a better job. She ended up on the culture beat. She lasted three months, quit, and took off for New York, where there was no drum-roll to greet her arrival. Newspaper Row was not quite ready for the likes of Nellie Bly. So just to make ends meet, she wrote columns back to the Dispatch on the very subjects she had fled Pittsburg to escape.

Then she had a very bright idea: Using her Dispatch credentials, she sought and got interviews with New York’s top editors on the subject of how they felt about women entering journalism — A very crafty ploy that got her inside the very doors that had been slammed in her face all spring and summer.

Charles Dana of the fabled New York Sun: Denying any prejudice against women reporters, he said they were “not regarded with editorial favor in New York” and were worse than men in the critical matter of accuracy.

George Hepworth of The Herald: He had no objection to women entering newspaper life but could not imagine sending a woman to cover the police or criminal courts since the officials in those posts would give her “as little information as they could to get rid of her.” Furthermore, he said, given the sensations and scandals then demanded by the popular taste, “a gentleman could not in delicacy ask a woman to have anything to do with that class of news.”

Colonel John Cockerill of the World: What women were fit for in newspaper work — society coverage, for example — they don’t want to do, so men as reporters were of far greater service. Cockerill was quick to add theWorld actually had two women on staff to show he had no personal objection. One was doing book reviews and the other, women’s page.

The Dispatch published Bly’s story and The New York Mail and Express reprinted it. Joe Howard, the New York columnist, turned it into a controversy. In his column, Howard said he couldn’t believe the “lamentable ignorance” of New York editors on the subject of women in journalism and then he proceeded to enumerate a long list of outstanding women working successfully in the field throughout the country.

Ida Tarbell chimed in by saying in The Chautaquan that the field was wide open to any woman in good physical condition who would ask no special dispensations on the basis of her sex, pull no feminine tricks and be willing to undertake any assignment. She asserted that any woman with those qualities could get a job.

In his column, Joe Howard had topped his list of successful women with Bly herself and this, plus her well-placed interviewing — you could safely call it auditioning — was probably most helpful in getting her a job. It was Cockerill who hired her, to work on the New York World, no less, the most imitated newspaper in the country and then the most sought-after place to work. Immediately, she set to the task of effectively invented the new wild-side genre of Girl Reporter Derring Do, better known as “stunt” or “detective” reporting, which, in the opinion of historian Frank Luther Mott, exemplifies better than anything else the New Journalism’s mood and method. The notion of combining the exploitation of crime, scandal or shocking circumstance with the spirit of a crusade, delivered into words by a clever and talented writer — usually a woman — who donned a disguise to get the story was a natural for attracting wide readership. Bly’s name became synonymous with this form.

Her New York debut, at age 23, was a harrowing two-part exposé of the Woman’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island for which she had feigned insanity and fooled a battalion of Bellevue doctors and curious reporters from competing papers to get inside. She stayed there until the World rescued her ten days later. The stories she wrote had the whole country talking. Even her rival at the Dispatch, the dowager columnist Bessie Bramble, hailed the achievement. No sooner had New York editors finished saying that women weren’t fit for real journalism than, Bramble wrote, “.. Nelly Bly steps in and performs a feat of journalism that very few of the men of the profession have more than equaled. She has shown that cool courage, consummate craft and investigating ability are not monopolized by the brethren of the profession….”

At about this time, The Journalist, a much racier fore-runner of Editor and Publisher, had started to publish an annual issue in December devoted entirely to journalism’s women. By the time of the 1889 edition — two years after Bly’s arrival in New York — editor Allan Forman moved to dispel any lingering notion that women in the field were not utterly mainstream. “I knew in a vague way that there were a good many clever women engaged in newspaper work,” he wrote. “I knew that their number was constantly increasing and that their work was each day being more highly appreciated. But I did not know, as I do now, that I might publish a volume the size of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and then not half cover the field.” Inadvertently disclosing a lingering ambivalence toward the phenomenon, Forman wrote that he had left out numerous women who should have been included because “for a modest man, I have found it a matter of no little difficulty to write to a lady who is an utter stranger and demand her photograph.”

In that same issue, December 1889, Flora McDonald described her difficulties in this man’s world, even when her male colleagues generously treated her as “one of the gang, with extra privileges accorded for femininity.” She wrote: “…still the fact remains that she is a woman, still she suffers in a greater or less degree the uneasy sensations of a fish out of water. Not, mind you, that her discomfort is occasioned by the men who are companions — not a bit of it; the reason lies only in the natural order of things.”

That Bly, in New York, was able to command the kinds of assignments that had eluded her in Pittsburg was less a testimony to her skill than to the fact that larger trends in the industry had caught pace with her ambitions. There was no sudden openness by editors to the idea of having women on staff. The size and complexity of newspaper operations in this period had simply overtaken their penchant to exclude. The voluminous Sunday supplements created an obvious opening for women. Women’s pages expanded, requiring more staff. The interview, with which women reporters proved facile, emerged in this time as another popular story form. And readers loved stunt work. Bly’s remarkable example brought more and more women into that fold. The result of all this was a real and undisputed place for women reporters in daily journalism. Suddenly they were an essential element of the editorial mix. Suddenly they were good for business.

True, the areas where women located were still ghettos, just as the women’s columns had been for preceding 50 years. But the advent of The Stunt had occasioned important distinction. I submit that Bly and her imitators in the intrepid detective field were able, for the first time, to bring women, as a class, out of the journalistic side show and into the main arena. Unlike the other women’s duties on newspapers, stunts did not appear on the women’s pages. They required daring, resourcefulness, colorful writing, a strong news sense, quick turn-around and cunning — all the qualities of ANY good reporter. The work was often strong enough, as Bly would repeatedly prove, to be lifted out of the feature sections and onto the front pages. Women had their first collective opportunity to show editors they could perform with the brains, dedication and selfless abandon of the most able men. There would be issues and discrimination for years to come. Witness Stanley Walker. Or the forum’s publication last spring. But the way in had decidedly been opened by these young daredevils.

By the time Bly returned from her lightning race around the world in January of 1890, there were enough women reporters around the country for The Journalist to drop its annual “Women in Journalism” issue in favor of a weekly column about them. The issues changed too. No longer was the focus on getting the industry to open its doors enough to give women a chance. They had their chance, such as it was. The discussion now centered on what was happening to them once they got inside.

Still, however, despite all this new activity, as Mary Twombly pointed out in August of 1889, the easiest, maybe the only way to break into journalism was still through the women’s page. Thomas F. Anderson explained why: he confessed that although men at first had greeted the arrival of women in the newsroom with disdain and outrage, they were soon being hailed as “an indispensable reality,” “…the deliverer of mankind from the horrors of high weddings, dry goods openings, woman suffrage conventions and fashionable balls.”

W.T. Stead, cautioned: “A woman who comes into journalism and expects to be excused anything because of her sex lowers, by the extent of that excuse, the reputation and worth of women in journalism.” He added that she better quickly get accustomed to the idea of foul-language, scathing editorial scoldings, disgusting assignments and late unchaperoned nights. “You have a right to ask that your sex should not be regarded as a disqualification,” he said. “but it is monstrous to erect that accident of your personality into a right to have opportunities denied to your brother.”

By 1892, Margarita Arlina Hamm, who wrote The Journalist’s women’s column, had already gotten very worked up on that subject of assignments being denied women for no good reason: “It is a fact based on experience and supported by ample illustration that in the portrayal of crime or disaster, a clever, versatile and persistent newspaperwoman can more than hold her own with the opposite sex.”

Only a few short years into the newsrooms and women already were under scrutiny for “unfraternal” behavior towards each other — the catfighting Mary Twombly described as “their willingness to undermine and supersede each other, and the uncharitableness towards beginners of those who are securely placed.” The reason for this, she sad, was “the pitifully narrow groove to which women are generally confined,” shunted to the side as if they were some “necessary but illy defined adjunct of the press.”

At the same time, friction was chafing relations between the more senior women in the field and their younger, more progressive counterparts, enough so that the younger group had gone so far as to call for a second women’s press club. The original group, in the hands of the old-time women’s pagers, had gotten too staid and unresponsive to the younger group’s needs.

Bly was out of newspaper work between 1890 and the fall of 1893, when she returned to the World with a front-page interview with Emma Goldman. She found that the years away from reporting had not diminished her celebrity, but they had played havoc with her signature technique. The most sophisticated members of the craft now had very little patience for the souped-up snooping so closely associated with sensationalism which she had pioneered. Whatever glamour and novelty it once had long since had worn off from overexposure. Women reporters who had once vied for the opportunity to emulate Nellie Bly began to see the kinds of assignments that evoked her name as degrading and declassé. Without much other choice if they wanted to stay off the women’s pages, many continued to perform the feats of daring their editors would order up, and for most of the new decade. But they did so with greater and greater reluctance. In fact, the year before Bly came back to reporting, in 1892, Margarita Hamm in the Journalist was already decrying the “low grade of sensationalism” to which women in the journalism had dropped, writing as they were with “the tinge of extravagance” that “lacks the essence of truth.”

Town Topics, the vitriolic New York gossip magazine of the time, went so far as to condemn The World’s practice of “employing women to degrade and humiliate themselves in order that they might write their experiences for its diseased pages.”

There were even many other published expressions of empathy with the woman’s lot. Here’s how The Spectator described their situation of women reporters in 1893:

“Unfortunately, in the new division of labor, it is not the lighter and more pleasant toil that has fallen to a woman’s lot. As a rule, she sues for employment in pauperis; not in the strength of her superior capacity for the task, but because she must have some task, and because she is willing to take anything that is given to her, however burdensome and ill-paid. In fact, she is willing to undersell her male competitor — and, under the circumstances, who shall blame her? But the natural result is that she thereby undertakes the most disagreeable and thankless of the labors which are entailed by a journalist’s life.”

That spring, 1893, there were a reported 250 bona fide newspaper women working in the United States, ignoring the thousands who were doing “a little space work” between social and business obligations. By 1900, an article in The Arena already had raised the question of why women, who had proved to be more painstaking and more conscientious than men in like positions, were — for reasons best known to the men who perpetrated them — always offered less remuneration.

The turn-of-the-century brought on the sob sisters and then a few bold souls, including Bly, who tried their hand at reporting from the front in World War I. The ’20s brought in a bevy of short-skirted, gum-chewing “front-page girls,” probably the origin of Stanley Walker’s unfortunate impressions. There were something like 70 American women at the front in World War II, believe it or not, and if Bly had lived past 1922, I’d be able to tell you more about all that. Clearly, there was mass retreat through the late ’40s and ’50s and early ’60s because when we arrivistes of the early 1970s showed up, we encountered the void we mistook for a brand new reality.

Gerda Lerner, in her recent book, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, hails the opportunity women have had over the past two decades to lay claim to their lost history. She contends that denial of access to that history creates a condition of what she calls “trained ignorance,” which “decisively and negatively” affects a group’s collective intellectual development in the service of keeping that group down.

In the context of women in media, let me take this liberty with her insight: How much our generation, male and female, might have benefitted from having had access to the historical record I’ve only glanced over today. For starters, we would have had sense enough to realize that the new trails we thought we were blazing were already mighty well trampled, if somewhat overgrown. We would have been a lot smarter going in the door. One can only wonder how different both the experience and the discourse might have been had we gone to school on the many articulate men and women who had defined and grappled with nearly identical issues a hundred years before us. It’s for certain that a great deal less time might have been spent re-inventing the wheel.