February 16, 2023
In Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s Stunt Girls, out in paperback next month, Kim Todd revives the stories of a number of journalism stunt girls of the late 1880s and early 1890s, including Eva McDonald aka Eva McDonald Valesh aka Eva Gay (better stick with first names so long as women keep changing theirs). Eva, a Minnesotan, the daughter of a carpenter and labor agitator, is also the subject of a new audio documentary out today—“Like a Comet Streaking Across the Sky: The Investigative Journalism of Eva Valesh”—for the Minneculture series of the Minneapolis community radio station KFAI. Its producer is Ben Heath.
In the 1936 Ladies of the Press, Ishbel Ross described Eva briefly, recalling her national correspondent days for the St. Paul Globe as “one of the first correspondents in Washington, man or women, to view government from the workingman’s point of view.” In Undaunted, she appears only on a short list of some of the nation’s many Nellie Bly imitators. So both Heath’s podcast and Todd’s book, which grew out of her 2016 article in Smithsonian, provide the best fresh sources on Eva.
Todd posted the triptych of Eva above in a thread on Twitter while she was working on Sensational. The book traces the “girl detective” format through the lives and work of several women of the era who had their biggest moments in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Stunt work was a gambit of the sensational yellow press, led by Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, to attract more readers, to build circulation. Women’s advancement was the overspill of the format, never its intent. However, the popularity with readers of these stories produced by newspaperwomen off the women’s pages provided some irrefutable evidence: that within their growing numbers were young women with the skill, talent, stamina, and derring-do to succeed in the profession’s most demanding work. As a form, stunt work flamed out from over-exposure within a decade, but while it lasted, while it captivated the public, it made that important point about the expansive capabilities of “that new American girl.” The rub was, this point was not being made for the first time. American women reporters had been doing journalism this rigorous since the 1840s. When it came to women in the profession, editors had and continued to have the convenient propensity to forget what they already knew.
Insofar as Eva is remembered at all, she is as, or better known as a labor activist and agitator, which Todd memorialized in the triptych. Many of the stunt girls had frivolous assignments—”down in a diving bell, up in a balloon”—but several of the format’s major figures, like Bly and Valesh, had social reform as their larger objective.
In Sensational, Todd writes that Eva was one of the reporters of the 1880s who would “discover the potential of stunt reporting as an activist tool.” She borrowed from Bly, as all Bly’s imitators did, but there were distinctions in Eva’s approach to extracting information surreptitiously from women working in a factory. Bly conducted her investigations in the guise of a bonafide inmate or patient or resident or worker—whatever the circumstances called for. Eva just blended in with the surroundings.
Eva eventually left journalism for activism. Bly did not become an agitator, per se, but after she left journalism, she attempted to run her late husband’s manufacturing plant as a model of social welfare and when she returned to journalism in the last few years of her life, she advocated for Austrian war widows and orphans, opposed capital punishment, called out the plight of American seamen, and became a one-woman clearing house for the placement of children whose single mothers were unable to care for them.
Todd on Eva:
Her writing style was spare, mostly records of conversations, but she doggedly pestered reluctant subjects to talk. Bly loved to chart her elaborate cover stories. McDonald made only the faintest pretense of seeking work. Her preferred technique was to slip onto the factory floor while the superintendent was distracted, ignoring the NO HANDS WANTED and NO ADMISSION signs, then wander through, sidling up to anyone who looked willing to talk. Scrawniness had its uses.
McDonald’s sensibility was different than Bly’s. McDonald’s piece sparked not a governmental investigation but a strike. . . .
Fun fact: Eva’s method would also become the approach Upton Sinclair used more than a decade later to infiltrate the meatpacking operations of Chicago for The Jungle, published in the trade press in 1906. To be able to blend in and avoid detection as he wandered around among the meatpackers, he did not enter the workforce; he did no more than dress down and carry a dinner pail.
Coincidentally, you can read Eva’s “Toiling Women” reporting as well as The Jungle in its unexpurgated original form on the (free) database, undercoverreporting.org. Sinclair’s opus originally appeared in 1905 in serial form in Appeal to Reason, a Kansas-based socialist magazine. Issues of the magazine were given to the library at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas a decade ago. The library generously provided the article scans for the database.