A column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch titled “What Girls Are Good For” so upset 21 year old Elizabeth Jane Cochran that she wrote an angry letter to the editor as a response, signing it “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The editor was so impressed by her writing that he hired her to write about social issues for the paper. This was unheard of at the time; women, if they wrote at all, confined themselves to fashion and gardening.
Cochran wrote her first article for the paper, titled “The Girl Puzzle”, which argued that not all women would marry and that what was needed were better jobs for women. Her next article, written under the pen name Nellie Bly, was titled “Mad Marriages”, and talked about how divorce affected women. In it, she argued for reform of divorce laws.
Bly continued to write about the lives of working women, including a series of articles about women factory workers. This did not set well with factory owners, many of whom were advertisers, so Bly was reassigned to women’s pages to cover fashion, society, and gardening. She did not last long in that role. She decided to do something “no girl has ever done.”
Still only 21, Bly traveled to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent. She spent 6 months reporting on the lives and customs of the Mexican people, eventually publishing the book Six Months in Mexico. In one report, she protested the imprisonment of a local journalist for criticizing the Mexican government, then a dictatorship under Porfirio Díaz. Bly fled the country when Mexican authorities threatened her with arrest. Back she went to the Dispatch, reporting on the arts and theater.
Bly was not one to play it safe. She knew her true passion, which was covering important social issues. Joseph Pulitzer eventually hired her at the New York World newspaper and assigned her to do an undercover story on alleged brutality at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. It was a risky play; she had to convince authorities that she was insane.
Bly spent ten days at Blackwell’s, and once out, published a series of articles titled “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” The book caused a sensation; the asylum launched reforms, and Bly’s reputation as an investigative reporter was assured.
Bly would take on other challenges. Inspired by Jules Vern’s “Around the world in 80 days,” Bly actually made the journey, via steamship and rail, in 72 days. She married an industrialist twice her age, and when he died, she took over the factory.
Bly’s final reporting assignment was Europe’s Eastern Front during World War I. She was the first woman and one of the first foreigners to visit the war zone, and was arrested when she was mistaken for a British spy.