Washington DC

125 years on: Nellie Bly Inspires Young Women

Nellie Bly

“She was a leading woman of her time who was tough and never willing to stand down.”
 Megan Laham, 16, Stoneham, Massachusetts

“… 125 years from now, imagine the changes that could occur if we attack inequality with the same fervour that Nellie Bly possessed.”
 Callie Slevin, 16, La Crosse, Wisconsin

“She was kind, self-reliant and used her voice as a journalist to help others who didn’t have a voice.”
 Rachel Dennis, 13, of Renton, Washington.

“We were delighted to discover an entire branch of journalism (investigative reporting) she had created.”
Jacqui  Hale, 16, Bedford, Massachusetts

Nellie Bly

Recently deemed one of the 12 feistiest women in history by internet news giant Buzzfeed, Victorian journalist Nellie Bly remains among the world’s top 10 female adventurers. Her legacy as a pioneer of investigative journalism, intrepid traveller, feminist and humanitarian lives on in best-selling books, television documentaries and editorials. Her grave in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery draws a steady stream of visitors, says Susan Olsen, Woodlawn’s Director of Historical Services.

Exactly 125 years after breaking the record for circling the globe and 93 years since her death, Nellie Bly is still ‘alive and well’, especially in the eyes of today’s young women.

“I am always warmed by the abiding interest in the adventures of Nellie Bly,” says Nellie’s biographer Brooke Kroeger, journalist , author and professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. “I think it’s remarkable how current she is with the junior set.”

Nellie’s ‘currency with the younger set ‘ is demonstrated by the number of American teenage girls who research her legacy for National History Day (NHD), a nationwide competition to promote history and research skills. Every year since the NHD competition was launched in 1974, Nellie Bly features among the leading entries.

Indeed, at least two projects devoted to Nellie Bly reach the National History Day finals every year, according to Micah Azzano, NHD Director of Public Affairs. Nellie Bly has also been proposed by fans for inclusion on NHD’s list of 100 Significant Leaders  in World History where voting is open to the public.

That doesn’t surprise Brooke Kroeger.

“Since the publication of Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist in 1994, I get anywhere from 10 to 30 queries a year from middle school girls — always girls — who have chosen Nellie as their research subject,” says Brooke Kroeger. “It’s impressive how many historical themes for which she incites the imagination.”

Nellie Bly perforamnce by /////////////////////

Saige, Emily and Megan’s performance about Nellie Bly received honourable mention in the National History Day state finals.

Megan Laham, Emily Manfra and Saige Calkins, all 16, of Stoneham, Massachusetts, pooled their imagination and talent for a performance about Nellie Bly that made it all the way to NHD’s state finals last year and received an honourable mention.

“It was good to spread the word of Nellie,” says Megan, 16. “All three of us see Nellie Bly as a role model. Through her works and fighting to get a job as a female reporter, she really set the standards to all reporters.”

Jaqui Hale, Sarah Nosal, Rachel Arnold, all 16, and Nili Ezekiel, 17, of Bedford, Massachusetts, saluted Nellie in their comprehensive website for the NHD competition:  Nellie Bly’s Multi-faceted Legacy: Leading a Progressive Generation of Journalists and Social Reformers. 

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Jacqui, Sarah, Rachel and Nili of Bedford, Massachusetts teamed up to create a comprehensive website.

“All of the things that she led during her lifetime then transferred into a lasting legacy in journalism and social reform,” said Jacqui, who represented the group. “…She taught us that women can be brave and accomplish many things as long as they push themselves like she did. She was so helpful to those she considered helpless, and often ignored her own safety because she was set on learning the truth,” says Jacqui.

Nellie Bly website created by Callie Slevin

Nellie Bly website created by Rachel Dennis, 13

Rachel Dennis, 13, of Renton, Washington, is putting the finishing touches on a website for NHD’s latest competition.

“Nellie Bly was a leader in journalism, a firm supporter for women’s rights and someone who believed in justice and equality,” says Rachel. “She was most famous for her trip around the world, but she made a difference in many people’s lives by writing articles about the working and living conditions of people less fortunate than her.”

Callie Slevan, 13.

Callie Slevin, 13

Callie's exhibit

Callie’s exhibit: Feigning Insanity for the Betterment of Society: Nellie Bly

Callie Slevin, 16, of La Crosse, Wisconsin first ‘met’ Nellie Bly at Washington DC’s Newseum where she features in a display and film. Callie’s NHD exhibit Feigning Insanity for the Betterment of Society: Nellie Bly demonstrates Nellie’s courage in revealing the ‘horrid mistreatment of patients in asylums during the late 1800s’ which she endured and wrote about in the newspaper and later in her book Ten Days in a Mad-house.

Callie most admires Nellie’s ‘unending ardour.’  “She not only made waves within the field of journalism, but she made waves as a woman in the field of journalism,” Callie says.

“Her legacy included the lives she changed, but also everyone she inspired to succeed, to fight injustice, and to keep going no matter the difficulty of their situation.”

 

In Which Nellie Bly Exhibits Her Role in History

Peat O'Neil (r) and David Stanton at the Newseum. Washington DC.

L Peat O’Neil (r) and David Stanton at the Newseum. Washington DC.

Washington DC was not on Nellie’s world trip itinerary,  but it had to be on mine.  The satchel she carried around the world is on display at  the the Newseum there, courtesy of Nellie Bly biographer Brooke Kroeger.  I had to see it.

Nellie Boy on display at the Newseum

Nellie Bly on display at the Newseum

Adjacent to the Capitol, the Newseum transports you across five centuries of journalism through multi-media presentations, hands-on exhibits and galleries.

I’d been hoping to be able to carry Nellie’s satchel or gripsack as she called it — just for a minute — but it’s  well- protected and inaccessible inside a Plexiglas display.  Even so, it was exciting to see an icon of her epic journey that so totally captures her spirit. When Nellie’s editor said he’d have to send a man around the world because a woman required a chaperone and innumerable trunks, Nellie showed him by stuffing everything she needed in a 16×7 inch satchel and travelling alone. Go Nellie.

Aside from her own display, Nellie stars  in a 4-D ‘film experience’ designed to introduce us to the power of journalism.  It recounts  the 10 days she spent in the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women in New York and the reforms that followed her exposure of the cruelty there. It was terrific to see her role in investigative journalism celebrated so vividly — even if we had to endure shaking chairs and flashing lights to ‘heighten’ the 4-D experience.

Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer

Nellie is in good company at the Newseum with exhibits monitoring press freedom, a memorial to fallen journalists, a large section of the Berlin Wall, front pages from around the world and vivid Pulitzer-prize winning photographs. The legendary Joseph Pulitzer, creator of the  prizes, was the owner of The New York World and Nellie Bly’s boss.

I visited the Newseum with my great friend Louisa Peat O’Neil, a travel writer and former journalist at The Washington Post, and my husband David Stanton who flew over from London. We were met by Peat’s friend John Maynard, Senior Manager, Exhibit Progamming at the Newseum.