Nellie Bly was a writer, inventor, businesswoman and a true renaissance girl at a time when Victorian moral codes and values were actively repressing women. Nellie Bly was actually her pen name – her real name was Elizabeth Cochrane (later Seaman) and she was born in 1864.
At age 16, she saw an article in the newspaper titled “What Girls are Good For” which infuriated her enough to write a passionate and angry response to the editor. He was so impressed with her writing that he hired her under the pen name Nellie Bly. Nellie wanted to write about the plight of working women and do investigative pieces, but she was continually pushed towards articles that were considered “woman’s interest” such as fashion, gardening, and the goings on of society.
But Nellie wasn’t about to settle for woman’s interest pieces. She spent six months living in Mexico, reporting on the daily lives and the customs and culture of the Mexican people. Her writing was later collected into her first book, Six Months in Mexico.
When her editor continued to push her towards fashion and other more “womanly” topics, she quit and found a new job working for Joseph Pulitzer. In order to expose the treatment received by the mentally insane, Nellie went undercover at Blackwell’s Island lunatic asylum by getting herself committed for insanity. Perfectly sane, she stayed in the asylum for 10 days and exposed the cruel treatment of the staff, the old, moldy food, dirty water, rats, freezing cold, the tying up of patients, and the fact that many of the inmates were perfectly sane. This adventure became her next book, “10 Days in the Madhouse.”
Nellie got it in her mind to try to beat Jules Verne’s record of circumnavigating the globe in 80 days and, with two days notice and only a handbag for luggage, she set out. Nellie managed to travel the globe in 72 days, while also meeting Jules Verne, buying a monkey, going to a leper colony, and racing a reporter from Cosmopolitan.
When she was 31 she married a 73-year-old millionaire and retired from writing. But she wasn’t done being a renaissance girl – she successfully acted as president of a manufacturing company and even invented a few of their products. When her husband died, she went back to journalism, reporting on the Eastern Front in WWI and following the Women’s Suffrage movement.
Nellie Bly was truly a renaissance girl in her time, refusing to let the Victorian opinion of women curb her curiosity and her zeal for reporting