The Story That Launched Nellie Bly’s Famed Journalism Career
In 1885, the Pittsburg Dispatch published a letter from an “Anxious Father,” wondering what to do with his five unmarried daughters, alongside a response from columnist Erasmus Wilson entitled “What Girls are Good For.” The reply likely did nothing to soothe Anxious Father. In it, Wilson, who was known as the "Quiet Observer," or Q.O., went on a screed against the working woman—whom he declared “a monstrosity”—and insisted that the only proper place for the fairer sex was in the home. Wilson admonished the American parents who had let such standards slip and went so far as to suggest (ostensibly in jest) we might want to take a page out of China’s book and consider female-specific infanticide to deal with all our girls.
The paper received some blowback from women in the community. Among the Letters to the Editor that Wilson’s chauvinistic diatribe elicited was one from an anonymous “Lonely Orphan Girl.” Managing editor George Madden was so impressed with the ferocity and writing ability the letter exhibited that he published an ad in the paper inviting Lonely to come by the paper’s office for proper recognition. The next day, 20-year-old Elizabeth Cochran showed up.
Her father had been a wealthy man—her original hometown of Cochran's Mills, Penn. was named after him—with 15 children between two marriages. But after he died, when Elizabeth was just 6, her mother Mary Jane struggled to keep the family afloat. She married and divorced an abusive man and moved her family to Pittsburgh where Elizabeth helped run the family’s boarding home.
But her childhood dreams of writing professionally persisted, and when she arrived at the Dispatch’s offices, Madden offered her an opportunity to do just that. He asked her to turn her letter into a rebuttal piece about “the women’s sphere”—and when she did so with aplomb, the Dispatch hired her full time and gave her the pen name under which she would become famous: Nellie Bly.
The Girl Puzzle
“What shall we do with the girls?” the article, entitled "The Girl Puzzle" opened. "Those without talent, without beauty, without money."
She went on to address the Anxious Father and his five daughters specifically and practically. In evidence of much of her future work, "Bly" focused at first not on the rhetorical ideology of womanhood, or even feminism as we might understand it today, but rather the acute struggles of lower class single mothers.
Can they that have full and plenty of this world’s good realize what it is to be a poor working woman, abiding in one or two bare rooms, without fire enough to keep warm, while her threadbare clothes refuse to protect her from the wind and cold, and denying herself necessary food that her little ones may not go hungry; fearing the landlord’s frown and threat to cast her out and sell what little she has, begging for employment of any kind that she may earn enough to pay for the bare rooms she calls home, no one to speak kindly to or encourage her, nothing to make life worth living? If sin in the form of a man comes forward with a wily smile and says “fear no more, your debts shall be paid,” she cannot let her children freeze or starve, and so falls.
Having been born into wealth but having witnessed her mother struggle most of her life, Bly understood the impact that a person's class could have on the opportunities available to them.
Perhaps she had not the advantage of a good education, consequently cannot teach; or, providing she is capable, the girl that needs it not half as much, but has the influential friends, gets the preference.
Bly concluded this first portion of her essay—that which is addressed not at men but at "butterflies of fashions, ladies of leisure," who do not understand how their lower class sisters suffer—with a bleak reappropriation of Wilson's flippant remark about China.
Mr. Quiet Observations says: “In China they kill girl babies. Who knows but that this country may have to resort to this sometime.” Would it not be well, as in some cases it would save a life of misery and sin and many a lost soul?
The solution to this miserable cycle, Bly posits, is to treat girls as boys. She sees in her ambitious male counterparts the opportunity for greater social mobility that can traced back not to innate ability but to the opportunities open to them.
How many wealthy and great men could be pointed out who started in the depths but where are the many women? Let a youth start as errand boy and he will work his way up until he is one of the firm. Girls are just as smart, a great deal quicker to learn; why, then, can they not do the same?
Bly, who would go on to become a pioneer in the field of immersive investigative reporting, concludes her very first piece of published writing with an entreaty:
Here would be a good field for believers in women’s rights. Let them forego their lecturing and writing and go to work; more work and less talk. Take some girls that have the ability, procure for them situations, start them on their way, and by so doing accomplish more than by years of talking.