During Women’s History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of female innovators and history makers like Nellie Bly, who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout March to learn about more important figures.
Born: May 5, 1864, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Died: January 27, 1922, in New York City, New York
Known best for: her investigative journalism into how mentally ill people are treated in institutions, which led to widespread reform.
Elizabeth Jane Cochran, better known by Nellie Bly, was one of America’s first female investigative journalists. She became a journalist by accident at 21 years old when she wrote a response to a chauvinistic article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. The editor recognized her writing ability and hired her. At the Dispatch, she adopted the pen name, Nellie Bly.
When Bly was still 21 years old, she traveled to Mexico to work as a foreign correspondent but had to flee the country when the government threatened her for reporting on difficult living conditions and the imprisonment of journalists. While in Mexico, Bly took on major topics such as women’s rights, labor laws and political corruption.
Later in her career, Bly also investigated the mistreatment of mentally ill people in institutions by having herself voluntarily committed for a famous piece called Ten Days in a Mad-House for Joseph Pulitzer‘s newspaper the New York World. For the story, she pretended to be insane in order to be admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York. Bly experienced and recorded the terrible conditions she had been subjected to. Her article was eventually turned into a book and the mental institution was forced to make reforms.
But Bly did not stop at her journalism career. She later became a world traveler with just one dress and a bag. She circumvented the world in just 72 days, using ships, trains, horses and her own two feet.
After that, she married and became an inventor and business owner. She married the owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company and helped him run the business. By 1901, she was the sole owner. Her husband would die soon after in 1904. Her company received a patent for the first stackable garbage can and she helped design a metal barrel to carry oil.
Later in life, she returned to journalism, covering the women’s suffrage movement and World War I. Bly eventually died of pneumonia at 57 in 1922 — two years after the 19th Amendment was ratified and gave women the right to vote.