Women in news | Editorial

When I think of women in history, I am reminded of three women in the newspaper industry whose stories have inspired me.

I discovered Nelly Bly in the sixth grade. I don’t remember the exact assignment, but it had to do with writing about a historical figure. Somewhere nosing about in the history books I discovered one of the first women investigative journalists. Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864, she took on the pen name Nellie Bly as women typically did not write under their real name. While writing for the Pittsburgh Dispatch in the late 1800s, her early articles focused on the lives of working women. She wrote a series of investigative articles on women’s factories and advocated for better jobs for women. In one article, “Mad Marriages” she argued that divorce affected women.

In 1887, she left Pittsburg for New York, but newspapers didn’t often hire women then, so finding work was difficult.

After a few months, the broke Bly talked her way into Joseph Pulizer’s “New York Word” and was given an undercover assignment; pretending to be insane in order to be admitted into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. There, she would investigate reports of brutality and neglect. It took some time, but eventually, she was committed to the asylum. For ten days she lived the experience of a patient. Her report was published on Oct. 9, 1887. That article, and the book Bly wrote, “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” caused the facility to implement reforms. Bly created a name for herself, and in 1893, she was able to schedule an exclusive interview with the alleged serial killer Lizzie Halliday.

A few years later, Bly pitched a story to turn the novel “Around the World in Eighty Days” into reality. She boarded the luxury ocean liner Augusta Victoria, Nov. 14, 1889.

The World organized a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match.” Readers guessed Bly’s arrival time to the second. The winner was awarded a trip to Europe. Spending money was later added to the prize. She traveled through England, France, the Suez Canal, and Japan, before making it back to New York some 72 days later. She had successfully circumnavigated the globe nearly entirely alone.

If I thought Nellie Bly was courageous, I had yet to learn about Ida B. Wells-Barnett, born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862. At 16, she lost her parents and her baby brother to yellow fever. She was left to raise her brothers and sister. Wells-Barnett took a teaching position in Memphis to keep the family together. There, she sued a train company because they bumped her off first class despite the fact she had a ticket. She won at the local level, then lost in Federal Court. After a friend was lynched, she turned her attention to white mob violence writing an expose about an 1892 lynching. Outrage locals burned down her press. After months of increasing threats, Wells-Barnett moved to Chicago, Illinois.

In Chicago, she joined African American leaders in calling for the boycott of the World’s Columbian Exposition, accusing the committee of locking out African Americans and negatively portraying the black community. In 1895, Wells-Barnett married famed African American lawyer Ferdinand Barnett. Together, the couple had four children. She was not a stay-at-home mother, but balanced motherhood and activism.

Wells-Barnett traveled internationally to shine a light on lynching. At home and abroad, she was not shy about confronting white women in the suffrage movement who ignored lynching. This caused her to be ridiculed and ostracized by women’s suffrage organizations in the United States. Nevertheless, Wells-Barnett remained active in the women’s rights movement and founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Club which was created to address issues dealing with civil rights and women’s suffrage.

And then there is Kathryn Graham, who became DeFacto publisher of the Washington Post in 1963 after her husband passed away. The title became official in 1969, and she remained publisher until 1979. She continued playing a role on the board until 1991. She became the first woman CEO on the Fortune 500 list.

What Graham is most known for is her direction of the Post during Water Gate. Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought the Watergate story to their editor, and Graham supported their investigative reporting. In 1972, as the scandal was breaking loose, Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell was quoted to have warned Bernstein that “Katie Graham’s going to get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.”

Graham did not crack, and as a result, the public became aware of the Water Gate scandal, and former President Richard Nixon resigned.

Each of these women faced tremendous challenges, but through their fearlessness and dedication to news, changed the world.