The Hidden History of America’s Women Reporters: “They were bold women who had elbowed their way out of the Women’s Page ghetto”

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf review by Charlotte Gray headlined “Heyday of the Stunt Reporter”:

In late 1888, a series of articles in the Chicago Times triggered widespread outrage, both among its readers and within its newsroom. The first article was headlined “INFANTICIDE.” In this and subsequent installments, an anonymous “Girl Reporter” described how she had tramped through the city’s streets, visiting more than 200 physicians’ offices claiming she was pregnant and needed help with this “problem”—and that money was no object.

Abortion was then a criminal offense. Yet many physicians proved eager to swear this nervous young woman to secrecy, then “proceed with the horrible crime without any delay.” The police-department surgeon, “plump with a black goatee,” said he would do it for $75. The head of the Chicago Medical Society gave her directions to a man who could help her….

The girl reporter named the physicians who had offered her help and described their high-handed manners and high prices—as much as $6,000 in today’s dollars. She also wrote of her personal frustrations. After one physician condescendingly brushed her aside, she fumed and imagined her retort: “Don’t prate of virtue to me; I am as good as the rest of the world, only less lucky.”

Angry letters, libel suits and the resignation of the newspaper’s city editor followed. Readers were shocked, we are told, that the girl reporter “dared to talk about women and sex and the way it felt to be a woman talking about sex—embarrassed, threatened, angry.” Not only did she put the appalling hypocrisy of respected physicians on the front page, she broke the taboo on discussions of women’s bodies and abortion during a decade when such topics were legally defined as obscene. In the predominantly male world of journalism, she reflected on her ambivalence at the potentially humiliating assignment she had been given and her anger about the way her interviewees treated her.

While researching “Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s ‘Girl Stunt Reporters,’ ” Kim Todd, who teaches writing at the University of Minnesota, spent months trying to uncover the identity of this girl reporter. “Her voice was so vivid,” Ms. Todd writes, “her series so shattering.” It was probably a woman named Margaret or Florence Noble, Ms. Todd surmises, although she can’t be sure. Ms. Todd had already searched through yellowed old newsprint and microfilmed newspaper archives from big-city dailies across the U.S., particularly in Chicago and New York, and discovered a small group of similar “girl stunt reporters.” These were bold, ambitious women who had elbowed their way out of the Women’s Page ghetto and into newsrooms in the 1880s. Ms. Todd’s extensive research brings to light work by (among others) Elizabeth Banks, Elizabeth Cochrane, Elizabeth Jordan, Eva McDonald, Kate Swan McGuirk, Eleanor Stackhouse, Winifred Sweet and Ida B. Wells.

One of the few of this intrepid gang whose reputation lingers today is Cochrane, better known as Nellie Bly. Ms. Todd relates how Bly deliberately got herself interned for 10 days in 1887 at New York’s notorious Blackwell’s Island insane asylum for women. When she was finally released, Bly published two searing articles describing the freezing cold, the inedible food and the cruel treatment of the prisoners. “The rise of syndication and news transmission by telegraph meant the story stirred readers on San Francisco streetcars and benches in Tennessee,” writes Ms. Todd. Bly’s articles were “evidence for the competence of women” and had a real impact….

Bly’s success spawned imitators. More and more women went undercover to research their stories, then resurfaced to write about exploitative labor practices and sexual harassment. Their “stunts,” even by today’s standards, were often breathtaking in their audacity….Their exposés about the shocking conditions in which women lived, worked and starved on the lowest rungs of society were ammunition in the newspaper wars of the time, particularly the rivalry between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, publisher of Bly’s articles, and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. These stories boosted circulation, but they also increased the number of women’s bylines and photos on the front page and embodied women as protagonists, not victims….As Ms. Todd points out, today these women would be admired as investigative reporters; back then, their exploits were often dismissed as “indecent.” By the early 1890s, a backlash against the possible impropriety of their stunts had begun.

“Sensational” encompasses the intersection of newspaper wars, the campaign for women’s rights and the growing concern over the exploitation of labor. Ms. Todd interweaves these themes into her close focus on newspaper archives….
But there is no mistaking the point at which the women hit a journalistic brick wall.

When the USS Maine sank in Havana harbor in 1898, newspaper editors switched to war coverage. Women were not welcomed on the battlefield….

Once the fever of war abated, investigative journalism resumed. The next round of exposés, however, had all-male bylines. Articles that were once condemned as “muckraking” soon evolved into exercises of bravura for writers like Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens….Male novelists like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James began to stud their work with negative portrayals of female-journalist characters.

Ms. Todd’s resurrection of these courageous reporters is fascinating because the women and their stories are so vibrant. With acerbic wit, the author also makes a larger point. In the 1960s, Tom Wolfe challenged established journalistic conventions when he told his stories in scenes, with ample dialogue, colorful details and a distinct point of view. George Plimpton trained with the Detroit Lions. Hunter S. Thompson hung out with the Hells Angels. At colleges across the country, MFA programs began offering degrees in “creative nonfiction.” But it was the male muckrakers who are credited as the progenitors of gritty, detailed narratives told in the first person. Ms. Todd makes a good case that more credit is due to those early “girl stunt reporters.”

Charlotte Gray is the author of 11 books of nonfiction, including “Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike.”

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