05 January 2009

Professions: Pioneering Female Writers

By Isabel Roman

An excellent site for more female journalists is Women's Herstory Month. For each of the 30 days, there's a different woman celebrated. Check it out.

Nellie Bly: If you know only one pioneering female journalist, it's her. Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864, her first taste of journalism was prompted by a sexist column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She wrote a rebuttal and the editor was so impressed, he asked her to join the paper. Female newspaper writers at that time customarily used pen names, and the editor chose Nellie Bly, a misspelling of the title character in the popular song "Nelly Bly" by Stephen Foster.

Bly focused her early work on the plight of working women, writing a series of investigative articles on female factory workers. Times being what they were, editorial pressure pushed her to the women's pages to cover fashion, society, and gardening. Bored, she traveled to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent.

At 21, she spent six months reporting the lives and customs of the Mexican people; her dispatches were later published in book form as Six Months in Mexico. When Mexican authorities learned of her report, they threatened to arrest her. Safe at home, she denounced then dictator Porfirio Díaz as a tyrannical czar who suppressed the Mexican people and controlled the press.

Upon her return, she left the Pittsburgh Dispatch for New York City. Penniless, she talked her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer's The New York World. She agreed to feign insanity to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island). Ten days later, Bly was released from the asylum at The World's behest. Her report, later published in book form as Ten Days in a Mad-House, caused a sensation and brought her lasting fame. Physicians and staff fumbled to explain how so many professionals had been fooled, a grand jury launched its own investigation into conditions, and Bly assisted. The jury's report recommended the changes she had proposed, and called for increased funds for care of the insane.

After her Around the World in 72 Days, she married millionaire Robert Seaman and took over his manufacturing business. She died of pneumonia at St. Mark's Hospital in New York City in 1922, at age 57.

Ida M. Tarbell (November 5, 1857 – January 6, 1944) was known as one of the leading muckrakers (investigative journalist) of her day. Best-known for her 1904 book The History of the Standard Oil Company, listed as #5 in a 1999 list by the New York Times of the top 100 works of 20th century American journalism. The inspiration came from her father being bankrupted by oil billionaire John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and was a contributing factor in the antitrust actions against the Standard Oil Trust which eventually led to its breakup in 1911.

She didn't like the label Muckraker and wrote an article "Muckraker or Historian" justifying her efforts for exposing the oil trust.
This classification of muckraker, which I did not like. All the radical element, and I numbered many friends among them, were begging me to join their movements. I soon found that most of them wanted attacks. They had little interest in balanced findings. Now I was convinced that in the long run the public they were trying to stir would weary of vituperation, that if you were to secure permanent results the mind must be convinced.
Tarbell died of pneumonia at a hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1944 after being in a coma since December 1943. She was 87. The Ida Tarbell House was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993. In 2000, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. On September 14, 2002, the US Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Tarbell as part of a series of four stamps honoring women journalists.
"Imagination is the only key to the future. Without it none exists — with it all things are possible. Ida M. Tarbell
Ida Bell Wells (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931) was an African American sociologist, civil rights leader, and a women's rights leader active in the Woman Suffrage Movement. She attended summer sessions at Fisk University in Nashville, a Black Historic College, and at age 24 wrote, "I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge."

In 1892 she published a pamphlet "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases," and along with the 1895 "A Red Record," campaigned against lynching. Having examined many accounts of lynching based on alleged "rape of white women", she concluded that Southerners concocted the rape excuse to hide their real reason for lynching black men: black economic progress, which threatened not only white Southerners' pocketbooks but also their ideas about black inferiority.

In 1893, she and other black leaders, including Frederick Douglass, organized a boycott of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The pamphlet to be distributed during the exposition, "Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition," detailed in English and other languages the workings of Southern lynching's and a handful of other issues impinging on black Americans. She later reported 2,000 copies had been distributed. Afterwards, Wells decided to stay in Chicago and work with the Chicago Conservator, the oldest paper for people of color in the city.

After her retirement, Wells wrote her autobiography Crusade for Justice (1928). The book was never finished. It ends in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a word. She died of uremia in Chicago at the age of 68. On February 1, 1990, the US Postal Service issued a 25 cent stamp in her honor. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Ida B. Wells on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.