DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Nellie Bly, Elizabeth Bisland and the Great Race of 1889

One could often be found in the nearest saloon; the other in the nearest literary salon. One sought out the most sensational stories she could find; the other wrote about arts and culture.  One was called, scrappy, ambitious, and hard-driving; the other was referred to as the most beautiful woman in New York journalism. Considered separately, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were a study in contrast. However, their competing late 19th Century mad dash around the world captivated the nation, helped shift views about women, and changed both reporters forever.

That event is the subject of Matthew Goodman's latest book entitled Eighty Days: Nelly Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's Ground-Breaking Race Around the World.

Goodman appeared at an Inside Media program at the Newseum last weekend to talk about the 2 women and their adventure, which, from the book title you've probably guessed was an attempt to eclipse the around-the-world challenge time set in Jules Verne's classic novel, Around the World in 80 Days. The effort was historic in that it was the 1st time one trail-blazing woman, let alone 2, tried the feat on her own.

Both Bly and Bisland worked at newspapers when they were a male-dominated domain of spittoons and cursing. In fact, both women never even wrote from the newsroom - they wrote from home and delivered their stories to the office. "The newsroom was like the saloon and the voting booth," Goodman said. "Most women were relegated to the women's page writing about such things as the proper sequence of brown and white sauces at a formal dinner party. It wasn't considered appropriate for a woman to do the kind of stories that men were assigned."

Bly constantly attempted to destroy that idea. She burst into public consciousness with her stories on the horrors of a New York City insane asylum, the details of which she obtained undercover by being committed  to the truly frightening institution (Anybody else thinking this past season's American Horror Story: Asylum here?)

The idea of the world trek was Bly's. She convinced her editors at Joseph Pulitzer's World that she could accomplish the feat, and sensing a sensational story, they agreed. "At the time men didn't even want to send women across the city, let alone across the world," Goodman said. "But Nelly Bly was an incredibly fierce, independent woman. No one had been so audacious. No one had been willing to risk so much for a story." Perhaps most shocking of all was that Bly wasn't taking a slew of streamer trunks with her; she would make the trip with a single small satchel (which, by the way, is on display at the Newseum).

At the time (1889), newspapers were highly competitive, engaged in a constant battle for readers. At The Cosmopolitan (that's right, the great-great-grandmother of the same Cosmo today where you can find emaciated models and stories about 742 ways to drive your man crazy in bed) wanted in on the action. So, about 8 hours after Bly's departure, the editors there dispatched their erudite, elegant staffer Bisland on a race to best Bly. Bisland tried to get out of the assignment by claiming she was hosting a dinner party that very night. "However, the real reason was that she instantly understood that this type of story would make her stand out and she really tried to fight off fame," Goodman explained.

The public was immediately captivated. Not only was their the sexual element in the story, it would also allow quickly delivered news flashes using the telegraph - "the new radical technology and the internet of its time."

"The fact that a woman might actually do this freaked people out and annihilated their sense of space and time," Goodman added.

Bly won the race in a time of 72 days. Both women kept journals and wrote books. Not surprisingly, the books were quite different in tone since both both women set off with quite different attitudes. Bisland never really saw it as a competition, but rather a chance for her to view the world.  "Bly desperately wanted to win and said she would rather die than come back last," Goodman said.

Goodman's talk was delivered on a weekend when much of DC was focused on the 100th anniversary of the Suffrage March for the right of women to vote, a change that wouldn't come until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. So were Bly, who took part in that march, and Bisland pioneering feminists?

"They wouldn't have used the word feminist, but they were very conscious of being a woman in a male-dominated society," Goodman maintained."What they proved was that it really wasn't that difficult for a woman to do this type of thing by herself."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
You can learn more about the fascinating journalist who was Nelly Bly by visiting the Newseum. In addition to viewing her travel satchel, the story of her trip is featured in the News Corporation News History Gallery. You can also go undercover with Bly in the 4-D experience film at the Walter and Leonore Anneberg Theater.

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