The Forgotten Women Reporters Who Changed the Face of Journalism

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In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Kim Todd, author of Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters, a nonfiction work that reveals America’s pioneering women journalists whose undercover reporting in the late 1800s changed history—before they were forgotten by it.

By far, the best-known woman reporter of the Gilded Age was Nellie Bly, who famously had herself committed to Blackwell’s Insane Asylum for Women to investigate allegations of abuse. After 10 days, she emerged and wrote a blockbuster series for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World that shot her to journalism stardom. But Bly wasn’t the only daring woman reporter of her time; in her new book, Sensational, author Kim Todd introduces the stories of other “girl stunt reporters”—a term coined at the time to refer to these women journalists who oftentimes disguised themselves or went undercover in places only women could access. “Their reporting, because I think it was done by women, wasn’t really termed investigative,” Todd explains. “It was termed stunts.”

There was Winifred Sweet Black Bonfils, a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner who purposefully “fainted” in the middle of a street so she could be transported to a public hospital via police wagon, and whose report about the awful treatment she received at the hands of her doctor revealed the state of public hospitals in the city, resulting in San Francisco’s first designated ambulance. There was Nell Nelson, who wrote about the work conditions of Chicago’s factories; in response, Illinois passed a law that helped cut back on child labor. Then there was the anonymous Girl Reporter from the Chicago Times, who visited more than 100 doctors undercover and inquired about an abortion, reporting on what medicines they prescribed, the number of fees charged, and how doctors might treat a young woman in this situation.

But their impact wasn’t limited to journalism and public policy—the images that accompanied their work had an unlikely legacy, too. “[They] were often highly illustrated,” remarks Todd. “Particularly in the mid-1890s, you had not just a story about a woman doing something adventurous, but also like a half-page illustration of someone hanging from a rope off a bridge, or diving out of a ship and swimming in freezing water.” Todd points to the significance of these images, published at a time when women’s bodies were being publicly theorized as inherently weak. She believes the illustrations also served as early versions of what would eventually become comic books. It’s what ultimately led to the final cover design for Sensational, featuring the silhouette of a woman with her hands on her hips in front of a collage of newspaper articles.

“I wanted to show a woman who could both be a woman of the 1890s, but also had that resonance of, oh, maybe this person is a superhero, maybe this person is someone that we’re seeing in a comic strip,” Todd said. “Maybe this person is a prototype Lois Lane.”

When asked what is the biggest takeaway of Sensational, Todd says, “When you see people denigrating writing specifically by women as frivolous or not serious or sentimental, that we should always meet that criticism with a question.”

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