Home > The Mad Girls of New York

The Mad Girls of New York
Author: Maya Rodale



Chapter One

   Welcome to New York


        I’m off for New York. Look out for me.

    —Nellie Bly



   NEW YORK CITY, 1887

   Nellie did not take New York by storm. Not at first, not as she had planned. She had arrived in spring, when the city was bursting into bloom and the air full of promise, with a hundred dollars in her purse along with her clips from her days at the Pittsburgh Dispatch and ambition to burn. Of course she would get a job as a reporter for one of the big city papers (even though it was hardly done for a woman). Of course she would become a sensation (even though it was widely agreed that a woman should do no such thing).

   Nellie was good at two things: asking questions and believing in herself.

   But even Nellie was starting to lose her spark and swagger as spring, with its blossoms and joyous air, turned into a hot, stinking New York City summer and no one on Newspaper Row had the time of day for a girl reporter. Not the Herald, not the Sun, not the Mail and Express, not the Times and not the World. She really had her heart set on the World, but at this point, she would take anything.

   For months now, she had been walking up and down Newspaper Row, going from one newspaper office to the next, inquiring about available positions, only to be turned away, sometimes to uproarious laughter from some red-faced older gentleman, or with a smirk from some young man with less experience than she. A girl! In the newsroom!

   And that was if she could even get past the intimidating men hired to guard the gates and protect the reporters and editors inside from dangerous creatures like outraged readers, or people who believed themselves slandered in the pages—or young, female aspiring journalists. Was she dangerous? She didn’t feel dangerous.

   Nellie had started out young, fresh-faced, smartly dressed, wildly optimistic and cheerful. Too cheerful, perhaps. But as the days wore on, the heat and the rejections were starting to crawl under her skin. No one wanted to hear of her qualifications or her ideas for stories about immigrants and women and interviews with notable women of the day. No one wanted to see her clips from the Dispatch, like her series about factory girls or her reports from Mexico. All those precious clips were now softly frayed at the edges from so much time in her purse.

   The heat was taking the curl out of her hair.

   It was now September and she had one—one—soul-crushing assignment from good old Erasmus, back in Pittsburgh. A pity assignment, a way to throw her some money so she could carry on struggling in the big city. But it was, if she did say so herself, a smartly conceived way to get herself in front of all those big, important and powerful newspapermen who refused to give her the time of day. Nellie’s idea was to interview all the top newspaper editors in the city about women’s role in journalism. She had dreamed it up as a ruse to get past the guards at the front door of all the offices and into the newsrooms—a way to demonstrate a female reporter at work, right before their eyes. Her hunch was correct: Editors were more than willing to talk to her if it meant she had to smile and take notes while they shared their (absurd) opinions on lady journalists.

        Women can’t get the story


   To Dr. Hepworth at the Herald, Nellie posed the question: “Do you object to women entering newspaper life?”

   Dr. Hepworth, who had served in the war as a preacher, gave her a kindly smile, the sort one gave to small children before attempting to explain a complicated concept. She smiled blandly back at him and prepared herself for his answer.

   “I personally may not object,” he said, stroking his mustache as he spoke thoughtfully, “but the fact is a girl just isn’t going to get the news.”

   “Please do explain.”

   “Well, I cannot send her to a crime scene; the police will only give her as little information as possible to get rid of her. The criminal courts will be no different. Crime scenes and courts are no place for ladies; therefore a female reporter would be worse than useless.”

   “And that is a fact?”


   “What about crime scenes involving women? Or women who are taken to the criminal courts? You’re not suggesting that if we went down to the courts right now, we’d find only men.”

   “Well, the sort of women that you’d find there aren’t ladies.” Hepworth’s cheeks colored slightly. A gentleman didn’t discuss these sorts of women with someone like Nellie, who seemed respectable enough. Or was she? She caught his gaze lingering, as he tried to decide. Nellie knew she looked quite respectable, thank you very much, but her mere presence in his office suggested otherwise. He was most likely struggling with the conundrum. Nellie pressed on with her questions. “Could those women become journalists?”

   “Of course not.” He chuckled. “They are disreputable and uneducated.”

   Nellie frowned slightly. “So, a woman must be respectable to be a reporter, yet she cannot be a reporter because she is too respectable to go to the places a reporter must go.” Hepworth blinked at her. Nellie met his gaze. “I just want to make sure that I understand you. To confirm that you see no opportunity for a woman in journalism.”

   “No,” Hepworth said with a huff. And after some thought he added, “Though the ladies’ pages would be an option.”

   God save Nellie from the ladies’ pages. If a woman was lucky enough to get a job working for a paper—which spared her from working in a factory, or as a domestic or a wife (shudder)—she would have to spend her days writing about household hints and recipes, garden shows and charity luncheons. It was mind-numbingly tedious and she wanted to avoid it at all costs. It was one reason why she had left Pittsburgh.

   Hence her arrival in New York City.

   Hence her attempts to get hired to cover the news. Actual, breaking news.

   Nellie wrote down women can’t get the news, then she thanked Dr. Hepworth for his time and service in the war and went on her way.

        Women are not as accurate as men


   From there, Nellie went next door to the Sun, where she met with the esteemed Charles Dana. When she arrived, he slipped on a pair of gold-rimmed glasses and gazed at her curiously, as if he had never quite seen a woman involved with journalism before. She was seated in a comfortable chair in his office, which was quite homey with all its books and papers. There was a lovely view of city hall and the leafy park surrounding it. She was ready with her notebook open and her pencil poised.

   Nellie was ready for the worst but hoping for the best.

   “Women are not regarded with editorial favor in New York,” Dana told her with the confidence of a man of a certain age who had thousands of daily readers of his paper, paying to consume his opinions along with their morning coffee. Still, it rankled. Especially when he said things like: “Women are simply not as accurate as men.”

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