Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist – A Book Review

Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, FeministUntil recently, my knowledge of Nellie Bly was limited to her 10 days in a mental institution and her race around the world, both stunts she performed for the sake of newspaper articles. Then I read a blurb which listed some of her other accomplishments. Of course in typical fashion, I can’t remember where that was, but it prompted me to read a biography to learn more about her.

Brooke Kroeger’s book, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, is well-written, very well-researched, and full of details, in some cases more than I wanted. Bly seems full of contradictions, especially when it comes to calling her a feminist, but her articles are full of information about her and her feelings about the person or topic she is writing about. Kroeger makes good use of quotes to give us a feel for these contradictions.

Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran and called “Pinky” by her family and friends. (The “e” was added to the last name later.) Her father, an immigrant from Ireland, worked his way up from mill worker to owner and left the family reasonably well-off when he died. But a disastrous second marriage by her mother, Mary Jane, and mismanagement of the children’s trust funds left Elizabeth with a distrust of some men, and a need to make her own way.

She didn’t, however, set out to become a reporter. In response to a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Elizabeth wrote a letter to the editor signed “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The editor then wrote an ad asking the author to identify herself; she did and her career began. He chose the name Nellie Bly as a pseudonym, commonly used by women at the time, and judiciously edited her early articles. Throughout her twenties, Nellie Bly wrote for women’s pages (although she hated it) and did “stunt” journalism, such as the “around the world” articles (which she loved).

Journalism was something that Nellie always returned to. By the time she was 30, she had such name recognition that she could always find work. But her life took a different turn when at the age of 31, she married 73 year old millionaire Robert Seaman. The relationship is intriguing and Kroeger does a good job describing the interaction between the two. Through Seaman, Bly became a businesswoman, eventually becoming the President of his business, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. She also became an inventor and was issued a number of patents related to the business.

There were three major elements which consumed the rest of Bly’s life after Robert’s death: litigation regarding the company, her coverage of World War I from Austria, and her final years writing a column which led into a type of social work. All of this was unknown to me and I found it very interesting, with the exception of the extensive litigation. This did, however, give a lot of insight into Bly’s relationships with her family, her return to journalism, and her attitudes toward women and women’s issues at the end of her life.

The parts I enjoyed most were about Bly’s childhood and her time in Austria during the war and its aftermath. I found it astounding how uninformed she was about the war overall and specifically the stance of the United States. Never one to let what other people think affect her opinion of herself, she was convinced that she had information that President Woodrow Wilson desperately needed. With a decidedly pro-German outlook, she was definitely of interest to Military Intelligence.

Overall, the book is well worth the read. Nellie Bly was certainly much more than a “girl” reporter.

Brooke Kroeger is a journalist, a professor of journalism at New York University, and has four published books.

Malalai Joya – Courage in Afghanistan

A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her VoiceA Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice by Malalai Joya

Occasionally I’ll post book reviews from Goodreads when they are about women who I think are worth noting. Malalai Joya certainly falls in that category.

First off let me say, there have been 2 versions of this book released. I just bought it for my Kindle last week, so I have the latest edition. I did not find the writing as objectionable as some reviewers have. I’m sure as in most books there are areas where it could be improved, but it was not a distraction to me at all.

There are many extraordinary men and women in this world and this book is the story of one of them. Although Malalai Joya is a young woman, she has an important story to tell. Born into war-torn Afghanistan, she was fortunate to have a father who was educated and wanted his children to be educated as well – an estimated 80% of Afghan women are illiterate. Her father also instilled in her a love of democracy.

Malalai Joya is not her real name, but it is the name she goes by in most areas of her life in order to protect her family. Born in 1978, she has never known a time when her country was not at war. In A Woman Among Warlords, Joya describes her life in rural Afghanistan, refugee camps in both Iran and Pakistan, teaching in underground schools for girls, and finally being elected to the new Parliament only to be ejected for speaking out. Her life is constantly in danger, and although she has traveled outside of Afghanistan to speak and carry her message, she won’t consider staying out of the country. Love for the real Afghanistan, the people, comes through on every page.

The book gives a brief history of Afghanistan to fill in background for the current struggle. She speaks knowledgeably about the roles other governments have played in this history and credits the research team who helped her gather this information. I have read several other books about Afghanistan and the facts are consistent with what I’ve read.

Although the book carries a message of hope, it is not a feel good book. She conveys a picture of the horrors that the Afghan people have had to endure and is critical of the people who have brought it about. This includes both Afghans such as the warlords and the president Hamid Karzai, but also the former Soviet Union and the current US/NATO occupation. However, just as she is able to distinguish between the Afghan government and the people of Afghanistan, she distinguishes between the people of western countries and their governments. Joya is thankful for being able to carry her message to Europe and the US, and for the help she has received from some western organizations.

The message could sound hopeless, but she doesn’t see it that way. In the last chapter Joya gives suggestions to people who want to help. As an American, I have often wondered how we could leave Afghanistan with so many problems, many of which we caused, knowing that there are so many warring factions. Joya is insistent that, if democracy is to be attained in Afghanistan, it will be because the people secure it for themselves. The message I get from this book is that yes they would like our help, but from a distance.