Ask a Badass is an advice column answered by history’s hidden badasses, writing as they see their whole lives and our modern world.
What am I supposed to do? I know there is injustice. I believe what women say. I believe what people of color say. But I’m just a guy fighting to not be poor. I work hard every day, and I treat everyone with respect. What the hell else can I do?
I’m Not Bruce Wayne
It’s one of humanity’s queer contradictions that we loathe feeling vulnerable but are so much more aware of the power we lack than the power we have. When I was trying to become a reporter, the only doors that weren’t slammed in my face were the ones that led to homemaker’s columns and gardening coverage. I knew I could do more, be more, but the men who had the power said there was no place for a woman in investigative reporting.
At first, I tried to get around them. When they assigned me to write about the new phenomenon of women working in factories, I used the columns to expose brutal working conditions. I thought the exposés would show the editors they needed a female reporter. Instead, I was reassigned to society coverage when the factory owners complained. Fortunately, my persistent appeals convinced the editors to let me be their correspondent in Mexico.
It is a stunning thing to be a foreigner. By experiencing someone else’s culture as an outsider, you suddenly see your own in stark relief. The short and brutal lives of Mexico City’s poor set me to wondering about our own.
There were ways in which I was vulnerable, as a woman and a foreigner. But I came to see the ways in which my Mexican journalistic brethren were vulnerable. When a comrade was imprisoned for speaking against the government, I picked up the flag he dropped. I don’t regret it, even if it meant I left the country just ahead of the soldiers pursuing me.
When I made it to New York, I no longer felt vulnerable. I felt strength raging through me with each pulse of my heart. I would show the gilded aristocracy the shadows they ignored.
There was no oversight of the hospitals that treated the mentally ill. No one knew what happened behind those walls, and no one knew how easy it was to be imprisoned within them. I got myself committed by faking amnesia with a Spanish accent. Once in the asylum, I behaved as myself again.
In the ten days my editors left me on Blackwell’s Island, I witnessed horrific abuse. Patients, some as sane as me, were made to sit on hard benches in the cold without movement or distraction for hours on end. Rats were everywhere and refuse was piled in the eating places. The nurses did not care about our mental state and took no notice of my sanity – nor anyone else’s.
When my piece on Blackwell’s Island was published, it provoked a frenzy. A grand jury was impaneled. These desperate women, some of whom were guilty of no more than poverty or their family’s inconvenience, finally had some relief. I had spent my career fighting for recognition but using what little influence I had changed their lives.
It’s easy to feel like you have no power. What’s important is to find the places you do have power and start there.
Born in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania on May 5, 1864, to a merchant and Irish immigrant. Died of pneumonia on January 27, 1922, in New York City. Nelly Bly is perhaps most famous for racing another female reporter around the world during the heyday of the New York newspaper wars. However, her coverage of Blackwell’s Island asylum, the Pittsburgh factories, the Eastern Front in WWI, Porfirio Diaz’s dictatorship in Mexico and the suffrage movement all had a deep and lasting impact on the subjects of her reporting. She later spent a decade as a leading American industrialist, due in part to her marriage and in part to several inventions that she patented.
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