On the “Girl Stunt Reporters” Who Pioneered a New Genre of Investigative Journalism
Kim Todd Remembers the Fearless Women Who Changed the Trajectory of Memoir and Reporting
The Chicago Times’s Girl Reporter might seem exceptional in her readiness to risk scandal to tell a story no one else would, but she was not alone. The same script was playing out in cities from coast to coast. She was just one of the nation’s “girl stunt reporters,” pioneering a new genre of investigative journalism, going undercover to reveal societal ills. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, women from Colorado to Missouri to Massachusetts dressed in shabby clothes and sneaked into textile mills to report on factory conditions, slipped behind the scenes at corrupt adoption agencies, fainted in the street to test treatment at public hospitals.
At the time, American journalism, a field on the cusp of professionalization, was plotting its future. A revolution in printing technology made putting out a paper cheaper than ever before, and an influx of immigrants offered a tantalizing new audience. Newspaper rooms, from San Francisco’s Examiner to New York’s World, battled viciously for market share with weapons of scandal and innovation. In the process, they shaped the growing metropolis, reflecting it back to itself. On the one hand, cities were engines of opportunity; on the other, magnets for sin. They drew people seeking better lives and sometimes swallowed them.
Publishers were looking for a new kind of story to fill those numerous pages, to tempt those new readers, to stoke their anxieties but also feed their hopes. And when Nellie Bly’s 1887 “Inside the Madhouse” series for the World hit the streets of New York, readers couldn’t get enough. She had faked insanity to get committed to the asylum at Blackwell’s Island so she could document the starvation and abuse of patients.
Even more compelling than the situation she revealed was the way she told the story—a firsthand account from a charismatic narrator, filled with dramatic twists and laced with warmth and humor. The exposé sold thousands of copies of the World, resulted in the municipality committing $50,000 for better asylum management, and created a publishing sensation.
Slipping on a disguise and courting danger suddenly became a way for writers to get a foot in the door. By crafting long-form narratives that stretched over weeks and read like novels, using engaging female narrators to explore issues of deep concern to women, and promising real-world results, stunt reporters changed laws, launched labor movements, and redefined what it meant to be a journalist. These footloose exploits were so sought after by readers and publishers that reporters willing to attempt them commanded high pay. And, while in 1880 it was almost impossible for a woman writer to escape the household hints of the ladies’ page (the kind of writing one female journalist termed “prostitution of the brains”), by 1900, papers were publishing more bylines by women than men.
Stunt reporters put a new female character in the headlines—not a victim of assault or murder—but a protagonist. Bravery was their brand. It was like they stepped out of the adventure tales that flew off the bookstore shelves, except that they were real.
But it was a disorienting sense of reality, as the freedom displayed in these stories was at odds with the limited rights of American women in the late 19th century. More and more were moving to the big cities, finding jobs, living on their own, but the Victorian ideals of a certain kind of womanhood still clung like a corset. Women couldn’t vote. No laws protected them from sexual harassment or marital rape.
Wives, in particular, struggled to be seen as full citizens: under “coverture,” a common law legal doctrine imported from Britain, their legal selfhood was subsumed under their husband’s. In many states, married women couldn’t own property, sign contracts, or earn a salary. When Myra Bradwell, denied the ability to practice law at the Illinois bar, took her case to the Supreme Court in 1873, Justice Joseph Bradley highlighted “coverture” in his response: “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” Bradwell lost her case.
And it wasn’t just a legal issue. In a post-Darwin era fascinated with biology, women’s inferiority was codified by science. Psychologists, physiologists, and sociologists all weighed in. Phrenology—the determination of character by skull shape—revealed women to be naturally childlike, as did analysis of their stature and rounded features. Their nerves—alleged to be smaller and more delicate—made them sensitive and impressionable. Doctors increasingly diagnosed hysteria, a uniquely female ailment that could result in a patient being confined to her bedroom or sent to an asylum.
Then there was the question of womanhood on the page. Writing by women has historically been devalued, though much read, and the 19th century was no exception. Budding novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne was so concerned that in an 1830 biographical sketch of the 1600s religious leader Anne Hutchinson for the Salem Gazette, he took a long detour to detail his fears about women writers in his own age. Why was their work so popular? What was the cost for creators of actual literature?
He worried that “the ink-stained Amazons will expel their rivals by actual pressure, and petticoats wave triumphantly over the field” and mulled the “impropriety in the display of woman’s naked mind to the gaze of the world.” 19th-century and early 20th-century female writers fended off this kind of disparagement in a variety of ways, from adopting male pseudonyms, like George Eliot and the Brontës, to penning essays and stories where the sex of the narrator is obscured, like Mary Austin in her Land of Little Rain.
The stunt reporters challenged these views of what a woman should be. They couldn’t cast a ballot, but they could interview presidential candidates. They couldn’t sit on juries, but the World could impanel 12 female reporters and editors to offer their perspective on court cases. Anatomy textbooks might detail their weakness and frailty, but they could leap into the cold ocean and face down burly factory bosses.
Under the guise of journalism, they adopted roles forbidden to them, demonstrating their fitness to serve on a search-and-rescue team or drive a train. Unlike female writers who masked their sex, the girl stunt reporters told the truth experienced by their bodies. They wrote about sexual harassment. They wrote about seeking abortions. They wrote about crushes and concerns about their hair. These reporters were deemed silly, sentimental, or sensational—all criticisms of “feminine” writing—but the power of their voices made Hawthorne’s fears come true. They changed the journalistic landscape.
Rather than being an oddity of history, stunt reporters altered the trajectory of both traditional reporting and memoir. Along with other writers like Ida B. Wells and Victoria Earle Matthews, they developed techniques of “muckraking,” a style of investigative journalism first condemned then embraced as a noble tradition. They employed the intimate tone and scene-based structure that would later characterize the “New Journalism” of the 1960s and ‘70s and the “creative nonfiction” that followed. Their disguises allowed them to go deep into the lives of their subjects, providing early examples of “immersion journalism.” But while Bly is well known, most of the women who followed in her wake have been forgotten, their legacy obscured. The identity of the Chicago Times’s “Girl Reporter,” for example, remains a mystery.
After a little more than a decade of headlines and book deals and newspaper profits, these writers faced a backlash that stripped them of their credibility and, ultimately, credit for their innovations. Their assignments shifted from public hazards to circus elephants and nights spent in a haunted house. Awareness of the body, both by the writers and in half-page illustrations, was criticized as indecent.
Stunt reporting, which played a critical role in the 1890s circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, became synonymous with “yellow journalism.” It was disdained as a particularly female variety of trash. As newspaper editor W. C. Brann wrote at the time, “A careful examination of the ‘great dailies’ will demonstrate that at least half of the intellectual slime that is befouling the land is fished out of the gutter by females.”Stunt reporters and their treatment raise the question of what it means to write in a female body.
Turn-of-the-century advice books for aspiring women journalists warned them to steer clear of stunts. And these criticisms stuck, effectively ejecting these reporters from the journalistic tradition they helped forge. If the form is known at all, it is referenced with a sneer. Even today, one scholar describes the stunt reporter genre as “semi-pornographic titillation” that “cast a spell of infamy over the image of the woman journalist which only years of sober professional accomplishment finally exorcized.”
Stunt reporters and their treatment raise the question of what it means to write in a female body, from an overtly female perspective, in their time and in our own. It is the same question that haunts many women who write honestly about their lives: how to tell the truth and still be taken seriously. In her 1931 lecture to the Women’s Service League, Virginia Woolf described a writer as an angler, letting her line drift as she dreams over the water, hoping to hook something astonishing. But then the woman is violently jerked from her creative reverie, all writing halted, because “she had thought of something, something about the body, about the passions which it was unfitting for her as a woman to say.” Woolf told her audience that, over the years, she’d solved many writerly problems, but “telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt any woman has solved it yet.”
The issues faced by the stunt reporters and excavated by Woolf still play out today. Writing by women about women continues to be shunted into separate literary categories, those that are both high selling and low prestige, like romance novels, “chick lit,” and memoir. Like stunt reporters, the authors of online personal essays are expected to write about their bodies and are punished for doing so with scorching criticism (and sometimes threats) in the comments section.
It’s a no-win situation. In contrast, roles branded more “male” are held in high esteem, like war correspondent and investigative reporter. A decade ago, when the organization VIDA, Women in Literary Arts, started counting numbers of women and men published by the most prestigious literary publications, they found a 25/75 split in some places.
What is considered respectable versus sensational or “literary” versus “popular” often remains centered on discomfort around female physiology, leaving writers who take women’s lives as their subject to navigate the narrow, rocky passage between tame and scandalous.
Excerpted from Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters.” Used with the permission of the publisher, Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2021 by Kim Todd.
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