Sensational cover

Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Kim Todd pulls no punches in her new book Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters.”  Opening with an expose on the illicit abortion trade in 1880s Chicago, Todd sets the stage for her analysis of more than a century of “writing while female.”  Todd’s unflinching portrayal of pioneering female journalists offers a new—and far more complete—view of the history of American journalism.  From the moment when Elizabeth Cochrane, aka “Nellie Bly,” burst on the scene with her undercover profile of New York’s public mental hospital, through the Yellow Journalism era of the late 1890s and well into the twentieth century, Todd tracks the evolution of journalism as a profession, and with it the rise and fall of women reporters.  The social issues that sparked the enormous popularity of stories written by women, and what caused “respectable” publications to pull away from their superstar reporters–and historians to whitewash their contributions–form the meat of Todd’s extensively-researched volume.

Everyone knows Nellie Bly, the reporter who famously travelled around the world for the New York Journal in a bid to beat Jules Verne’s fictional 80-day journey.  Many people also know Elizabeth Bisland, who raced against Bly for Cosmopolitan.  But fewer are aware that Bly and Bisland were far from alone in their profession.  Sensational re-introduces modern readers to figures such as Eva McDonald and Nell Nelson whose undercover reporting was instrumental in labor reform and workplace safety; Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who made Americans face racial violence; and even Chicago’s anonymous Girl Reporter who pulled away the curtain to talk openly about the realities of sex and birth control to middle-American readers.  Todd’s account, much like her heroines, criss-crosses the country and the Atlantic to look deep below the surface of stories that spoke to the heart of American women.

Hand-in-hand with the Girl Reporters’ stories is the evolution of modern journalism at the hands of publishing moguls William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.  Many of Todd’s journalists, including Bly, The Journal’s Winifred Black, and The World’s Elizabeth Jordan, worked closely with these men, on the beat as reporters and in the newsroom as editors, steering the course of late 19th century journalism.  Their work proved that stories about women, by women, and for women weren’t just good news—they were big business.

But when the public backlash against over-the-top reporting in the wake of the Spanish American War spurred the modern notion of journalism as an academic discipline, women reporters were shut out.  Americans lost their appetite for tales of women engaged in outrageous stunts to stir up scandal, and college journalism programs were all but inaccessible for aspiring women writers.  Todd traces exactly how their history became hidden, obscured by twentieth century journalists reinventing investigative reporting and New Journalism.

At times both entertaining and exhaustive (though never exhausting!), Sensational is essential reading for students of history, the Victorian age, activism, and American feminism, as well as anyone interested in the origins of modern journalistic ethics.  Read this alongside Sister Sleuths by Nell Darby (which I reviewed previously here at borg), for an intriguing comparison of these unconventional careers and the women who pursued them.   Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters” is available now here at Amazon and at all good bookstores.