By Kim Todd
My recent book, Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters,” started with curiosity about a particular woman that expanded into curiosity about a whole genre. In Leslie Reagan’s When Abortion was a Crime, I had read about the Chicago Times journalist who, with a male companion pretending to be her brother, approached Chicago physicians in 1888. Hinting that she was pregnant, she asked for an abortion, a procedure that was illegal at the time. Throughout December of that year, the Times ran story after story by the woman who signed herself “Girl Reporter,” detailing her revealing conversations with doctors and midwives.
Her reporting made fascinating reading, offering a look into the reality of abortion (it was completely available in many forms and was sought out by women of all classes) at a time when, thanks to Comstock laws, even discussing the operation could be forbidden. But neither Reagan’s book nor any other source I could find indicated who the “Girl Reporter” actually was. With a free afternoon on a trip Chicago, I went to the microfilm room at the Harold Washington Library Center, to scroll through back Chicago Times issues to see if I could find out her identity.
That didn’t lead to a name, but the search took hold of me, and I found myself returning to Chicago to look up libel suits against the Chicago Times that might have named the “Girl Reporter” in the archives of the Cook County Circuit Court, to pore over articles by named journalists in the region to look for textual similarities, to read the minutes of the Chicago Medical Society meeting where doctors discussed the “Girl Reporter’s” exposé. As I encountered more responses to her work, I became increasingly aware that, as unique as her project seemed, she was only one of many women going undercover during 1888, a number that would only increase in successive years.
The abortion exposé appeared one year after Nellie Bly feigned insanity to get committed to Blackwell’s Insane Asylum for Women in fall of 1887. Though Bly’s expose for Joseph Pulitzer’s World is famous, what is less well known is that the popularity of her story opened up a decade of opportunity for female journalists to escape the women’s page and report on topics of great societal significance. They uncovered abusive labor conditions in factories, poor treatment of female patients at public hospitals, children locked up in adult jails. At times their reporting was sneered at as “stunt reporting” and “sensations,” but it resulted in new laws and high pay for those willing to attempt it.
Looking beyond the “Girl Reporter,” led me to Eva McDonald, who would interview the president about the New Bedford textile strike; Winifred Sweet, who was first reporter on the scene of the Galveston hurricane; Kate Swan, who recorded the only interview with Lizzie Borden; and Victoria Earle Matthews, who uncovered exploitative employment agencies. And they were only a few of the many women all over the country doing this kind of work.
I found that the questions I had about the “Girl Reporter” extended to the genre over all. What made this brand of journalism possible in this window of time? How does their first-person narrative nonfiction relate to immersion journalism and creative nonfiction of today? This kind of reporting endangered both body and reputation: were these women exploited by unscrupulous editors, or taking control of their professional lives by embracing meaningful jobs? Why was their writing condemned and then forgotten?The final book interweaves both strands—the search for the woman behind the “Girl Reporter” and the exploration of this overlooked period of innovative reporting. I didn’t find all the answers but deepened my understanding of journalism history in general and investigative reporting specifically, well beyond the “muckrakers” who get much of the credit.