Academic journal article Journalism History

Ada Patterson

Academic journal article Journalism History

Ada Patterson

Article excerpt

In 1887, New York World reporter Nellie Bly feigned insanity and succeeded in being committed to the women's asylum on Blackwell's Island, New York City.1 Her first-person exposé, "Ten Days in a Mad-House," was so popular it gave rise to "stunt girl" journalism, a nationwide phenomenon that many women used as a wedge to open newsroom doors previously closed to them.2

This manuscript focuses on stunt girl Ada Patterson, both because of her status as a competitor of Bly and because of her success broadening her career. It describes how her stunts, while always the foundation of her career, led to numerous significant news assignments. Besides being willing to perform any stunt to break the gender barrier, Patterson was a disciplined researcher, a sympathetic listener, and a writer whose sentimental and opinionated narratives expanded her reputation far beyond the readership of the St. Louis Republic, the newspaper where she earned the nickname "The Nellie Bly of the West."

Before the stunt girl phenomenon, magazines had women in top management, but newspapers lacked women at all levels. Although women journalists did exist-Jennie June, for example, wrote about food and fashion in the 1850s-they were not in demand.3 In addition to few openings, there were few opportunities to cover real news. Columns by women cropped up on "women's pages" in the early 1880s, but that was the extent of women's contributions.4 Nineteenth-century journalist and feminist Margherita Arlina Hamm wrote in 1892, "[T]he average managing editor or city editor will not believe that woman is capable of covering anything but the latest parties, the latest dresses, the newest bonnets, the latest weddings."5

As historians and biographers have ascertained, stunt girl journalism enabled many women to find a place in the newsroom. Stunt girl reporters posed as beggars, sought illegal abortions, visited opium dens, and took on other, similar tasks to fill reporting positions otherwise given to men in the late nineteenth century.6

Patterson's career reflected the trend of women taking on daring assignments for a headline. From climbing the still-underconstruction St. Louis City Tower to escorting a condemned man to the gallows, Patterson would do anything to break the gender barrier and become a journalist.

A colleague of Patterson's at the San Francisco Call wrote in 1895 that Patterson exhibited (stereotypically) male and female attributes:

Virile of intellect, alert, clear sighted, with all the varied qualities necessary to a successful business man. Miss Patterson is at the same time an attractive little woman, gentle, tender, sensitive and unassuming.7

These qualities-"attractive," "sensitive," "gentle," and, of course, "little"-were repeatedly attributed to stunt girl journalists throughout the 1880s and 1890s.

Stunt girls played the hand dealt them. For men, taking on a stunt was a choice. For women, it was typically the only way to avoid writing about society and gossip.8

In the 1880s, hiring of stunt girls had less to do with editorial positions opening up and more to do with a trend toward thicker newspapers aimed at broader audiences, as fueled by an increase in advertising.9 New newspaper sections created a need for new content, and stunt girls' articles received prominent display in the now larger Sunday papers. Articles focusing on scandal, crime, and shocking circumstances in the spirit of a crusade and embodying Joseph Pulitzer's "new journalism" mentality, created something for the empty pages.10 Nellie Bly biographer Brooke Kroeger wrote, "[I]t was the advent of both the stunt girls and the large separate women's sections that created the first real place for women as regular members of the newspaper staff and an important part of the editorial mix."11 The number of women journalists increased almost seven-fold in twenty years, rising from 288 in 1880 to more than two thousand by 1900. During the same period, the overall number of journalists increased by just two-and-a-half times, from 12,000 to 30,000. …

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