Seven Who Insisted on Better Futures


15. Nellie Bly: Recorder of Injustice

Click here to listen to Toni Reinhold speak as Nellie Bly.

Click here to watch a video of this footage.

After Pulitzer bought the dowdy old World at 53-63 Park Row in 1883 and shook it back into life, one of his new stars was Nellie Bly, who is usually remembered for besting Jules Verne's fictional 80-day world trip. We will note that Nellie Bly was not a simply a stunt reporter: She had a major impact on the lives of women incarcerated in the insane asylum on Blackwell's Island. Although she suffered discomfort in the asylum, she collected harsh testimony from other patients who were treated far worse:

I was asked by the World if I could have myself committed to one of the asylums for the insane in New York, with a view to writing a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein and the methods of management, etc. I said I could and I did.

Eagerly I accepted the mission to learn the inside workings of the Blackwell Island Insane Asylum. One of the patients, Mrs. Cotter, a pretty, delicate woman, one day thought she saw her husband coming up the walk. She left the line in which she was marching and ran to meet him. For this act she was sent to the Retreat. She afterward said:

'The remembrance of that is enough to make me mad. For crying the nurses beat me with a broom-handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally, so that I shall never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bathtub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless. At other times they took hold of my ears and beat my head on the floor and against the wall. Then they pulled out my hair by the roots, so that it will never grow in again.'

Mrs. Cotter here showed me proofs of her story, the dent in the back of her head and the bare spots where the hair had been taken out by the handful.


16. Ida B. Wells: Documenter of Lynchings

Click here to listen to Carol Jenkins speak as Ida B. Wells.

Click here to watch a video of this footage.

At 4 Cedar Street is a spot linked to Ida B. Wells, a towering hero of journalism and human rights. Ida B. Wells' birth to a slave family in the South was right on the cusp of Emancipation and she grew up during Reconstruction and the troubled period of violence and segregation that followed. She became the editor of Free Speech in Memphis and set about to expose the region's epidemic of lynchings. She came to this city in 1892 after she left Memphis and her newspaper was destroyed by a mob. Wells went to work in the office of a leading African-American newspaper, T.T. Fortune's New York Age, determined to continue her campaign:

Having lost my paper, had a price put on my life, and been made an exile from home for hinting at the truth, I felt I owed it to myself and to my race to tell the whole truth now that I was where I could do so freely. . . . Accordingly, the fourth week in June the New York Age had a seven-column article on the front page giving names, dates, and places of many lynchings for alleged rape. This article showed conclusively that my article in the Free Speech was based on facts of illicit association between black men and white women. . . . I found that white men who had created a race of mulattoes by raping and consorting with Negro women . . . these same white men lynched, burned, and tortured Negro men for doing the same thing with white women, even when the white women were willing victims. . . . [The Age] printed ten thousand copies of that issue . . . and broadcast them throughout the country and the South. One thousand copies were sold in the streets of Memphis alone.

Fiery and determined, she was later instrumental in the founding of the NAACP in New York in 1909. Like many after and before her, she was born to hope and fought fiercely when she saw freedom endangered.


17. Frances Perkins: Protector of Working Women (And Men)

Click here to listen to Kirstin Downey speak as Frances Perkins.

Frances Perkins served as Franklin D. Roosevelt's Secretary of Labor. She was a social worker who was abruptly swept into a life of progressive reform on March 25, 1911. She was having tea in Greenwich Village when fire broke out across Washington Square at Twenty-two Washington Place, the factory of the Triangle Waist Company. Perkins rushed out to stand below, helpless. Fifty years later, she still recalled:

We got there just as they started to jump. I shall never forget the frozen horror that came over us as stood with our hands on our throats watching that horrible sight, knowing that there was no help. They came down in twos and threes, jumping together in a kind of desperate hope. The life nets were broken. The firemen kept shouting for them not to jump. But they had no choice; the flames were right behind them . . . .Out of that terrible episode came a self-examination of stricken conscience in which the people of this state saw for the first time the individual worth and value of those one hundred forty-six people who fell or were burned in that great fire. . . . and we all felt that we had been wrong, that something was wrong with that building, which we had accepted, or the tragedy never would have happened. Moved by a sense of stricken guilt, we banded ourselves together to find a way by law to prevent this kind of disaster.

Perkins was named executive director of an organization that grew out of the fire, the Committee on Safety. It inspired the creation of the State Factory Investigating Commission and she served as its chief investigator on fire hazards. Hearings began in October 1911; Perkins set them up in offices in the new Singer Building, One Sixty-five Broadway. The commission continued for four years, broadening its scope into the entire field of working conditions, and set in place reforms that made New York State a model for the nation.


18. Emma Bugbee: Walker with the Suffragists

Click here to listen to Anna Quindlen speak as Emma Bugbee.

Click here to watch a video of this footage.

Emma Bugbee, a Barnard graduate of 1909, joined the Tribune on July 23, 1910, and became its first woman assigned to hard news. Even so, she was not allowed to sit in the city room but for a long time had a desk down the hall. Bugbee covered the suffrage movement and in December 1912 walked with the suffragists as they made a cold, wet one-hundred-and-fifty-mile march to Albany, carrying a petition to the legislature to put suffrage on the agenda. As they walked, the reporters were subject to the same slurs and outcries as the petitioners; in fact, Bugbee later said, the reporters considered themselves soldiers in the war for the vote, as war correspondents later linked themselves to the doughboys they covered in Europe. At the end, she wrote, exultantly:

The march to Albany is now history. The suffrage army marched in triumph into the city this afternoon and drew up with a flourish before the State Capitol at precisely 4:30 o'clock. The faces of the little band were flushed with the exaltation of victory, and they gazed long and wistfully at the great stone building, which is the repository of all their hopes as well as the goal for which they have endured cold and storm and hunger and blistered feet for two long weeks. Then they turned with a satisfied sigh and marched down the hill to the hotel, where General Rosalie Jones disbanded her army.

In later years, Bugbee covered Eleanor Roosevelt's news conferences as the governor's wife, starting in 1928. When Betsy Wade joined the Herald Tribune in midtown in 1952, Bugbee was still going strong. Her last story for the Trib, by then on the brink of closing, was about a memorial dedicated to Roosevelt at the U.N. in 1966.

If you are a collector, you can spend a tidy sum buying Bugbee's career novels, starting with "Peggy Covers the News."


19. Margaret Sanger: Healer of Women's Bodies

Click here to listen to Gloria Steinem speak as Margaret Sanger

Click here to watch a video of this footage.

At the southern point of City Hall Park, a grandiose building once housed both a post office and the federal courts. Born in 1879 in Corning, New York, Margaret Sanger was destined to become the tenacious pioneer who brought information to American women on what she identified as birth control. The sixth child of eleven who survived, Sanger watched her mother die of exhaustion, tuberculosis and cervical cancer. As a nurse on the Lower East Side, Sanger met women who were suicidal, so desperate were they to stop childbearing. In March 1914, she launched into the U.S. mails her publication, the Woman Rebel, pledging to give birth-control information. She was arraigned in the federal court at this site for mailing "such a vile, obscene, filthy, and indecent" publication in violation of the Postal Code covering contraceptive information and a fistful of other transgressions. When she was summoned to stand trial in October 1914, it became clear she would be sent to jail. She wrote later:

I was not afraid of the penitentiary; I was not afraid of anything except being misunderstood. Nevertheless, in the circumstances my going there could help nobody. I had seen so many people do foolish things valiantly, such as wave a red flag, shout inflammatory words, lead a parade . . . . Then they went to jail for six months, a year perhaps, and what happened? Something had been killed in them; they were never heard of again. I had seen braver and hardier souls than I vanquished in spirit and body by prison terms, and I was not going to be lost and broken for an issue which was not the real one, such as the entirely unimportant Woman Rebel articles. . . . There was a train for Canada within a few hours. Could I take it? Should I take it? . . . Could I ever make anyone understand?

She did flee, returning in 1916 to face the charges; this time the government backed off. Sanger's work revolutionized the lives of American families.


20. Louise Nevelson: Sculptor of Ambition

Click here to listen to Grace Glueck speak as Louise Nevelson.

Click here to watch a video of this footage.

Louise Nevelson Plaza at 33 Liberty Street displays sculptures given by their creator. Nevelson, born Leah Berliawsky near Kiev in 1899, came to the New World at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1920, married to Charles Nevelson, she came to New York. Her affair with the city lasted far longer than her marriage. "New York is a city of collage," Nevelson said, "a collage with kinds of religions, and the whole thing is magnificent. . . . There's no place like it."

But the life of a beginning artist was hard. She said:

In the toughest economic days, I didn't have the price to go uptown. The WPA did give me a little breathing space. I only came in at the tail end, in 1937, when it was almost over. You had to go on relief to get on the project, and I didn't quite want to fill out the papers because my family were helping me at the time but by 1937, I felt it was necessary. So I taught on the project, but I also did painting and sculpture. . . . All my sculpture I had in my first show at Nierendorf in 1941 I did right on the project. I trained myself not to waste. I feel you must know if you're going to live your life as an artist, you steel yourself daily. You don't develop fancy tastes, fancy appetites.


21. Brenda Berkman: Survivor of the First Responders

Click here to listen to Brenda Berkman read an excerpt of a speech of hers.

Click here to watch a video of this footage.

Two hundred forty-four-year-old St. Paul's Chapel is New York's oldest standing church. It is the place that served as a refuge for the rescuers working at the World Trade Center site, and here we honor those who on September 11, 2001 first responded to the attack. They included three women who died trying to save others: Captain Kathy Mazza of the Port Authority Police; Officer Moira Smith of the New York Police Department and Emergency Medical Technician Yamel Merino.

Now you will hear Captain Brenda Berkman of the New York Fire Department, speaking the words she first spoke on November 14, 2001. The words of Captain Berkman, still active in the women's rights movement, is an apt finale for this tour.

We all must make it our fight to raise the profile of women in this struggle: not just to give credit where credit is due, but also to ensure that American women are not made invisible in the way the women of Afghanistan have been forced into invisibility by the Taliban. The United States as a society is better than that. I would ask all of you to do everything you can to show your children that:

  • Women are firefighters;
  • Women are patriotic;
  • Women are heroes.

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