“Let Me Tell You What I Think of Bicycling”: Nellie Bly Interviews Susan B. Anthony, 1896
Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane in 1864, arrived in New York City at age 23 in 1887 and talked her way into a job with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World by accepting one of the first stunt journalism assignments ever: she went undercover at New York’s Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. The ensuing story gave her a foothold in journalism’s boys’ club and established her career: “Bly made herself into the most famous newspaper reporter in the United States,” writes Jean Marie Lutes in the introduction to the new book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days And Other Writings, “by embracing the idea that a woman writer was, by definition, a bit of a spectacle.”
A year after the Blackwell Island exposé, Bly traveled around the world in “seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds,” inspired by Around the World in Eighty Days (“I need a vacation; why not take a trip around the world?” she would write). When she died in 1922 at the age of 57, her longtime friend and editor Arthur Brisbane called her “the best reporter in America.” Around the World in Seventy-Two Days—the first edited volume of Bly’s work—includes the following interview with the suffragette Susan B. Anthony.
“Champion Of Her Sex: Miss Susan B. Anthony,” originally printed in The New York World, Feb. 2, 1896.
Susan B. Anthony! She was waiting for me. I stood for an instant in the doorway and looked at her. She made a picture to remember and to cherish.
EQUAL RIGHTS WITH MEN
“Now you want to know when I first heard of woman suffrage,” she resumed. “I will tell you. In 1848 I came home at the end of my school term to visit my family. Mrs. [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton and Mrs. [Lucretia] Mott had just been in Rochester, and my family could talk of nothing else. I didn’t understand suffrage, but I knew I wanted equal wages with men teachers. However, I had no idea between voting and equality. I went back to my school and forgot all about it.
“In 1849 I heard Abby Kelley Foster, the Quaker Abolitionist, and I read the reports of a great convention that gave me the first clear statement of the underlying principles of woman suffrage. The next year I went to an abolition meeting at Seneca Falls where I met Mrs. Stanton, who was head of the Daughters of Temperance society… A little later the Sons of Temperance held a convention at Albany, and they invited the Daughters to send delegates. I was one of the delegates. They were assembled in the hall and something was under discussion when I arose to address the Grand Worthy Master. ‘The sister will allow me to say,’ he shouted me, ‘that we invited them here to look and learn, but not to speak.’
“I instantly left the hall, and Lydia Mott, cousin of Mrs. Mott’s husband, followed me. We hired a hall, and got Thurlow Weed to announce in his paper, the Evening Journal, that the Woman’s Temperance Society would hold a meeting that evening.
“Hon. David Wright and Rev. Samuel J. May…came to our meeting, and dear Rev. May taught us how to preside. I was made Chairwoman of the committee, and the first thing I did was to call a state convention…We held a two days’ convention and Mrs. Stanton was made President and I was Secretary. And it all came out of the men refusing to let me speak.”
SECRET OF HER WORK
“The secret of my work,” she said, “is that when there is something to do, I do it. I rolled up a mammoth temperance petition of 28,000 names and it was presented to the Legislature. When it came up for discussion one man made an eloquent speech against it. ‘And who are these,’ he asked, ‘who signed the petition? Nothing but women and children.’ Then I said to myself, ‘Why shouldn’t women’s names be as powerful as men’s? They would be if women had the power to vote. Then that man wouldn’t have been so eloquent against temperance, for he would have known that the women would vote his head off.’ I vowed there and then women should be equal…”
“Are you afraid of death?”
“I don’t know anything about Heaven or hell,” she answered, “or whether I will ever meet my friends again or not. But as no particle of matter is ever lost, I have a feeling that no particle of mind is ever lost. The thought doesn’t bother me…”
“Then you don’t find life tiresome?”
“Oh mercy, no! I don’t want to die just as long as I can work. The minute I can’t, I want to go. I dread the thought of being enfeebled. I find the older I get the greater power I have to help the world. I feel like a snowball—the further I am rolled the more I gain. When my powers begin to lessen, I want to go…”
SOME IDEAS ON PRAYER AND MARRIAGE
“Do you think women should propose?”
“Yes!” very decidedly. “If she can see a man she can love. She has the right to propose today that she did not have some years ago because she has become a bread winner. Once a proposal from a woman would have meant, ‘Will you please support me, sir?’ And I think woman will make better choices than man. She’ll know quicker what man will suit her and whether he loves her and she loves him.” …
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” Miss Anthony said, leaning forward and laying a slender hand on my arm. “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It makes her feel as if she were independent. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
“And bloomers?” I suggested, quietly.
“Are the proper thing for wheeling,” added Miss Anthony promptly. “It is as I have said—dress to suit the occasion. A woman doesn’t want skirts and flimsy lace to catch in the wheel. Safety, as well as modesty, demands bloomers or extremely short skirts. You know women only wear foolish articles of dress to please men’s eyes anyway.”
WHAT WILL THE NEW WOMAN BE?
“What do you think the new woman will be?”
“She’ll be free,” said Miss Anthony. “Then she’ll be whatever her best judgment wants to be. We can no more imagine what the true woman will be than we can what the true man will be.” …
“And now,” I said, approaching a very delicate subject on tip-toes, “tell me one thing more. Were you ever in love?”
“In love?” she laughed merrily. “Bless you, Nellie, I’ve been in love a thousand times!”
“Really?” I gasped, taken aback by this startling confession.
“Yes, really!” nodding her snowy head. “But I never loved any one so much that I thought it would last. In fact I never felt I could give up my life of freedom to become a man’s housekeeper. When I was young, if a girl married poor, she became a housekeeper and a drudge. If she married wealth she became a pet and a doll. Just think, had I married at twenty, I would have been either a drudge or a doll for fifty-five years. Think of it!
“I want to add one thing,” she said. “Once men were afraid of women with ideas and a desire to vote. Today our best suffragists are sought in marriage by the best class of men.” …
Susan B. Anthony is all that is best and noblest in woman. She is ideal and if we will have in women who vote what we have in her, let us all help to promote the cause of woman suffrage.
From AROUND THE WORLD IN SEVENTY-TWO DAYS AND OTHER WRITINGS by Nellie Bly. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Edition copyright © Penguin Books, 2014.