Ida B. Wells, Nellie Bly, Katharine Graham, Zakia Zaki. A sociologist, an inventor, America’s first fortune 500 CEO and a headmistress.
All women who kept people informed and held governments accountable through their work in the world of journalism.
In case you didn’t realize yet, March is Women’s History Month. It’s a good time to reflect on the women who have held their ground, brokered peace, built bridges (metaphorical and otherwise) and were all around badasses.
Ida B. Wells was a driven women. She was a suffragist and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1884, (71 years before Rosa Parks’ NAACP-supported bus boycott), Wells refused to give up her seat on a segregated train and was thrown off.
Similar to Parks, Rustin, Morgan, Keys, Coldin, Browder, McDonald and Smith (all bus boycotters), she sued for the right to sit in any seat on public transportation (the Browder v. Gayle case is the one that eventually succeeded in desegregating Alabama buses in 1956).
Wells investigated the lynching of black men in the South, an issue that was extremely personal to her after three of her friends were murdered. She researched the causes of lynching, and found that most of these mob murders were perpetrated to maintain social control over black people and prevent black economic progress — contradicting the myth that lynchings were a way to punish rapists.
Through her writing in brochures, newspaper articles and columns, Wells worked to end lynching. The U.S. press, on the other hand, frequently worked to discredit and ignore Wells, because her investigative journalism made the South, white suffragists and the United States in general look bad.
Despite pressure to cover fashion and gardening, in the 1880s Nellie Bly wrote about the working conditions for women in factories and the unjust imprisonment of Mexican journalists.
Bly started her life in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania — a town named after her father (Nellie Bly was a pen name for Elizabeth Cochran, one that came from a Stephen Foster song). But by age six, Bly’s fortuitous beginnings were marred by the death of her father, and the financial stability of her family was shaken.
At 18, she got her start in journalism.
In 1887, Bly had the courage to do an undercover investigation of the Blackwell Island women’s asylum. She discovered inhumane conditions like spoiled food and beatings. Bly’s articles-turned-book, “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” led to reform in the treatment of mentally ill patients.
Katharine Graham had a privileged life. She inherited her role at the helm of The Washington Post from her husband (he inherited it from her father). Graham began her career as a reporter. She became the Post’s publisher in 1963.
At the time, there were no other women in charge of such a large publishing company. Graham worked hard to earn the respect of her colleagues and pushed fo=r gender equality within her company.
Editor Benjamin Bradlee and Graham led the newsroom when the paper ran investigative pieces on the Watergate scandal. She stood behind her reporters and her editor to bring light to illegal government actions.
On top of running a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper for two decades, Graham won her own Pulitzer in 1998 for her memoir “Personal History.”
Zakia Zaki founded the Afghan Radio Peace Station in Afghanistan in 2001. It was the first independent women’s radio station in Afghanistan. She advocated for education, gender equality and women’s rights. She also spoke out against the Taliban and, because of her work, was murdered in 2007.
Zaki’s passion for education and women’s rights moved her to report on the state of women’s rights and access to education in a country where the idea of women being leading public figures was controversial.
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, remember the women who came before you. The women whose work led to scientific and social advancements, greater access to education and information, and more freedom to exist, express and explore for the women who came after them.
These four women leave legacies of courage, drive and passion. Their work demonstrates that journalism needs to speak truth to power.
Now, just as always, it is vital to hold state institutions accountable for perpetuating ignorance, racism, violence and misinformation. Seek truth and speak truth.
Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily.