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Sensational: The Hidden History of America's "Girls Stunt Reporters" by Kim Todd


When I was in college I took a world history class in which we learned to find and study primary resources. It was invaluable to my research skills, but as the topic was one i knew basically nothing about, WWI, I needed more of a macro understanding to interpret the primary resources I found. However, learning about primary resources helped me learn to identify and appreciate original research. This grew to a love of obscure histories.

In writing Woman of Ruinous Face, I found (and had various pub-on-demand services print) numerous great dissertations and unpublished memoirs. Memoirs of My Childhood and Youth in North Denver by Quantrille D. McClung talked about Mother Cabrini, a name I know, but history I did not. Memoirs of Denver: Story of his Boyhood When Denver was Young and Wild 1887-1965 by Jake Schaetzel elucidated every day life in early denver, the similarities to modern childhood as well as the differences. The Metro Denver Water Story by Charles C. Fisk put the politics and millionaires in the context of the history of the place--and is fascinating! The Widening Sphere of Women's Lives: The Literary Study and Philanthropic Work of Six Women's Clubs in Denver 1881-1945 by Gail M. Beaton and Lifting as We Climb: African-American Women's Clubs of Denver, 1890-1925 by Lynda F. Dickson published in Essays in Colorado History Number 13, 1992 brought the larger suffrage movement home and detailed the lives, struggles, and cooperation of Denver women. "Meet Me at the Ballot Box": Women's Innovations in Party and Electoral Politics in Post-Suffrage Colorado, 1893-1898 by Marcia Tremmel Goldstein tells the story of what happened after Colorado men voted for women's suffrage, and clarified the ever-changing nature of party ideals and the roadblocks women faced despite the historic milestone. *Note: Women who sought the vote were suffragists. "Suffragette" was a derogatory name men used to belittle women who fought for their human rights. One of the best things about Woman of Ruinous Face taking forever to write, is that as I came upon some question that I couldn't find an answer to, someone would just about then publish a book all about that question, as in The Gospel of Progressivism by R. Todd Laugen. I read the Growth and Decline of Chinese Communities in the Rocky Mountain Region by Rose Hum Lee after Asians in Colorado by William Wei gave a good big-picture (primarily male) background. I even found a dissertation on Palmer Hoyt for my next book, The Shanghaied Case of the Pretty Dead Coed. All this is to say, I LOVE obscure histories. Which brings us to Sensational: The Hidden History of America's "Girl Stunt Reporters" by Kim Todd, which as a journalist who did not learn this history in J-school is a great place to start! Women are so resourceful, and hard to keep down, and Sensational illuminates one example of this tenacity. In a time when, as most histories would have us believe, women sat silent and pretty like empty headed porcelain dolls, we didn't. Most women had to work to survive (often so underpaid that they didn't survive). And some chose to the wrangle their way into a career that they loved--writing. Todd's "Girl Stunt Reporters," as they were called by their sensationalist publishers, demonstrated the power of being over looked and using assumptions and stereotypes against the holders of those stupid ideas. But also the double edged sword of invisibility, as American literary "heroes" like Upton Sinclair, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe and now generations of male "investigative reporters" took and continue to take credit for these 19th century female journalists' innovations. Creative non-fiction and voice-driven first-person, styles that the internet thrives on, were first made profitable and popular by women, and are to this day honored when used by men, and belittled as "memoirs" (and therefore not eligible for Journalism awards) and dismissed when used by women.

I am empowered to correct the record after reading Sensational, and I hope journalism schools, high school history classes, and other nerds feel the same. The women like Victoria Earle Mathews, Winifred (Sweet) Black Bonfils, Kate Swan McGuirk, Elizabeth Jordan, Caroline Lockhart, Eva (McDonald) Valesh, Eleanor (Stackhouse)Atkinson, Helen (Cusack) Carvalho, Elizabeth Banks, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Elizabeth (Cochrane) Seaman, and Denver's own Leonel Campbell Ross O'Bryan paved the way for so many great female writers and enrich American history.

Also, Sensational would make a great movie!



Back of the Book:

"In the waning years of the nineteenth century, women journalists across the United States risked reputation and their own safety to expose the hazardous conditions under which many Americans lived and worked. In various disguises, they stole into sewing factories to report on child labor, fainted in the streets to test public hospital treatment, posed as lobbyists to reveal corrupt politicians. Inventive writers whose in-depth narratives made headlines for weeks at a stretch, these "girl stunt reporters" changed laws, helped launch a labor movement, championed women’s rights, and redefined journalism for the modern age.


The 1880s and 1890s witnessed a revolution in journalism as publisher titans like Hearst and Pulitzer used weapons of innovation and scandal to battle it out for market share. As they sought new ways to draw readers in, they found their answer in young women flooding into cities to seek their fortunes. When Nellie Bly went undercover into Blackwell’s Insane Asylum for Women and emerged with a scathing indictment of what she found there, the resulting sensation created opportunity for a whole new wave of writers. In a time of few jobs and few rights for women, here was a path to lives of excitement and meaning.


After only a decade of headlines and fame, though, these trailblazers faced a vicious public backlash. Accused of practicing "yellow journalism," their popularity waned until "stunt reporter" became a badge of shame. But their influence on the field of journalism would arc across a century, from the Progressive Era "muckraking" of the 1900s to the personal "New Journalism" of the 1960s and ’70s, to the "immersion journalism" and "creative nonfiction" of today. Bold and unconventional, these writers changed how people would tell stories forever."


Move over Thomas Wolfe, get out of the way Upton Sinclair, shut the fuck up Nathaniel Hawthorne…