In his newly released true adventure titled Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race around the World, Matthew Goodman tracks the remarkable journeys of two young women. Each took up the challenge to beat the fictional record of globe circumnavigation set forth by Jules Verne in his novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Employed by separate publishers to work as journalists in an era when all their co-workers were men, Bly and Bisland had already broken through, if not the glass ceiling, at least the front door of the all-male domain. They also shattered the notion that young ladies should not walk about unaccompanied – indeed, that they could not manage on their own out in the world.
Powered by steam on trains and aboard ships, and backed by their respective employers – The World newspaper and The Cosmopolitan monthly magazine – the two eager journalists set off in opposite directions to circumnavigate the globe, each hoping to make record time of it. In regard to the magnitude of courage and sheer chutzpah that the challenge required of them, “Each of these women ended up being something of a revolutionary, in that each one was a pioneer in her own right, and each one challenged – implicitly or explicitly – the reigning social definitions of womanhood of that time,” says Goodman. “Each one had to fight to make her way in the male-dominated world of big-city journalism. It took Bly months to find a job on a New York newspaper, even though she had already been a successful reporter back in Pittsburgh, and she was only able to get a job at The World because she was willing to risk her personal safety to go undercover inside the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum. And when Bisland tried to get a job at The Sun in New York, the editor there told her, ‘My dear little girl, pack your bag and go home. This is no place for you.’”
When asked if he could imagine a comparable feat that contemporary women might undertake to equal Bly and Bisland’s, Goodman says, “I’m not sure that now, in the early 21st century, there’s an equivalent of that daring journey in the late 19th. And that’s probably a good thing! Things have certainly changed for women, though not fast enough or fully enough. Probably the closest equivalent I can think of is Sally Ride, who in 1983 became the first American woman in space, aboard the space shuttle Challenger. It was a very different experience, of course: Ride was a highly skilled professional, while Bly and Bisland were just passengers. But it was a similar public challenge to male conceptions of what a woman was able to do, a similar celebrated entry by a woman into what had been previously a male domain.” He reminds readers that in the 1890s, men believed that women would require too many bags to make a lightning trip around the world, and would never be able to master the intricacies of complicated timetables and schedules and so forth.