THE PARADOX OF IDA TARBELL
The pioneer of investigative reporting, Ida Tarbell developed an approach to journalism that helped break up monopolies in the early 1900’s, and inspired a style of writing that 100 years later is still changing society (think Watergate and Spotlight).
Her creation of “muckraking” transformed journalism and earned her a place of honor in the history of the United States. While researching her journalism contributions for the Women Inventors and Innovators Mural, little did we know that Ms. Tarbell also would give us a wild ride through the complicated jungle of opinions about the gender gap in her day.
Ida Tarbell was best known for her 1904 book, History of Standard Oil Company, the compilation of a meticulously researched series she wrote for McClure's Magazine about the business practices and personal behaviors of the Rockefeller oil magnates. She also wrote biographies of President Lincoln and other nonfiction books, including, later in her life, two lesser known works on the topic of women, emphasizing their importance to their families.
She became a role model of leadership for women in her day, but many in the Suffragette movement were disenchanted by her later books that raised questions about women who sought mainstream work. Her book “The Business of Being a Woman” made some controversial statements about women, including questioning women’s emotional capability to make clear decisions in the business and political arenas.
At a time when women were just beginning to join the mainstream workforce in earnest, Tarbell waded into some murky, ambiguous topics with opinions not necessarily helpful to other women seeking to make an impact outside the home.“The Business of Being a Woman,” gives us a glimpse of the dilemmas, biases, and cultural attitudes women faced in 1912.
She wrote:about the “uneasy woman” who had trouble adjusting to the male world while trying to cope with her domestic duties;a Declaration of Sentiments outlining the “self-evident” truth of an unfair world where women were treated like property, even their wages and children legally belonging to their husbands (this part of her rant seemed pro-women’s rights)an assessment of women as superior performers in college and in the workplace, but later on “less inclined to experiment with her gifts, to feel her wings, to make unexpected dashes into life.”that women fail to reach the first rank in businesses because they have to sacrifice their “affectability” - emotions, intuition, vision - and become “atrophied ”that the home is the most important social institution and a “social laboratory” that must be run by women.the man’s income should be turned over to the woman to manage household finances, as was the custom in the day.the instinct to have nice clothes is tyranny and can lead women into financial trouble.men unconsciously learn the code for public affairs while women unconsciously learn the code for private affairs, hence labor is naturally divided.Many women in her day recoiled from her words, as many women today might as well. Yet in muckraking tradition, Ms. Tarbell boldly spoke her opinion and in so doing gave us a glimpse into conditions and attitudes a century ago, some of which are carried forward in subtle ways that continue to create dilemmas for women today. Here is an excellent think piece from a history professor at Ida Tarbell's alma mater, Allegheny College, examining the complex disconnect between Ms. Tarbell's role as an innovator and her view of the potential for women in general.