Click here to have future picks e-mailed to you!
Before I became a wandering historian for the Odyssey, I was a journalist gypsy who worked in newsrooms across America. I never had a problem finding my desk -- it was the one with the little Ida Tarbell shrine. Whenever I got stuck on a story, I'd glance over at her for enlightenment. She was, after all, the journalist who single-handedly caused John D. Rockefeller's mighty Standard Oil Company to crumble in the early 1900s, who paved the way to future journalistic feats like Watergate and the Microsoft Investigation, and who gave media a social conscience.
As a journalist and as a woman, Ida Tarbell has been a constant source of inspiration in my life. I was ecstatic when Stephen and I learned we'd get to cover her for the Odyssey and get an in-depth look into the life and times of the mother of investigative journalism.
So, imagine my surprise when I discovered Ida Tarbell was also an anti-suffragist! That's right. One of the most celebrated female journalists in our nation's history did not believe women should have the right to vote. I was crushed. Here was a woman with a definitive voice -- how could she not want the same for her sisters? I vowed never to erect my Ida shrine in a newsroom again. But if I've learned anything from my time on the Trek, it is that we can't judge historical figures based on our own modern values. I tried to set aside my feminist notions as Stephen and I started studying this immensely complex woman.
Ida Tarbell was born on a farm in Hatch Hallow, Pennsylvania, in 1857. Her father moved the family to Titusville soon after the discovery of oil and opened the first wooden tank production shop in town. Young Ida watched her father's thriving business do a 360 soon after John D. Rockefeller appeared on the scene. Rockefeller's mighty Standard Oil Company virtually destroyed the competition, and Ida's dad and all his pals were driven out of business and into debt. Years later, Ida would seek retribution on behalf of her father.
Ida's foremost interest as a student was biology, and she vowed to be a scientist someday. This was an ambitious goal for a 19th century woman, but Ida dreamed up what she considered a foolproof plan: Refuse all offers of marriage. Teaching, she rationalized, would bring independence and freedom. Marriage, meanwhile, would tie her down. Having made this decision at the ripe old age of 14, she then set out to become the best scientist she could be. In 1876, she enrolled in Allegheny College as the lone female in the freshman class.
Upon graduation, however, Ida discovered that the science world had no openings for women. So she taught for a few years, worked briefly at a magazine, and then left for Paris in search of something greater. She found it in journalism. The articles she wrote to finance her education drew international attention -- including that of a young American publisher named S.S. McClure.
McClure had a dream: He wanted to rewrite the role of the media in society. Back then, journalism was not considered a serious profession. Newspapers and magazines were little more than press releases for whomever paid their bills. In his new magazine (named after himself), McClure introduced a scholarly style of journalism to America. He invited Ida to join his staff of the most prominent writers of the time. Ida leaped into the limelight with her 22-part series on Abraham Lincoln, which boosted the magazine's subscription rate by nearly 100 percent.
Then McClure asked his staff to do a new series on contemporary social issues. Ida knew right where to start. She wanted to write about oil. Not just any oil, but Standard Oil -- the kind that caused her family such grief. When her father learned that she wanted to cover his old nemesis, he pleaded: "Don't do it, Ida. They will ruin the magazine." There was no changing Ida's mind, though. She set about her research, and quickly discovered that scores of books, documents and government reports about Rockefeller and Standard Oil were mysteriously missing. Even some court documents had disappeared. This was no accident, she soon realized. The documents had either been destroyed or bought up by agents of the company - and for good reason.
The Standard Oil Company was founded in 1872 as South Improvement Company, with John D. Rockefeller at its head. His foremost philosophy was that competition in business was "wasteful." If companies joined together and formed a trust, he reasoned, they could eliminate waste and become very efficient. His goal, then, was to get rid of every company in the oil business that didn't join his trust. If that wasn't bad enough, he forced railroads to carry his oil at lower rates than they charged producers and refiners who were not part of the trust. This meant that Standard Oil could charge less for its oil than could smaller businesses, like the one owned by Ida's father. As a result, smaller businesses were forced to close their doors. With all the competition knocked out, Standard Oil could charge the public whatever it wished.
Ida's articles became a 17-part series that started running in November 1901 and ended in 1904, when they were published altogether in two fat volumes. She made a convincing case of how powerful the company had become, controlling banks, railroads, state legislatures, and even some United States Senators. She also portrayed Rockefeller, one of the most powerful men in the world, as a cruel and greedy man.
As you can imagine, these allegations caused quite a stir! In 1906, the US attorney general sued Standard Oil Company for disobeying the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. In 1907 a federal judge fined the company $29 million, and in 1911 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the company to break apart its 38 companies. That would be the equivalent of karate chopping Bill Gate's Microsoft empire into 38 bits today!
Ida was an overnight celebrity - but she wasn't without her critics. Some called her a socialist; others, a communist. President Theodore Roosevelt chose the nickname that stuck: "Muckraker." That term applied not only to Ida but to all her colleagues at McClure's.
The president might not have like her, but the public adored Ida. She became a pioneer in the field of journalism, and an inspiration to women everywhere. The New York Times even ranked her in the Top 10 women of the century. So you might think that Ida would use her fame to benefit other women, right? Well, this is where the contradictions come in. Ida wasn't so crazy about her sisters. She actually once said, "The only reason I'm glad I'm a woman is because I don't have to marry one." And that's not all.
After her expose on the Standard Oil Company, Ida wrote a seven-part series called "The American Woman." In it, she argued that the status of women had been advanced by the American Revolution and Civil War but had been eroded with Industrialization. Why? The loss of morality and the rise of feminism. Incredibly, Ida still believed that women belonged more in the domestic sphere than the public one. Women needed to conserve their moral force instead of soiling it through politics, she argued.
"Back then, suffragists thought that the world would be cleaned up if only women had the right to vote," said Paula Treckel, the in-house Ida Tarbell expert at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. "Ida didn't think women should have the right to vote because she didn't think they'd vote any differently than men. Using that logic, she thought - what's the point?"
Are you confused? So was I! How could Ida Tarbell have come to those conclusions? Did she resent that a younger generation of women was coming of age who took for granted all the things she accomplished? Or, as Jane Addams once suggested, were there simply "some limitations" to Ida's vast mind?
Treckel sees Ida Tarbell's contradictions as a prime example of the inner turmoil of an intelligent women. There were few role models for successful women back then. Women had to invent themselves. Ida's problem was failing to realize she was not alone in this. But that is no reason to condemn her, she argues.
"She was a pioneer, she was a career woman," Treckel said. "I would hate to see her lack of support in the suffrage movement get in the way of her accomplishments. Being what she was -- a pioneering women -- she was the best at what she did in her lifetime. She deserves our respect."
What do you think? Can we look beyond Ida Tarbell's unfortunate views of feminism and herald her for her contributions to journalism? Or are there certain beliefs and philosophies we cannot compromise on?
As for me, I think I'll be keeping my Ida shrine. Even heroines have their flaws.
Please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Stephen - All that and more. Say hello to Trekker Stephen!
Jennifer - A suitcase full of travels! It's Trekker Jennifer
Rebecca - How would you like that community? Sunny-side up?
Making A Difference - America's corporate battlefield claims another victim: the car consumer
Stephen - When Americans could live together in solidarity
Stephanie - Triangle Shirt Factory #9 going up in flames!
Rebecca - One heroic woman that no one will honor