221: The Self-Empowered Woman: Ida Tarbell

Dear Followers,

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Last month, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Bully Pulpit, and meet her afterwards. Naturally, the moment I got home I immersed myself into her joint biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft. Since my father was born in 1903, the events in her book were of special significance to me–I even have Daddy’s original teddy bear, the popular childhood stuffed animal from that era named in honor of President Roosevelt’s concern for wildlife.

Part of what made this book so interesting for me was Goodwin’s layered portraits of three amazing women of that era–the two first ladies, of course, and the subject of today’s blog, journalist Ida Tarbell. Born in a log cabin in Western Pennsylvania on November 5th, 1857, the majority of Tarbell’s life story has more in common with that of a modern-era woman than with those of her bygone era. Her father, Frank Tarbell, first built oil storage tanks, but really began to prosper after he got into the production and refining end of the business. The family was prosperous until Standard Oil Company managed to crush smaller companies, and emerge as a powerful oil monopoly. Ida’s father–an independent refiner–was financially ruined (1: No Paternal Safety Net) in what was known as “the oil war of 1872,” which allowed John D. Rockefeller to defeat anyone who didn’t join him.

Ida was only 14 when her once-affluent family was thrown into near bankruptcy. From that date on, she knew what her life’s purpose would be (2: An Early sense Of Direction). In her words, “There was born in me a hatred of privilege, privilege of any sort. It was all pretty hazy, to be sure, but it still was well, at 15, to have one definite plan based on things seen and heard, ready for a future platform of social and economic justice if I should ever awake to my need of one” (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Ida graduated at the top of her high school class (10: The Critic Within), and when she was 19, she went to Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. When she graduated in 1880, she was the only woman in her class. Ida soon realized that she wanted to be a writer, and accepted an editing job for a teaching publication. Eventually, she was promoted to managing editor, and at the age of 32 decided to make a huge lifestyle change. With no guarantee of employment, she moved to Paris with the idea of sending freelance articles back to American publications (11: Risk Addiction). It was the first of several times in her life when she would choose to drastically leave behind one lifestyle in favor of another (14: Selective Disassociation).

Ida’s original plan was to do postgraduate work in Paris, and write a biography of Madame Roland, who had a powerful salon during the French Revolution. But her “American in Paris” articles caught the eye of Samuel McClure, the publisher of that era’s most influential and popular “muckraking” magazine. He persuaded her to return to America and join his staff of investigative journalists. His belief in her talent changed her life from a struggling expatriot writer to one of America’s first female high-profile journalists and authors (4: Supportive Someone).

Tarbell was a suffragist, and truly believed that women deserved the right to vote. She made a conscious choice to not marry and, instead, pursue a career as a journalist and writer (15: Forget About Prince Charming). She wrote a 20-part series on Abraham Lincoln that was so popular that it doubled McClure magazine’s circulation (13: More Than Meets The Eye). The series was later turned into a best-selling book.

In 1900, she began to research the Standard Oil company, and waded through thousands of documents to make her case. She spent five years on her research, and was merciless when it came to portraying Rockefeller as “a living mummy,” “a hypocrite,” and “money mad” (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest). Her determination to rectify Standard Oil’s negative impact on Pennsylvania 40 years earlier became both a personal and professional priority. After all, it was Rockefeller’s monopoly that had damaged her father and scarred her childhood. Between 1902 and 1904, 19 installments of her thoroughly researched articles about Standard Oil appeared, and Tarbell earned fame as “The female investigative journalist who brought down the world’s greatest tycoon, and broke up the Standard Oil monopoly” (8: Turning No Into Yes).

The book that contained her articles, The History Of The Standard Oil Company, has been listed by New York University as number five on a list of the top 100 works of 20th century American Journalism. Ida Tarbell died of pneumonia  on January 6th, 1944, after a two-month hospitalization. In 1993, 50 years after her death, the Ida Tarbell House was declared a National Historic Landmark. And in 2000, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. On September 14th, 2002, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring her as part of a series of four stamps honoring women journalists.

About Marilyn Murray Willison

The author of six non-fiction books, Willison worked as Health and Fitness Editor at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and wrote book reviews, health, beauty, fashion, and travel articles on a regular basis for the Los Angeles Times. Her byline has appeared in a wide variety of American newspapers and magazines.