Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Women of Wednesday: Ida M. Tarbell: Muckraker

Ida Tarbell was born in her grandparents’ log cabin in Erie County, Pennsylvania in 1857. Later, her father bought an abandoned hotel for $600. He took the building apart and brought everything “…its iron brackets and fine doors and windows, and mouldings and all, and… much of its timber,” Ida wrote, ten miles away to Titusville, Pennsylvania and built the family home from all these parts.

It’s not surprising that having come from a pioneering stock who knew how to “make do” that Ida would grow up with a certain independence of spirit. She also grew up during the start of the fight for women’s votes.

Ida, who had a love of science, decided that the suffragists did have a couple of good points: “Out of the agitation for rights as it came to me, two rights that were worth going after quite definitely segregated themselves: the right to an education, and the right to earn my living…” Her parents agreed.

The way for a woman to gain some kind of financial independence in those days was to teach. So Ida prepared herself by entering Allegheny College in 1876. There were only 4 other women students at the time. As it turned out, Ida was the only one to complete her degree requirements and graduate. She wanted to do scientific research but first took a job as a teacher, hoping to be able to do research in her spare time. The job was too demanding and left no time for the study she loved. After two years, she gave up the job and returned home to think over her next steps.

There she met Dr. Theodore Flood who asked her to help out with The Chautauquan magazine. She worked there doing various editorial jobs for 6 years but again, she longed to do more. She decided to leave the comfort of steady employment and move to Paris. Once again her parents supported her decision. She saved enough to get to France and live for a while until she could sell American publishers articles about life in the French capital. She planned to write a book on a famous woman in the French Revolution: Madame Roland. She also interviewed scientist Louis Pasteur, criminologist Alphonse Bertillon, and astronomer Pierre Janssen. Her penchant for detail and research made her an accurate writer.

In 1894, Ida returned home to finish the Roland book. She contributed to the magazine McClure’s. This was the job that would make her reputation. She wrote serialized biographies of Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln articles increased McClure’s circulation. During that period, the Standard Oil Company—one of America’s first monopolies—destroyed her father’s livelihood and that of many people who lived in the Titusville area. Ida hoped to write a novel that would describe the effect the company had had on so many lives but the novel wouldn’t work. Eventually, she began a series on the history of the Standard Oil for McClure’s. The series was originally contracted for three installments but as Ida’s work and research continued, it stretched to 19 articles and was eventually reprinted in two volumes. Three years later, the United States sued Standard Oil for violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Ida was now considered one of the “muckrakers” a term garnered from a speech given by Teddy Roosevelt to describe this new kind of investigative journalist. She hated the name and considered herself merely a good and thorough researcher.

Ida Tarbell died in Connecticut in 1944.

No comments: