Ida Minerva Tarbell ( 1857 – 1944) was a teacher, author, and journalist. She was a leading muckraker of her time and today would be called an investigative journalist. She’s best known for her book on Standard Oil, published in 1904 and ranked as #5 on the New York Times top 100 works of 20th century journalism.
When Alice De Lamar decided to publish a book about her friend the architect Addison Mizner, it’s not surprising that she turned to Ida Tarbell to write it.
Ida Tarbell had purchased a house in Easton, CT in 1906 with the proceeds from her two-volume book on Standard Oil, and it’s possible that she and Alice socialized, since Weston is next to Easton. The Ida Tarbell house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993.
Even though Ida Tarbell had the courage to take on one of the most powerful, richest men in the world, John D. Rockefeller, exposing the corrupt and illegal practices of his Standard Oil Company, she later – inexplicably — warned against women taking on careers in “masculine” fields as she had done. She wrote that the woman who tried to “make a Man of herself” was doomed to failure because women were by their very nature incapable of greatness. (The Business of Being a Woman, 1912, and The Ways of Woman, 1915) Simply stated, she firmly believed that a woman’s place was in the home, as wife and mother, as incongruous as this seems today. (Ida Tarbell became neither wife nor mother.)
Ida Tarbell’s investigations into Standard Oil were partly responsible for later legal action by the federal government against the company. In 1911, in a major decision with long-term impact, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled against Standard Oil because of its illegal dealings.
Yet, despite her groundbreaking success as a woman and a journalist, Ida Tarbell later distanced herself from women like Jane Addams and Helen Keller who were fighting for women’s rights. These women felt that Ida Tarbell should have been a “poster woman” for their movement; instead, she publicly stated that women should not vote because their emotions would get in the way. She even went so far as to say that she the only reason she was glad she was born a woman was because she didn’t have to marry one!
Ida Tarbell had few close relationships with women, considering most of them to be silly and ill-informed. She was a product of her times, accepting the belief that men had greater value than women. And even though she was partly responsible for the breaking apart of the Standard Oil Company and once held radical political views, by the 1930s she criticized those who retained their socialist views.
In her 1939 autobiography, All in the Day’s Work, she attempted to distance herself from the left: “All the radical element, and I numbered many friends among them, were begging me to join their movements. I soon found that most of them wanted attacks. They had little interest in balanced findings.” She repeatedly turned down requests to become involved in causes like birth control and women’s suffrage.
Nonetheless, Ida Tarbell left a lasting legacy. With today’s global economic meltdown, she is once again in the news. Economist Simon Johnson, professor of global economics and management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, believes that reporting like Ida Tarbell’s of 100 years ago is badly needed today. (“Reporting the Economic Collapse,” by John Hanrahan, Commentary, November 10, 2009) He would like the press to take on the financial institutions that helped cause the financial collapse and are now benefiting from it.
“I would like to see serious journalism, blow-by-blow exposes of these [financial institutions], in the manner of Ida Tarbell,” he said.