Ida Tarbell: The First Great Woman Journalist

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Ida M. Tarbell, head-and-shoulders portrait, f...

Ida M. Tarbell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ida Tarbell became a journalist in the late 1800’s at a time when it was believed educating women was a waste of time and money. After graduating college, the only woman in her class, Tarbell became a teacher, and an author before becoming a journalist to inform the American public on the problems in America. Tarbell never wanted to be a role model to women or take part in the women’s suffrage movement, but she showed that women are just as capable of exposing transgressions in the United States. After all, it was Tarbell who took down the most powerful man in the world: John D. Rockefeller.

Ida Tarbell was born in a log cabin in Amity Township, Pennsylvania on November 5, 1857. Her life changed when her father lost his job as a oil refiner due to the 1872 South Improvement Company Scheme, a hidden agreement between the railroads and refiners led by John D. Rockefeller. While educating women was considered a waste of time and money, Tarbell’s parents wanted their daughter to be educated; she graduated at the top of her high school class and was the only woman of the 1880 class at Allegheny College. After working as the managing editor at The Chautauqua magazine and writing biographies on Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln, Tarbell switch to journalism. Due to the rise that monopolistic trust that was “disturbing and confusing people” and memories of her father losing everything due to the Standard Oil Trust, Tarbell began to investigate Standard Oil Trust. After two years of research, Tarbell discovered illegal tactics the oil company used to monopolize the oil industry; Standard Oil would sell oil below price to run its rivals out of business, then raise the prices up once there was no competitors in the area. Tarbell’s first article appeared in November 1902 McClure’s Magazine, alongside articles by muckrakers Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker. Muckrakers were journalists who exposed wrongdoings by writing articles in magazines and newspapers accessible by the middle class. Muckrakers helped change the United States; child labor laws first appeared in the U.S. because of Muckrakers. Due to the popularity of The History of the Standard Oil Company, it became a 19-part series published from November 1902 to October 1904. Tarbell spent the rest of her life writing until she died on January 6, 1944 in Connecticut.

Because of Ida Tarbell, the Supreme Court decided in 1911 to break up the Standard Oil Trust in Standard Oil Co. New Jersey v. United States due to the Sherman Antitrust Act. The company was split into 33 companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron. Pulitzer Prize winning American author and economic researcher Daniel Yergin calls The History of the Standard Oil Company the most important business book ever written while New York University ranks it No. 5 of the Top 100 works of 20th century American Journalism.Tarbell never wanted to be part of the women’s suffrage movement or a role model, but she proved that women are just as capable of being reporters. It took guts to take on the most powerful man in the world, guts that no male reporter had at the time.

Sources:

Isa Tarbell: Life and Works

Biography: Ida Tarbell

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One response »

  1. Pingback: A muckraking history to remember | John Cashon's Musings

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