By Paula Treckel – Professor of History, Allegheny College
“What I discovered, or was allowed to discover by a woman who was as self-consciously remote in her correspondence as she was in person, was disturbing… this woman, who personified the word “success” in her own generation, and who, if she were alive today, would stand at the forefront of journalism, was the same woman who asserted that women’s place was in the home and that they were incapable of greatness in a man’s world because of their nature.”
My interest in Ida Tarbell was first sparked when, as a young girl studying American History in elementary school, Ida Tarbell’s name appeared on the pages of my history book. Whether it was because she was one of the few women mentioned –along with Pocahontas, Abigail Adams, Betsy Ross and Harriet Beecher Stowe–or because of her “funny name” and appellation “muckraker”, I tucked her away in my memory. All the while, of course, forgetting the more important people and events of America’s past!
Perhaps it was my brief encounter with Ida as a child, and with only a few others women deemed significant in creating the America nation, that led me to question the absence of women from history books and devote myself to the search for their past. When I was hired to teach American women’s history at Allegheny College, I looked forward to looking at the College’s extensive collection of its most illustrious graduate–Ida Tarbell. This would be the ideal opportunity, I thought, to investigate this shadowy figure from my childhood, using her own letters, works, her private as well as her public correspondence.
What I discovered, or was allowed to discover by a woman who was as self-consciously remote in her correspondence as she was in person, was disturbing. For what was revealed to me in this remarkable woman’s literary remains was an enigma–a woman who exemplified an incomprehensible mixture of opposing qualities and defied my understanding.
Let me outline my confusion.
I found Tarbell an intelligent, resourceful, strong, courageous, forceful, single-minded, successful woman. Remarkable in her determination to pursue a career during an era in American history when it was still unusual for women to attend college let alone seek a life outside the home. Yet, this woman, who personified the word “success” in her own generation, and who, if she were alive today, would stand at the forefront of journalism, was the same woman who asserted that women’s place was in the home and that they were incapable of greatness in a man’s world because of their nature. That career women were freaks and misfits, doomed to failure and dissatisfaction. That women were intellectually unable to cope with the problems and complexities of the man’s world and therefore should not be granted the right to vote.
My initial reaction to this discovery of these contradictions between Tarbell’s life and her beliefs was anger, and yes, a sense of betrayal.
How could she, a woman who had accomplished what millions of women then and now sought to attain, deny her very achievements and thus, her life? For in her remarks women’s roles and rights, Tarbell publicly rejected the very premise upon which her own life was based–that women were not only men’s equals, but that they had the right to participate in the public sphere, long the preserve of men. She used her considerable influence as a path breaking journalist to campaign against not only women’s suffrage but women’s involvement in the professions.
My frustration was best articulated by Jane Addams, the Progressive reformer. When Addams heard Tarbell say that women’s suffrage was not only unnecessary but wrong and that women’s participation in politics and government was against their “true” nature, she bluntly concluded: “There is some limitation to Ida Tarbell’s mind.”
Why? Why did Tarbell try to convince other women to give up the battle for the vote, for equal rights, and for access to careers?
“Her life reveals the high cost of being a pioneer, a ‘token’ female, always the ‘exception’ to the rule.”
In many ways, Ida Tarbell exemplified the dilemma of many women at the turn of the century. She was reared in a culture that believed that women and men were different and had complimentary natures: Women were thought to be morally superior to men, but men were women’s intellectual superiors. Women were emotional and ruled by their hearts. Men were ruled by their heads. Thus, it was argued, the brutal public arena of commerce, trade and politics was better left to men. Fragile, vulnerable women should be sheltered and protected in the home.
But the post-Civil War world in which Ida Tarbell came of age also witnessed great change. Immigration, industrialization, urbanization, and American imperialism, transformed the nation. Many concerned Americans–some who wished to preserve the past, others who embraced the future–became convinced that reform of society and government was necessary. Fortified by the Social Gospel movement, people across the land were urged to put their Christian principles into action. They were told they were “their brother’s keeper” and exhorted to become involved, to improve themselves and the world around them.
Many believed that women had special qualities and skills to bring to this Age of Reform. Women’s innate difference from men–their moral superiority, their purity and their compassion–made them especially suited to the campaign to “uplift” America. Their skills as mothers and homemakers would help them diffuse the hot tempers of urban politics and “clean up” the corrupt cities. But to do so, women required the vote. And so it was that women’s suffrage gained much wider acceptance during the closing years of the twentieth century as a tool for progressive reform.
This was the world, and these were the values that shaped Ida Tarbell.
But, to succeed in the male-dominated world of journalism, Ida had to repudiate–for herself at least–her culture’s ideas about women’s “special” nature. She was different from other women, she believed. The exception that proved the rule. Extremely self-conscious of her pioneering role, but lacking confidence in her own ability as a writer, she jealously guarded her position from would-be challengers and new comers, and held everyone at arms’ length. For Tarbell the price of success was high: love not shared, friendships not sustained, children not born.
Was the price she paid for her success too high?
I believe that Ida Tarbell began to regret some of the choices she made. But rather than taking responsibility for her decisions or faulting the culture that demanded that women choose between love and work, she blamed feminists for daring women to dream. She accused them of falsely telling women they were the equals of men; that they had a right to be whomever they wished to be. She chastised feminists for disparaging women’s “noble” calling as housewives and mothers and urging women to take their place on the political stage. Instead, she argued that women did not have the capacity to achieve greatness in men’s world and implored them to stay at home, raise their families, and leave politics and industry to men.
But in arguing against women’s equality and for their return to the home, Ida Tarbell repudiated her own accomplishments. Did she not see the inconsistency between her life and her words? Or was she unable to face it?
I believe that Ida’s self-doubt and her anti-feminism are two sides of the same coin, and both were a consequence of her success in a hostile, doubting society. Her life reveals the high cost of being a pioneer, a “token” female, always the “exception” to the rule. Ida felt she had to hide her insecurities and deficiencies from the men around her. But at the same time she distanced herself from other professional women who might have seen the truth beneath the mask she wore. In doing so, she cut herself off from the support, encouragement, and understanding these women could offer her. Sadly, despite her great success as a journalist and writer, Ida found herself isolated and alone. Studying Ida Tarbell’s life can help us better understand the difficult choices encountered by other pioneering professional women in 19th century America. And, perhaps even holds some important lessons for women of achievement today.
Let us, then, unravel Ida Tarbell’s tangled life and see how she struggled with what she called “the business of being a woman.”
Originally presented as a lecture by Professor Emeritus of History Paula Treckel at the Chautauqua Institute in August 1997. Treckel, joined the Allegheny College faculty in 1981 and retired in 2014. She was the 1996 recipient of the Julian Ross Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is the author of To Comfort the Heart: Women in 17th Century America.
Copyright 2002 by Paula Treckel. This work may not be used for any reasons other than noncommercial research and scholarship. For any other use, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.