Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business and Won


Book Information

Reader Personality Type
Clarion July 2014
  • Character-Building Curriculum
  • Social Studies Curriculum

"It is staggering, in the Internet age, to realize how much  criminal
activity and corruption was successfully hidden from public view at the  turn of
the twentieth century.  According to one veteran newsman,  McClure's exposed
trusts, gangs, political bosses, vice rackets, and  corruption, but above
all 'exposed our lack of a national journalism.'  Ray  Stannard Baker claimed
that '[the] ignorance [of citizens] causes most of our  problems.'
McClure's came through, with long, complex,  well-researched, and intelligently

ed articles.  Americans in an era  without radio, television, or the
Internet read them with interest.  So did  the government.  In 1906, the U.S.
attorney general began to prosecute  Standard Oil under the Sherman Antitrust

Ida M. Tarbell was the author of these history-changing  articles in
McClure's.  Her ability to research and write them  helped attract to McClure's
other rising stars like Lincoln  Steffens.  Emily Arnold McCully's biography
of Ms. Tarbell, which  is filled with horrific tales of U.S. imperialism; of public policy  (both domestic and international) being driven by corporate interests; of a  heartbreaking disparity between rich and poor; reveals the unusual life of  this woman who was an investigative rock star in an age of men, and also reveals  an America back then that seems in so many ways toshare similarities with  America today.

"You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by"

-- Graham Nash, "Teach Your Children"

How and why did Ida M. Tarbell follow what was -- for a  woman in that era
-- such a groundbreaking path?  Why was she the  right writer to plumb the
depths of Standard Oil and be able to successfully  expose Rockefeller's
empire for what it was?  I love how McCully -- who  grew up the daughter of a
journalist who revered Tarbell -- takes us  through Tarbell's unusual
childhood that so readily foreshadows on  several levels the uncompromising
adulthood road the  author's subject would take.

"For a girl devoted to reason, science would almost certainly  win out over
faith.  Science, exciting and dangerous, engaged Ida's  developing
intellect, while in her opinion faith required only passive  submission.  Ida was
constitutionally incapable of hypocrisy, so she  concluded she'd have to leave
the church.  But what could replace it?   Every value she tried to live by
came from the Bible.  All the Tarbells  were acutely, if inarticulately,
aware of each other's sensitivities.  The  family kept conflict at bay adhering
to the precepts of 'Do unto others' and  'Turn the other cheek,' which were
Christian, not scientific.  Science  offered no such moral guidance.
"Ida cared deeply about being good.  How was science  going to help her?
She didn't know.  She'd been emptied of belief and  filled with terrible
doubt.  But having to find answers on her own would  eventually build intellectual self-confidence.  Science did offer something  momentous and lasting: the pursuit of knowledge.

"How had life begun?  How did things grow and  change?  Ida decided that
she needed a microscope to examine life at its  most elemental; she might even
learn the secret of creation.  She saved her  money and bought one.  Then
she begged to be given the tower room at the  top of the house for her
laboratory.  From now on, she would verify  anything she was told.  On the floors
below, her family still believed that  the world had been created in six

Not only did Ida M. Tarbell have to surmount the institutional  barriers
that held women back from becoming 

anything not acceptable to the white  males
who controlled everything, but she had to do her work often hamstrung by a
brilliant and mercurial boss who today "might be diagnosed as bipolar with
attention-deficit disorder."  And so it was that Tarbell necessarily had to
 take charge at McClure's on several levels in order  to succeed in
enlightening the pre-mass-media provincial America  in which she dwelled.

"President McKinley told the nation he had prayed for guidance  in dealing
with the conquered peoples.  He reported this revelation:  'Educate, and
uplift and civilize and Christianize them,' and assured his  constituents that
after resolving to put it into effect, he 'went to bed and went to sleep
and slept soundly.'"

And as utterly backward and unenlightened as I, for  one, find that
particular point of view, we learn that Ida Tarbell  held some equally bizarre
views -- particularly about women -- that  will make many twenty-first century
readers scratch their heads.

As an activist and as a lifelong student of American history,  I found
Emily Arnold McCully's biography of Ida M. Tarbell to  be filled with fascinating parallels between then and now that are just waiting to be discovered by young readers, and overflowing with history, concepts and questions that will intrigue and inspire and compel discussion.

288 pages   978-0-547-29092-8

Recommended by: Richie Partington, Librarian, MLIS, California USA

User reviews

Have you read this book? We'd love to hear what you think. Click the button below to write your own review!
Already have an account? or Create an account