Ida Tarbell: Life after Standard Oil (part 3)

Part 1: Ida Tarbell — the sharp, powerful arrow of her words (part 1)

Part 2: Ida Tarbell: Madame Roland, Napoleon, and Abraham Lincoln (part 2)

Ida Tarbell developed her life as an independent thinker and writer. She asserted her right to be and think in whatever way she saw fit, and she did not conform to any ideology about which she had doubts.

That mode of thinking drove her into one of the great anomalies of her life: she refused to join the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement of the first two decades of the 20th century. In fact, she became an anti-suffragist.

Historians, biographers, and feminists have scratched their heads about that ever since.

Tarbell had achieved her greatest success in 1902 with the publication of A History of Standard Oil, a series of 19 articles for Samuel McClure’s magazine for which she was an editor as well as reporter and writer. The series and the book that followed had profoundly impacted the public’s thinking about the state of business in America and had made Tarbell one of the most famous people in the country. Sales of the book and stock in the magazine had made her financially comfortable.

By 1906, the ground had shifted in her journalistic world. McClure’s absence from the magazine and his erratic behavior and decision-making while he was there had driven Tarbell and other editors to distraction. She, John Phillips, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffans, and John Sidell resigned, and Tarbell and Phillips invested in The American Magazine, where she became associated editors. She spent the next years researching articles on business-related topics, but the magazine took a decidedly different tack from the muckraking McClure’s Magazine.

In 1911 she sold her interest in the magazine and wrote on a freelance basis. Tarbell had grown up with the suffrage movement — her mother was a suffragist, and there were suffrage meetings in her home — but that did not blind her to some of what she considered the movement’s less attractive qualities. Tarbell was very much a traditionalist in her thinking about roles men and women should play in society. While she had taken a different path, she still believed that motherhood and domestic duties were the main vocations that women were best suited to accomplish. Tarbell believed that the growing militancy of the suffrage movement was devaluing and denying the legitimacy of these pursuits.

Suffragists were infuriated by what they saw as Tarbell’s betrayal and were highly critical. Those critics included her mother, but Tarbell, who had suffered withering criticism before, stuck to her beliefs, writing a series of articles and then publishing them as a book in 1912 titled The Business of Being a Woman.  

Suffrage was not the only issue that Tarbell dealt with during this decade. She was was concerned about poverty, public transportation, protections for women in the workplace, and world peace. She was part of President Woodrow Wilson’s Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense. She attended the 1919 peace conference in Paris as a journalist. Wilson wanted her to be a part of the official delegation, but another member of the delegation, Robert Lansing, objected.

Tarbell continued her journalism through the 1920s and 1930s, writing about business issues and several biographies of business leaders. She completed her autobiography, All in a Day’s Work, in 1939 and died five years later in 1944 at the age of 86.

Tarbell’s business reporting, especially the muckraking articles for McClure’s, had a lasting effect on American society, but perhaps her most important legacy was the impact she had on journalism itself. Her careful, painstaking, and meticulous research and her straightforward, simple style of writing taught journalists of the 20th century how good journalism should be done. She was the example that the rest of us — whether we realized it or not — followed.

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Jim Stovall, ( a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at .
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