because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Ida Tarbell

Sometimes, it's only in looking back that we can see the early indicators of a developing in-your-face woman. Ida Tarbell is an example of this, since she grew up in Pennsylvania, graduated at the top of her high school class, majored in biology in college, and then taught math, science and languages as a teacher after that. Sounds pretty straight down the middle, doesn't it?

But if you pay attention to the hidden details, you realize that Tarbell was deeply affected when her father was put out of business by a sleazy arrangement between the railroads and the big oil interests while she was still a girl. Then, as a young woman, she decided she'd rather write than teach and went to do it in Paris. And her choice of topics for post-graduate examination was an in-your-face woman in the French Revolution. All of which makes it no surprise that Tarbell eventually became one of the primary journalistic muckrakers in the early 1900's.

She wasn't the only one, of course, but it might have been somewhat easier for her to gain information early on. Who could feel threatened by a woman asking a few simple questions? How seriously would corporate executives be likely to take a mild-mannered, highly cultured female? And which of them would guess a woman could even understand the complicated world of big business? So they talked to her again and again and let her gain access to hundreds of thousands of documents outlining how John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Company had ruthlessly operated to make millions through all manner of shady and even illegal plans, acts and manipulations.

In the process, Tarbell recreated the idea of investigative reporting based on grueling, committed, and in-depth research, setting the bar for a century afterward. When Tarbell's expose' was published as a 19-part series in McClure's Magazine, the entire world read it. And in the end, her work was used to break up the Standard Oil monopoly and give the public in the U.S. a whole new perspective on corporate practices from then on. What made the difference? Imagination. "Imagination," Tarbell once wrote, "is the only key to the future. Without it, none exists. With it, all things are possible."

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