Tackling Ida Tarbell’s anti-suffrage views - Titusville Herald: News

Tackling Ida Tarbell’s anti-suffrage views

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Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2019 5:00 am

Ida Tarbell could arguably be considered one of the most influential female journalists in history, breaking into a male-dominated industry and leading the way for countless other women to follow.

She also opposed giving women the right to vote, and thought they were best served at home, raising children.

This apparent disconnect between Tarbell’s actions and her viewpoints was the topic of a presentation by award-winning author Emily Arnold McCully at Henne Auditorium, Tuesday. The speech was titled “Tarbell on the Couch: What Was Her Problem With Women?” and was given on the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

McCully, who authored a biography about Tarbell called “Ida Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business — and Won!” said that she first became interested in the Titusville-native journalist while growing up as a child. Her father attended Knox College, and he loved talking about many of the famous graduates from the school, including Samuel McClure, who would go on to hire Tarbell for his magazine. As such, McCully would often hear of Tarbell by her association with McClure.

“My curiosity for Ida began then … And I came to admire Tarbell for her scrupulous and uncompromising work and life,” she said. “She declared herself a historian, although she did something historians almost never dared to do; Expose what was happening in the present to arouse the public to action.”

However, among the more admirable actions of Tarbell, McCully also came across her opposition to women’s suffrage. This was something which McCully described to The Herald as “a terrible contradiction.”

“Tarbell’s heart and mind were usually in the right place, but she wrote cringe-inducing things about women, while presenting herself as their champion,” McCully said of her time researching and writing her biography. “I had to explain views I found distressing. I grappled with the woman question for a long time.”

The viewpoints of the journalist who toppled the Standard Oil Company were controversial, even back in her day. McCully said that a rally was held by young women in New York specifically in opposition to her beliefs.

The question for McCully came down to where this opposition to women came from. In her speech, McCully posited that Tarbell’s negativity toward women came from a personal level, a reflection of both the people she surrounded herself with and the realization of her own internal emotions.

“To understand Tarbell, we have to analyze her psychology, which is something she, herself, was utterly incapable of even attempting,” McCully said. “In fact, Tarbell didn’t believe in psychology. She likened her mind to a layer cake with only two layers.”

McCully started with Tarbell’s childhood, explaining that her parents raised her in a very traditionalist home, focused on politeness and respectability.

“Culture and religion were supposed to mitigate the wild, violent, raucous, filthy, greed-driven, God-forsaken Oil Region. Sorry,” McCully said in a comment that brought laughs from the audience.

During her childhood, Tarbell came to idolize her father, who often played music and told her stories, Comparatively, the young Tarbell did not hold a positive view of her mother, whom she saw as brittle and weak.

“I think Ida wanted to be like him,” McCully said. “She certainly did not wish to be like her mother.”

When the suffrage movement began to gain steam shortly after the passage of the 15th amendment, which granted the right to vote to African Americans, Tarbell’s mother would host many of the suffragettes. However, McCully explained that Tarbell saw these women as lowering the gender down into the “dirty” world of politics, chasing after scandals and media circuses.

“So, at an age when we might expect her to be inspired by the suffrage movement, she was instead disillusioned by it,” McCully said.

As she progressed through life, Tarbell would find herself often surrounded by male figures. While attending Allegheny College, she apologized to the male students for her presence and was very self conscious.

Despite studying biology at the school, Tarbell never found a job in the field. McCully described her as “submitting to limits placed on women by custom and the establishment” rather than fighting back. After a period of time with a magazine called The Chautauquan, she moved to Paris.

However, during her period away, her mother would often write to her letters of the family’s woes in her absence. These letters, McCully explained, both further harmed Tarbell’s view of her mother and made her feel guilty for leaving her family.

Further, Tarbell had taken to studying a French revolutionary named Madame Roland. McCully said that Tarbell viewed Roland as fighting for the sake of her husband and out of love for him, rather than in the spirit of the revolution.

Eventually, Tarbell was encouraged to return to America by McClure to join the staff of his publication, McClure’s Magazine, with her mindset altered.

“Tarbell left Paris, having never finished her Roland biography, but she had read and written enough to make up her mind about women in public life,” McCully said. “Before long, Ida was quoting a friend who said the only reason she was glad she was a woman was that she wouldn’t have to marry one.”

As her professional career furthered at McClure’s Magazine, Tarbell found herself becoming friends with several women who shared her anti-suffrage viewpoints. Among them was Elisabeth Marbury, who believed that women who worked missed out on the best parts of life, those being marriage and child-rearing.

“She and Tarbell let everyone know that their achievements had come at a steep price,” McCully said.

In 1906, Tarbell’s world was shaken when her father died. McCully said that the journalist became both the head and “father-figure” of her family, settling financial matters of her less successful relatives. During this time, she would begin writing about herself more often, offering a glance into her mind.

“She wrote, ‘I have always found it difficult to explain myself, even to myself, and I do not often try,’” McCully said.

In these writings, McCully said that Tarbell often projected her own internalized issues onto all women.

“Clearly, Ida Tarbell did not understand women, and she didn’t attempt to understand herself,” she said.

McCully explained that Tarbell saw herself as an outlier among women, a position she always felt uneasy about. This uneasiness Tarbell projected onto other women, never quite able to settle her own emotional turmoil.

As she closed out the presentation, McCully posited that Tarbell found herself constrained by the binary gender roles of her day, and that she would likely find herself more comfortable in the modern day, where gender is a much more fluid concept, with varying amounts of masculinity and femininity.

The presentation was done in conjunction with the Oil Region Alliance. After the speech, a reception was held at the Ida Tarbell House, where McCully performed book signings. She will give a similar lecture today, at Titusville High School.

Ray can be reached, by email, at sray@titusvilleherald.com.

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