Ida M. Tarbell is an important figure in the history of Women in America. But her position on one important issue will surprise you.
Ida was one of the most successful journalists of her era. She was highly influential in the progressive trust busting movement of the early 20th century. She was a pioneer in investigative journalism. Her courageous and tenacious pursuit to expose Rockefeller and the oil industry was critical to the progressive movement gaining ground in the political arena. The famous term “muckraker” was coined because of writers like her and Upton Sinclair (although she detested the name).
Tarbell’s works and legacy are most notable for their tendency to promote social change in the name of justice, fairness, and equality. Many look to her as an inspiration and example of how powerful a woman can be when she steps out of her socially constructed gender role of child bearer and home maker. She is, for some, a symbol of the empowerment of women.
So when I picked up Tarbell’s book entitled The Business of Being a Woman, I expected to read something that was ground breaking and/or radical. Because of her impressive capacity to influence the world for good, I expected her to demand that women be allowed more opportunity in the politics and the professional world. I expected her to cry out for social change in the name of women’s individuality. I expected her to be an intense advocate for women’s suffrage. But boy was I wrong.
Denouncing Feminist Agendas
The Business of Being a Woman is an adamant argument against women’s suffrage. In fact, Ida Tarbell denounces women’s desires to leave the realm of domesticity and child-rearing for participation in the public realm. And she does so in a vigorous and openly gendered manner – blaming women for having “A certain distrust…of the significance and dignity of the work laid upon her by nature and by society.” That work laid upon her is motherhood, wifehood, and domesticity.
Tarbell speaks of a phenomenon commonly addressed as “the woman issue” or “the woman problem” at the time. Industrialization and an enlarged middle class in the United States at the turn of the 20th century created great tensions between established victorian gender roles (i.e. separate spheres) and the great need for workers to fill the industrial production demand.
“At a time when [woman] is freer than at any other period of the world’s history,” says Tarbell, “She is apparently more uneasy.”
Whether or not Tarbell’s assertion that women were freer than ever before in 1919 is true, Tarbell seems to believe that a lot of women need to just accept “nature’s work for women.”
Enabling the Woman’s Business
Tarbell seeks to ennoble the position and duties of the domestic housewife, and although she believes women outside the home have “rich lives to work out,” she says “they are not the women upon whom society depends; they are not the ones who will build the nation.” It is the women who “are at the great business of founding and filling those natural social centers which we call homes” that will do the best work for the world.
She says that women have a greater calling in the home than outside it. They do not belong outside the home. “It is not bigotry or vanity or a petty notion of their own spheres which has kept the majority of women from lending themselves to the radical wing of the woman’s movement. It is the fear to destroy a greater thing which they possess.”
Tarbell expresses a firm belief that the women who have sought to be like men and participate in men’s activities have insulted the female sex. She denounces male attire and mannerisms, repeatedly referring to women wearing men’s attire including boots, trousers, suits and cigarettes.”The efforts of woman to prove herself equal to man is a work of supererogation,” she writes.
Some of Tarbell’s strongest language is concerned with equality. She thinks women and men who promote the breakdown of gender barriers are extinguishing the freedom of females everywhere. “The idea that there is a kind of inequality for a woman in minding her own business and letting man do the same, comes from our confused and rather stupid notion of the meaning of equality.”
The Strangeness of it All
What makes Tarbell’s position even more surprising is that she does not live a domestic lifestyle in any way. She had no children. She never married. She pursued a career and advanced in her workplace for the duration of her life. Tarbell says that “accident may throw [some women] into this outer circle [of public affairs]. But women are not “fitted by nature to live and circulate freely there.” Did accident throw her into the outer circle? Was she, with all her talent, passion, and determination to make major socio-political change, in the wrong place? Had she not fulfilled her proper role?
Ida Tarbell’s influence was felt heavily in the public realm. She had a voice. A strong voice. She had sued for social change and had gotten it through blood, sweat and tears. Why would a woman in such a position feel this way? Wouldn’t she, more than anyone, understand how a woman’s capacities might help the world and bring a better future to the nation?
Perhaps this look at Ida Tarbell’s book gives us a better look at just how radical feminist agendas were at the time. Not every powerful female was a feminist. And some women who were educated, single and successful were still, in a sense, “traditionalists. Even important female figures like Ida M. Tarbell.
Why do you think Ida Tarbell would feel this way about “the business of being a woman?”
Tarbell, Ida M. The Business of a Woman. New York, New York: Macmillan Company, 1919.