Women Pioneers in Journalism--Ida B. Wells and Ida Tarbell

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Ida B. Wells--photo Wikipedia


Legacies: Women Pioneers in Journalism-- Two "Troublemaking" Idas

Ida Tarbell (1857-1944) and Ida B. Wells (1862- 1931). Born within five years of each other, they shared many similarities: both were first-born children; both grew up absorbing Charles Dickens’ novels in serial form and other classic works of literature; both attended Christian- affiliated colleges—college being an atypical path for women in that age; both took up teaching and disliked it; both found a career in journalism and put the power of their pens to work tackling huge targets, both women were part of larger movements for social justice.

Both died before completing an autobiography; and neither woman had an appreciation in her lifetime as to how kindly she would be viewed by history. There were dissimilarities, too: one was white, one black; one was born into a middle-class family which accompanied her into old age; one was born into slavery and lost her parents and a sibling to yellow fever; one lived out her life as a single woman; the other married and became the mother of four.

But both women speak to us from the past, worthy subjects of study, inspiration and emulation. Threading these two lives together provides us with a picture of exemplary lives lived within the same epoch and illuminate the political environment they had a major role in shaping.

Formative Years: Ida Tarbell’s father, Franklin, was a teacher and an inventor. The tank he invented held hundreds of barrels of oil just at the time that derricks started pumping petroleum out of the ground. Aside from this invention, which brought him into the oil business as an independent operator, his great contribution to his first-born daughter’s life was as a living example of the rapaciousness of John D. Rockefeller and the methods he used to crush opposition. This was a home filled with causes and passionately involved parents—anti-monopoly, suffrage, temperance, and abolition.

Ida Tarbell and her brother followed the Civil War and “Lincoln’s cause” through a series of engravings in the pages of Harper’s Monthly. At age 18, she left for college, hoping to study botany. Science was unwelcoming for women—the traditional female careers were teaching and missionary work. While working as a teacher, Tarbell’s eyes were opened to social injustice, “on a far greater scale that she had imagined possible” (Kathleen Brady, Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker, p. 32).

Ida B. Wells had the benefit of parents who worked their way from slavery into a stable, secure life. Her father was a skilled carpenter, her mother a cook, and they raised their eight children in a home that they owned. The parents stressed the importance of education in the lives of their children. When yellow fever struck, Wells was orphaned at 16 while training as a teacher. She took on the financial responsibility and care for her siblings—her first act of courage and independence in a life that would be filled with many. She lengthened her dresses and went to work as a teacher in rural Mississippi. As a young reader, deep into the pages of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and other tales of social exploitation, she developed a strong set of values. “Throughout her life, Wells expected her self and others to battle injustice and refuse to compromise” (Linda O. McMurry, To Keep the Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells, p. 23).

After moving to Memphis, Wells was expelled from a first class railway car. She protested and took the matter of segregation to court and won her suit against the railroad. She lost on appeal, however. The costs of the case were significant, but it put her on a new path. She began writing political columns for local church newspapers.

Then, as a school teacher in Memphis, she saved her money and became part owner of a newspaper, Free Speech and Headlight. But she earned the enmity of her employers for a column criticizing unequal funding of the black schools by the Board of Education. Denied her teaching position, she became a full-time journalist.

Ida Tarbell went from teaching to a position as editor for The Chautauquan and promptly discovered a new passion. “The sight of her work in type was like magic which dispelled forever dreams of botany…plans and calculations yielded to a coup of fate” (McMurry, p. 36). As she and her workmates read the liberal New York Tribune, Tarbell saw the 1880s as a decade that “dripped with blood” (Brady, p. 37).

In 1886, workers were striking for higher wages and a shorter day. While taking on more and more tasks, Tarbell also encouraged the paper to run articles on social and economic problems. “Unlike botany, journalism was a field where women were making a place for themselves” (Brady, p. 43). Tarbell discovered a new career. After carving out a life as a freelance journalist working from Paris, in 1893 she was recruited by Samuel S. McClure to write for his new magazine.

A Voice for the Voiceless: In the post-emancipation age, segregation and disfranchisement were expanding and the political power of African Americans was declining. Despite Black resistance, the threat of American terrorism was on the rise and Jim Crow practices were emerging.  In 1892, three men in Memphis were lynched. One, Thomas Moss, was a close friend of Ida B. Wells. He worked for the federal government as a mail carrier and Wells was the godmother of his daughter.

Outraged, she wrote an editorial, denouncing “a town that takes us out and murders us in cold blood” (McMurry, p. 136). Her appetite for activism was whetted and increasingly, her pen became her outlet for confronting what angered her. (McMurry, p. 86). As it proliferated, the Black press served many functions. One function was to serve as “a voice for the voiceless … In the worsening racial climate of the late 19th century, the voice was usually one of protest” (McMurry, p. 87). Wells was forced to leave town in the wake of the outrage set off by her words. Moving from Memphis to New York City gave her a larger platform—a national audience.

For the rest of her life, there was seldom a time when she was not embroiled in some form of controversy. “Her forced exile added more fuel to her rage and strength to her determination” (McMurry,  p. 156). Writing for McClure’s Magazine, Tarbell’s journalism also gained a national scope. The new publication combined technology, vision, and good writers with a broad platform for a new type of journalism—exposure journalism—what came to be known as muckraking.

The muckrakers took on big subjects, all with the aim of exposing the malefactors—the politicians, railroads, patent medicines, the industrialists—those involved in ripping off the public. Tarbell’s first big subject was the trusts—the movement to sweep up smaller corporations into monopolies. The idea behind her initial project was to delve deeply into one trust—the Standard Oil Company—to expose the inner workings of what Tarbell came to refer to as, “the octopus”—and the force behind it—John D. Rockefeller, in order to illustrate the pattern of how ownership of American industry was passing from control by the many to control by the few. Her youthful connection to Rockefeller and his destructive impact on her family made the story very personal.

Scrupulous in her methods, Tarbell researched, collected evidence, conducted interviews, sought out insiders, was pushed and prodded by her editors and “became not only competent but a force in journalism.” (Brady, p. 64) She demonstrated a dogged determination to follow leads; to cross-check every fact. Tarbell was described as having, “the historian’s pedantry, the journalist’s instinct, and the friendly guile of one seeking help” (Brady, p. 99) in her search for evidence.

At one point, she wrote: “The task confronting me is such a monstrous one that I am staggering a bit under it…. It has become a great bugbear to me. I dream of the octopus by night and think of nothing else by day” (Brady, pp. 129-130). Though it weighed on her, she completed her mission. The series, first approved in 1901 as a 3-part, 25,000 word feature, was published in final form in a 2-volume history, The History of the Standard Oil Company, in November, 1904.

As a young woman, weighed down with financial and other obligations, Ida B. Wells paid for elocution lessons, and took part in dramatic societies. The skills she honed as a public speaker would come to play an increasingly important role in her life. As she took on the dual role of writer and speaker, she became a strong “voice of protest and a force for change” (McMurry, p. 91). Her greatest talent was “the ability to articulate outrage." (McMurry, p. 108) She determined to be “the voice of a long-suffering people…until every wrong is righted” (McMurry, p. 91).

She provided an analysis of lynching and spearheaded the anti-lynching movement. She collaborated with legendary figures like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. After her move to New York City, she wrote: “I felt that I owed it to myself and my race to tell the whole truth now that I was where I could do so freely.” (McMurry, p. 156) As her biographer points out, “[I]f she had not been run out of Memphis, she would never have become the recognized leader of the anti-lynching movement”—the most effective, accomplished and fearless leader (McMurry, p. 167).

The late 19th century was a tumultuous time—a time of crisis for corporate capitalism. Crises included a series of financial panics and depressions, economic instability, unemployment on a massive scale, and a wave of immigration which triggered its own reaction. Massive strikes (1877; striking railroad workers in pitched battle with armed troops; 1886—Chicago’s “Haymarket Riot;” and the Homestead and Pullman strikes in the 1890s), financial expansions and contractions, in combination with immigration, provoked the rise of class antagonisms.

The Progressive Movement waded into this mix, along with the other causes that generated activism—most significantly, the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements. Kindred Spirits Whose Legacy Lives On: Muckraking journalists like Tarbell were an essential ingredient of the Progressive Movement. In fact, as the historian, Richard Hofstadter, in his classic treatment of The Age of Reform, wrote: “To an extraordinary degree, the work of the Progressive Movement rested upon its journalism.

The fundamental, critical element was the business of exposure and journalism was the chief occupational source of its creative writers. Its characteristic contribution was that of the socially responsible reporter. The muckraker was a central figure. Before there could be action, there must be information and exhortation. It was muckraking that brought the diffuse malaise of the public into focus.”

Ida B. Wells is a central figure in the pantheon of radical reformists dedicated to social justice. In Black Prophetic Fire, the philosopher Cornel West calls her, “the exemplary figure, full of prophetic fire in the face of American terrorism—Jim Crow and Jane Crow—when a lynching occurred every two and a half days for over 50 years in America.” West writes: “The cost she has to pay at that time is enormous and yet she comes back to us as in some ways as contemporary.”

She was not willing to compromise and she offended many sensibilities—male and female. She was involved in an immensely broad form of activism. West reminds us that, “we must learn from her in terms of moral integrity, spiritual fortitude, and political determination.” Aside from the fact that, in her youth, Ida B. Wells joined the Chautauqua educational society (McMurry, p. 79), that published the paper Tarbell edited at the beginning of her career, there is no evidence that their paths ever crossed. Wells took it upon herself “to keep the waters troubled” (McMurry, xvi).

Writing her autobiography at the end of her life, she began her last chapter with this phrase: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” (McMurry, p. 321). Tarbell’s biographer noted that the famed journalist—the premier muckraker, “was called to achievement in a day when women were called only to exist. Her triumph was that she succeeded. Her tragedy was never to know it” (Brady, p. 255).

Both women did keep the waters troubled—and part of their legacy is that we are fortunate to know it.


Jane LaTour is a New York City labor activist and journalist. She is the author of Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City and is working on an oral history about union dissidents and the limits of reform in organized labor.

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