On the “likeability” of historical women

Let’s talk about the time Ida Tarbell moved to Paris to write a catty biography about a beheaded French intellectual.

Tarbell is best known as the muckraking journalist who wrote The History of the Standard Oil Company, a scathing exposé about the absurd concentration of wealth in the hands of a small number of tycoons. Her work led to the first anti-trust laws in America, which were a super big deal. Unfortunately, Tarbell is also considered a turncoat feminist for her bizarre anti-suffragist views. (Tarbell never married and was successful in a male-dominated field, yet she advocated strongly in the 1910s for women to remain at home and to pursue activities “in line with the feminine nature.” WTF?)

In 1890, Tarbell moved to riot-plagued Paris, ostensibly to write about the city’s struggles for McClure’s. But she was actually more interested in writing a book about Madame Roland, a French intellectual executed during the Revolution. Why Roland? Because:

“Tarbell thought she was doing what she could to advance the cause of her sex, for history had forgotten the accomplishments of women and one must, therefore, re-explore the past in search of them.”
–Historian Robert Stinson

Well, hot damn! Just when you think you’ve hit on a clever idea, you find out that someone else had the exact same one 125 years ago. Le sigh.

Anyway, Tarbell published her biography of Roland in 1896, and it wasn’t  … kind. Here’s Stinson again: “She criticized [Roland] as an inflexible personality who could often put her hardness to good use in holding her revolutionary group together during times of uncertainty but who also suffered its fatal effect in her failure to adjust when necessary to new circumstances.”

Ida Tarbell meme

Tarbell also wrote the following as a criticism of Roland: “Madame Roland lost her head because she was not content with a first Revolution which had given the country a Constitution. She wanted to get the King and Queen and the highborn of all varieties out of the way. She wanted a Republic.” Tarbell basically accused Roland of being an idealistic idiot cut from the same cloth as the anarchists of the early 1890s. Now, keep in mind, this is from the woman who went on to knock the American oligarchy down a serious peg.

After three years in Paris, Tarbell returned to the States and became a staff writer for McClure’s. Her interest in Europe lasted through a biography of Napoleon, but her attention then shifted toward American politics and current affairs, which eventually led to the Standard Oil thing.

So, here’s my takeaway from this little tale about Tarbell: Women have been working to re-write themselves into history for a long time, and we have a ways to go. But that doesn’t mean we have to treat historical women with kid gloves or excuse their wacko behaviors and statements. Because whether you like these women or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you’re preserving a record of them for the future. Even though Tarbell grew personally disillusioned with Roland, her book helped to bolster Roland’s legacy as a political visionary in Revolutionary France. And Tarbell herself now garners plenty of head shakes over her hypocrisy, but that doesn’t take away from the significant value of her coverage of the steel industry in the early 1900s.

In the process of criticizing a historical woman, we’re also talking about her. And that very simple fact is progress for feminists — whether Tarbell would like it or not. (You can read more about Tarbell’s time in France in her own words here.)

Update: Ida’s hitting the big screen!

Reading List

P.S. Featured image is the Palace Dauphine, the childhood home of Madame Roland. Illustration from Madame Roland: A Biographical Study.

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