Women's history: Muckrakers dug up dirt on big-business

Ida Tarbell led the way for female journalists in an era when men dominated the profession. At the turn of the century, journalism was rife with sensationalism. Newspapers competed with each other to see which could print the most outrageous stories. At the same time, corporations were increasingly ignoring laws in the name of profit. A growing number of writers exposed this underbelly of the corruption -and women played a major role.

Female journalists, though few, were originally relegated to "society" events. Such oddities might include riding elephants or brushing a hippopotamus's teeth to provide "gee whiz" feature stories.

But as time went on, women left a more substantial mark on newsrooms. Their insightful writing and determination won them acclaim. One of these writers was Tarbell. She worked as an editor for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle.

Tarbell moved to Paris in 1891 where she researched and wrote for several American publications. S.S. McClure, editor of McClure's Magazine in which Tarbell published 19 articles, noted: "Capitalists, workingmen, politicians, citizens -all breaking the law, or letting it be broken. Who is left to uphold it?.... There is no one left; none but all of us." He hired Tarbell in 1894, and in 1904 she documented the rise of John D. Rockefeller's monopolistic Standard Oil Company and its unfair business practices.

Coined "muckrakers" by Theodore Roosevelt, Tarbell and others unearthed the wrongdoings and abuses by corporations. Muckraking, so named because it uncovered dirt, was a major part of journalism from 1902 to 1912.

But Roosevelt didn't fully support it. Said Tarbell: "Theodore Roosevelt ... had become uneasy at the effect on the public of the periodical press's increasing criticisms and investigations of business and political abuses."

Tarbell and her fellow journalists persisted, which led to reforms, such as anti-trust laws. Other women, while not considered muckrakers, also infiltrated corrupt businesses. Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, who used the pen name Nellie Bly, pretended to be insane and infiltrated a mental hospital. She wrote on the abuses happening within, and her articles led to a reform of the mental wards. For the Pittsburgh Dispatch, she wrote a series of articles on subjects such as divorce, slum life, and conditions in Mexico.

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