Tarbell’s private reflections, about gender among other things, do emerge from time to time. Early on, she recognized the predicament of women. At 14, Ida knelt and prayed to God that she would be spared marriage. “I must be free; and to be free I must be a spinster.” She was right: Though higher education was becoming more available to women, to have a career, a woman had to forgo having a family. Aside from teaching and missionary work—the two “respectable” careers for educated women—journalism, in its chaotic infancy, offered an opening an intrepid female could slip through. The McClure’s fiction editor was a woman, Viola Roseboro, and Willa Cather joined the staff in 1906. Elsewhere, Nelly Bly and Ida B. Wells had also performed feats of investigation. Obstacles came with the territory of being female in a mostly male industry, but Tarbell’s gender also helped safeguard her integrity: While Steffens, who was granted audiences with Roosevelt, got a little too cozy with power, she was never invited into a political inner sanctum.
As McClure, who evidently suffered from manic depression, grew more grandiose and erratic—and had affairs with two women writers—he became more of a liability than a galvanizing force. The core staff, fearing McClure’s would founder on charges of moral hypocrisy, walked out in 1906. They bought their own publication, The American Magazine, where Tarbell continued to do groundbreaking work—in another parallel to the modern day, she wrote compellingly about tariffs and how they hurt consumers by raising prices. But others in the field were not as woman-friendly as McClure had been. Despite her star status, she was the only staff member not invited to the first annual publishers’ dinner, a men-only event. “It is the first time since I came into the office that the fact of petticoats has stood in my way,” she wrote, “and I am half-inclined to resent it.”
Her exclusion was a harbinger of journalism’s passage into maturity. The National Press Club was founded as all-male in 1908, part of a dreary pattern of barring women that was replayed in other fields as they attained prestige, and as the porousness of their formative days vanished. But McClure never stopped believing in Tarbell, or craving her presence. “I wish you had not turned away,” he wrote in one poignant letter, telling her he was learning to speak and act more slowly, and had dreamed that “you drew me down & kissed me to show your approval.”
Tarbell missed him as well, and “the excited discussions” at his magazine were never quite replicated. Her “radical reforming” friends pressured her to “join their movements,” she wrote, but she resisted. The tension she felt between advocacy and objectivity—like the journalistic techniques she helped establish—is no less central today than it was then. Nor is the tenuousness of the community—profitable, important, and, as she put it, “so warmly and often ridiculously human”—that she had been welcomed into. She knew that it, like most great collaborations, couldn’t last forever. But its example could live on, and has.