Breaking Up the Big Boys—Ida Tarbell and the Defeat of Standard Oil

During 2020, we celebrated the suffragists who a century ago won the struggle to give women the right to vote. But voting is only part of what increased women’s power to shape their own lives. Many women were unable to get a job and earn money, so whether they could vote or not they continued to be dependent on their fathers, brothers, or husbands to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables. This year we should celebrate some of the women who opened up new economic opportunities for women.

Ida Tarbell was someone who showed how powerful a woman’s voice could be. Like many women she used the power of words to even the playing field.  But unlike most women of her time, she did not write fiction, nor did she write about “women’s issues”. She plunged into the wider world of industrial competition and politics and she succeeded. Her writing and editorial work made her one of the most powerful voices influencing politics and business practices during the late 19th century.

Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1857, Ida Tarbell was encouraged to go to school and to read widely. Both her mother and father had been schoolteachers, but when oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, her father became an oil dealer. After Ida graduated at the top of her class in high school, she went on to Allegheny College where she was the only woman in a class of 48. She studied biology and earned an MA as well as a BA. Job opportunities were limited after she graduated. She tried teaching, the traditional woman’s career,  but didn’t like it, so she decided to earn her living by writing.

Ida Tarbell

Tarbell began her career by writing articles for The Chautauquan, a magazine designed for readers interested in home study courses. Her scientific studies had trained her to search for facts and to check them carefully. In 1891, after she  had established her credentials as a writer, Tarbell decided to move to Paris and try to earn her living by independent writing. Although she dipped into fiction, she soon realized that her real talent lay in nonfiction.

While she was in Paris, Tarbell had an active social life and met many French intellectuals as well as visiting Americans. One of the visitors was Samuel McClure, the founder and publisher of the influential McClure’s Magazine. Recognizing the value of Tarbell’s work, McClure invited her to work with him. Even though she was reluctant to leave Paris, Tarbell decided to move back to New York where she became one of the most influential writers of the years around the turn of the 20th century.

During the 1890s, magazines were becoming the most important form of mass media in America. Unlike newspapers, which were limited geographically and by the tight schedules they had to maintain, magazines could publish authors who had time to investigate the background and history of current events. Ida Tarbell’s series of articles on Napoleon and on Abraham Lincoln made her one of the best-known and most influential writers in the country.

The story for which Ida Tarbell is best known is her account of the growth of the Standard Oil Company monopoly. Because her father had run a small oil company in Pennsylvania, Tarbell was especially interested in how the Standard Oil Company had taken over oil production and had destroyed many small oil companies. She spent months investigating how the Company had developed. She researched articles diligently, interviewing executives and reading archives. Between 1902 and 1904, her work was published in nineteen articles in McClure’s Magazine. They were also published as book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, which became a best seller. The impact of her work changed the way politicians and the public viewed the large corporations that had reshaped American business.

Ida Tarbell’s attitude toward women’s suffrage puzzled her friends and has caused consternation among some later writers who studied her life. Although her mother was strong in support of women’s suffrage, Ida Tarbell herself often downplayed its importance. She believed that many women found fulfilment and lived full lives without the vote, and that they would not gain much by suffrage. Perhaps one of the reasons for her attitude was that her life was very different from the lives of other women of her time.

Most women at the turn of the century knew men only as fathers, brothers, husbands, or sons. Ida Tarbell, however, worked with men as colleagues, bosses, and employees. She played an active and influential life, one that would not be changed much by an ability to vote. And at times, she seems to have seen the suffrage movement as an anti-male campaign. After the 19th Amendment was passed, however, she did support other women especially working women who had no choice but to work outside the home.

Ida Tarbell is a fascinating figure who had a great impact on the world of business and politics. There are several good biographies available. One recent one, which gives a lively account of her years with McClure’s Magazine, is Stephanie Gorton’s Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell and the Magazine that Rewrote America (2020).  

Women’s Work Is Never Done—or Paid For. Ellen Swallow Richards

These days as we try to cope with a frightening pandemic, we are accustomed to seeing pictures of women hovering over test tubes in laboratories developing vaccines and other medicines. News broadcasts feature pictures of doctors, both men and women,  swaddled in bulky protective equipment administering treatment for Covid 19 patients. Women in labs and hospitals have become the norm.

Now that science and medical services, not only in America, but around the world, are heavily dependent on women, it’s hard to believe that generations of women had to fight to be allowed to study and become part of these life-saving processes. What on earth were the men thinking?

Ellen Swallow Richards

In 1870, when Ellen Swallow, a graduate of Vassar College, who also held a masters degree in chemistry, tried to find further education, she was turned away from every laboratory and school where she applied. After great effort, a former professor of hers was able to get her admitted into the brand new Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but only on the grounds that her admission “did not establish a precedent for the general admission of females”. Were men really so frightened of women taking over their schools?

After two successful years of studies at MIT, Swallow’s thesis was accepted, but she was not given the PhD she had earned, because the school did not want to award an advanced degree to a woman. Nonetheless, Swallow stayed on at the school, married one of her fellow students, and continued to do research and to teach. She did not receive a salary but was supported by her husband who also continued to teach at MIT. It seems the men who claimed women did not have the ability to teach or do research, were perfectly willing to accept the benefits of women’s unpaid labor.

As time went by, Swallow was able became a consultant and helped to develop safe and sanitary water systems. In Massachusetts, she was responsible for the first state-wide sanitary water system in the United States. She applied her scientific knowledge to helping women to improve the domestic sanitation in their homes. Her book Food Materials and Their Adulterations (1885)  led to the passage of the first Pure Food and Drug Act in Massachusetts.  

Swallow continued to be tireless in her work to develop the scientific study of Home Economics and has often been called the founder of the ecology movement. During her long career, she received many honors and became a mentor to women who wanted to enter the fields of science and medicine. I have to wonder whether the men who tried so hard to keep her from studying science ever wondered how they could have gone so wrong.

There seems to be no easily available biography of Ellen Swallow Richards, but there is a long article about her in Wikipedia which includes a list of her many publications. For lighter touch, you can also read about Ellen Swallow as a character in Matthew Pearl’s mystery story, The Technologists (2012). Although the story is fiction, Pearl sticks close to the facts about the background of life at MIT in the years after it was founded and the experiences of Ellen Swallow.

2020–A Year We May Want to Forget

2020 has hardly been a year to remember, but it has been a year we will never forget. Our usual holiday celebrations have been downsized. Zoom calls have to substitute for hugs and kisses—not a good bargain. Many people have less money to spend on presents and many are worried about the future.  And worst of all, many families will be missing people who were part of the celebration last year.

There have been many bad years in the past. Our parents and grandparents lived through New Year observances that came in the midst of wars, depressions, and plagues. During the mid-nineteenth century, Christina Rossetti described the way she felt about an incoming year.   

Christina Rossetti

New Year met me somewhat sad:
Old Year leaves me tired,
Stripped of favourite things I had
Baulked of much desired:
Yet farther on my road to-day
God willing, farther on my way.

Christina Rossetti

Let us all hope that 2021 will find us farther on our roads. With a new administration in Washington, a Brexit agreement in Europe, and several new vaccines giving us some relief from the pandemic, we can hope to move into a new period of peace and healing throughout the world.

Wishing Everyone a Hopeful New Year!

Books I’ll remember from 2020

Reading the year-end lists of best books in newspapers and online during the past few weeks has inspired me to think about the books I read in 2020. Some of them are almost forgotten, but a few I remember well and think of often. Today I want to share some thoughts about three of the most memorable books of the year for me. I wonder whether any of them have caught your attention through the long months of this strange year.

FICTION

I’ve read very little fiction this year except for escapist mysteries that took me away from thoughts of shutdowns and pandemics but disappeared from mind soon after I turned the final page. There was one remarkable exception—Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara—a book that starts with a mystery but opens up a new view of the world we live in.

The book is set in a poor neighborhood in India. and the story is told by ten-year-old boy, Jai,  who decides to become a detective after one of the children in the neighborhood disappears. As he and his friends search for clues, several other children also disappear. The scenes of parents grieving for their children and struggling to provide some security for them are heartbreaking. Policemen routinely mistreat everyone from their poor neighborhood despite expecting bribes for the slightest service. The kids continue to be upbeat and energetic during their pursuit, but while the reader watches, the mystery grows deeper and more threatening. This book is gripping, and I am sure I will remember it long after 2020 is gone.

In an afterword, Anappara, a former journalist, tells us she wrote the book because she wanted a chance to focus on the common story of child-disappearances in India. While one book cannot begin to solve such a serious problem, it can at least make more people aware of what life is like in a part of the world that most of us seldom visit.

HISTORY

Every year brings new books about Shakespeare’s plays, but this year’s big Shakespeare book is different. Instead of focusing on the plays, James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America, looks at American history through the prism of those plays.

Taming of the Shrew

Shapiro describes how the productions of Shakespeare’s plays in this country have changed over the years. One of the first chapters describes how Othello was receivedin the early 1800s. The play roused great emotions about miscegenation and led to arguments about whether or not Othello was Black. Many years later, productions of The Tempest influenced the anti-immigration furor of the early 1900s. And then came arguments about the staging of Taming of the Shrew revealing different attitudes toward women and their place in the world.  Each generation has found a Shakespearean play that speaks to its current  preoccupations. And through all those generations, Shakespeare’s plays have been more influential in the United States than in any other country in the world.  

MEMOIR

I’ve admired Samantha Power ever since I read her startling book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide in 2013. After reading that, I followed her career as a journalist and her work as U.S. representative to the United Nations. But it wasn’t until I read her most recent book, The Education of an Idealist, that I learned much about her private life and development. This book is a straightforward memoir recounting her childhood in Ireland and covering the years up until 2016 when she left public life.

Uited Nations session

Power was born in 1970 and grew up in Ireland but moved to the United States with her mother and brother in 1979. She attended high school in Atlanta and then went to Yale University. After graduating from Yale, she decided to go to Bosnia where she began writing articles for prestigious newspapers and magazines. When she returned to the U.S., she went to Harvard Law School and continued her career as a writer and government official during the Obama administration. Her focus was on foreign policy and what the U.S. should do to fight genocide throughout the world. Her memoir gives the reader an account of the wins and losses she had to deal with in trying to hang onto her ideals and to influence government policy during those tumultuous years.

One of the things I liked best about this book is that Power gives us a glimpse of the day-to-day issues that arise for a woman combining marriage and motherhood with a demanding professional life. She avoids the trap of the “disappearing child” syndrome which causes many public figures to mention the births of their children but never to admit the overwhelming influence childrearing has on careers and lives. Power, in contrast, writes about her pregnancies, childcare, breast feeding and other aspects of motherhood which are usually ignored. I enjoyed the frank discussion of some of the decisions parents face as they combine family life with an active career.

BOOKS MENTIONED

Anappara, Deepa. 2020. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (NY: Random House).Power,

Power, Samantha. 2019. The Education of an Idealist; A Memoir (NY: Dey St William Morrow).

Shapiro, James. 2020. Shakespeare in a Divided America (NY: Penguin)
 

Despite all the bad things 2020 has brought, it has at least given many of us more time to read. And authors have kept us supplied with fascinating books. Let’s hope that 2021 continues to supply us with even more books to keep us reading.

Voting Rights for Some of the People Some of the Time

Although election day is still two weeks away, for many of us the election is all over but the counting. My ballot was mailed in this week and I’ve already been notified that it has been accepted and counted. State websites that let voters to track their ballots have made life easier for many of us. Thousands of people find it difficult to get to the polls on election day and this year the pandemic has made it dangerous as well as difficult. But not everyone can vote.

Sure you can vote if…

The story of voting in the United States has been a tale of expanding voting rights over the years. The framers of the Constitution could never have imagined that so many people in this country would be allowed to vote. They started out with the idea that a relatively small group of white men 21 years of age or older and substantial members of the community who owned property would be the ones who would go to the polls every four years to choose our leaders.

But many Americans were not content to let men of property determine all the laws. In various states men who did not own farms or other assets began demanding the right to vote. First the rules on property fell. Instead of having to own property or be wealthy, men who were merely respectable members of the community were allowed to vote. In some states, widows and women who owned property were also allowed to cast their ballots.

Finally by the mid-nineteenth century voting rights were extended by Constitutional Amendments which revolutionized the voting roles. On October 16, 2020, Jamelle Bouie wrote a column in the NY Times pointing out that the U.S. Constitution as it stands now was not written by the founding fathers. It has changed over the years especially by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which guaranteed voting rights to previously enslaved men.

Women in many states were still denied voting rights until the twentieth century. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment changed that so that states could not prohibit women from voting. And in 1965, the Voting Rights Act prohibited many of the measures that states had used to prevent African Americans and other minority groups from voting. The legal age for voting was soon extended to 18-year-olds instead of being limited to people over 21. Thousands of people were added to voting lists.

But states are still making voting difficult for many of us…

Change is not easy. States that were not allowed to charge poll taxes, soon came up with other schemes to make voting more difficult.

In the 2020 election, some states have set up new rules to keep voters from casting a ballot. Texas has ruled that only one ballot drop-off box can be set up in each county. If you don’t live close to a ballot drop-off site, you may have to travel 50 miles or more to get to the one closest to you. If you don’t own a car, you are on your own because there is no public transit offered.  It seems that Texas has decided on a new property requirement for voting. You may not be required to own a cow pasture, but you are required to own a car.  

Voting lines in Miami

And for people who want to vote on Election Day, some states are cutting down on the number of voting sites available. You can vote as long as you are healthy and strong enough to stand in line for six to eight hours. It is hard to believe that this is what the Founding Fathers intended when they planned for a democracy.

The only solution is to cast your vote if you possibly can…

This year when you cast your vote, it is not only a victory for you and the candidates you believe in, it also helps make up for all our fellow citizens who are being denied the right to vote. We owe it to our country to honor the freedom America has always stood for and will continue to stand for only if we use our voting power.

CAST YOUR BALLOT AND PROTEST UNFAIR VOTING RESTRICTIONS!

Happy Birthday ACLU

The American Civil Liberties Union, usually known simply as ACLU, is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. The year of its birth, 1920, was a year very much like our own. Many Americans were fearful of the future in which so many things were changing. The world had just survived a terrifying flu epidemic, women were demanding the right to vote and to decide their own lives, Russia had just installed a communist government and many Americans felt threatened by the success of revolutionary movements in Europe.

In 1917 the fear of radicals had led to the passage of the Espionage Act. Thousands of people were arrested for expressing radical ideas in speeches and publishing them in magazines. Often the government did not respect the traditional American rights to assemble and to speak freely about their ideas. It was in this climate that a small group of liberals started the ACLU in order to defend the traditional rights of free speech and freedom of assembly guaranteed by the constitution.  

Although the ACLU was originally supported mainly by people with liberal political views, in the years since its founding, questions have arisen about where it stands. Liberals cheered in 1925 when the ACLU stood up for the right to teach evolution in schools. Conservatives began to cheer for the ACLU as they supported Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute the flag in schools, defended white supremacists and supported the Citizens United decision that allows unlimited political contributions by corporations as well as individuals.

As an organization the ACLU has always been resistant to being categorized. People who strongly support it for one action may turn against it for another. Overall, it has earned the respect and gratitude of both liberals and conservatives, but never a year goes by that someone in one political camp or another doesn’t disagree with a specific action. Sticking by your principles in all situations has always been a difficult stance to maintain.

The fate of the ACLU has to some extent been mirrored in the fate of one of its important founders. Crystal Eastman, one of the most charismatic and well-known activists of the early 20th century, had been famous for years when she joined with others to start the ACLU. Eastman had been an activist fighting to gain women’s right to vote, to own property, and to equality in marriage. She was also a socialist and a dedicated pacifist during the years leading up to World War I. Like the organization she helped found, she refused to settle down to one theme in her life. She supported numerous causes but refused to be defined by them.

Crystal Eastman

During the first two decades of the 20th century more and more women supported the women’s suffrage movement. By the time of the 1916 election, both Democrats and Republicans were vying for the support of suffrage leaders. Many of these leaders, including Eastman, thought that the time for a women’s suffrage amendment was close at hand. Most of the same leaders were also eager to persuade the government not to enter the war which had started in Europe in 1914. Most of the suffrage leaders, decided that getting the vote for women was more important than trying to avoid going to war.

Crystal Eastman stood almost alone in deciding that her commitment to peace was more important at that time than her fight to get votes for women. She never stepped back from her suffrage work, but it became less important in her life. Perhaps that is one reason why she is less often remembered than some of the other suffragists. Many of the traditional suffragists who are honored for achieving votes for women had to sacrifice some of their other values to support that over-riding cause.

Wouldn’t it be nice if individuals like Crystal Eastman or groups like the ACLU could decide what values they upheld and move ahead toward them on a straight path? Instead, fighting for any ideal inevitably raises questions.

  • When does defending freedom of speech turn into support for hate speech?
  • When does a desire to maintain peace mean that we ignore death and suffering in foreign lands?
  • When does a person’s right to privacy justify ignoring possible security threats being planned by online groups?

These are the questions that keep idealists lying awake at night. And the truth is those questions will probably never be completely answered. But they are questions we should keep thinking about. Two books I’ve read recently offer a lot of food for thought. One is a new biography, Crystal Eastman: A Revolutionary Life by Amy Aronson and the other is the recent Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. Both of them raise many questions about how we set priorities in our personal and political lives. No answers—just questions. In the end we all have to find our own answers.

Showing Us a Different World–Nadine Gordimer

Books can erase the barriers of both time and place and July’s People by Nadine Gordimer is a novel that speaks to us today just as clearly as it spoke to readers when it was first published in 1981. This story about clashing cultures in South Africa almost forty years ago seems highly relevant to life in America in 2020.  

Nadine Gordimer

July’s People is set in a future that never happened, at least never quite in the way Gordimer describes it. A sudden, violent uprising by black Africans against the colonial rulers who dominate their country has led to the flight of Bam and Maureen Smales, a white couple from the wealthy suburb of Johannesburg where they have always lived a comfortable life. When violence breaks out and there is shooting in the streets, they finally realize they must leave. At the invitation of their servant, July, Bam and Maureen flee to the small rural village where July’s family lives. When the couple with their three young children settle into the village, they find welcome and safety. They also find an almost unbridgeable gulf between themselves and the villagers whose language they don’t understand, and whose way of life they have never experienced.

Gordimer’s exquisite language makes an unfamiliar place and culture both believable and important. Her vivid descriptions of the minute details of life in a South African village lets us feel the oppressive heat and see the unfamiliar scenes. As Maureen walks through the village, she notices things she has never seen before. Now we see them through her eyes:

Ants had raised a crust of red earth on the dead branches that once had formed a cattle-pen. With a brittle black twig she broke off the crust, grains of earth crisply welded by ants’ spit, and exposed the wood beneath bark that had been destroyed; bone-white, the wood was being eaten away, too, was smoothly scored in shallow running grooves as if by a fine chisel. She scraped crust with the aimless satisfaction of childhood, when there is nothing to do but what presents itself…

Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in South Africa to immigrant parents. Like other white citizens of South Africa, she lived a privileged life in a colonial society. She attended a private school as a child but was often kept home because her mother worried about Nadine’s health. Growing up isolated from other children, she read avidly and decided to become a writer. Later she attended the University of Witwatersrand, where she met many activists determined to change the injustices and racial inequalities of South Africa. She started publishing stories in South African magazines, and when one of her stories was accepted by the New Yorker in 1951, she became an internationally admired writer.  

Gordimer’s life was devoted to both writing and social activism. She was a friend of Nelson Mandela and other African leaders and traveled the world giving speeches about her books and about life and injustice in South Africa. Although her books were sometimes banned in South Africa, she became world famous, winning the Orange Prize, the Booker Prize and many others. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Some of her best-known books are Burger’s Daughter, The Conservationist, and The Pickup. Each of her books gives insight into life in Africa during the turbulent years of the late twentieth century. July’s People is a good place to start the journey through her world. I don’t think you’ll ever forget the trip.

Nadine Gordimer died in 2014. 

Equal Pay for Equal Scores—treat female athletes right

The United States Women’s Soccer team earned a well-deserved surge of publicity this week when it returned to New York as world champions for the fourth year in a row. Thousands of girls around the country undoubtedly watched the welcome parade and dreamed of a possible future for themselves as they celebrated the women’s victory. But we should remember that the women have still not won their struggle to get pay equal to male soccer players. It has taken a century for women athletes to get as far as this, but there is still work to be done.

U.S. Women’s Soccer Team

Over the years women have been pressured to stay out of sports and let the men do all the active work and get all the credit. The Olympic Games have only slowly and reluctantly welcomed women into competition. America’s first female Olympic champion was Margaret Ives Abbott. She was a young society woman from Chicago who played golf for pleasure and was very good at it. In 1900, she was in Paris studying art and heard there was a golf contest, so she signed up. That was the first year that golf had been part of the Olympic program and for a many years it was the only time. Not until 2006 was golf reintroduced as an Olympic sport. Margaret Abbott may have been a champion, but scarcely anyone noticed her achievement.

The first time the Olympic Games were held in the United States—in St. Louis in 1904—the only sport open for women was archery. Those games were among the most informal and disorganized of games because very few athletes were willing to make the long trek to St. Louis to participate.

Women’s Olympic swim team 1912

As the twentieth century went on, more and more women took up athletics and lobbied for a chance to compete in the Games. Some of the obstacles for women athletes were bizarre. In 1912 when the Games were held in Stockholm, women were allowed to participate in swimming, but America did not send any of its female swimmers. The reason? American organizers would not allow women to compete in any sport in which they could not wear long skirts. Although, as you can see from this picture, the swimsuits of 1912 were very modest by today’s standards.

Now at last the Olympic organization is working to make sure the 2020 Games will be equally divided between male and female athletes. This chart shows how the number of women participating and the sports they have chosen have changed over the years.

Professional sports seems to be a last bastion where women athletes are treated unfairly with lower salaries and fewer perks. Now that the excitement of the World Cup is over, let’s not forget Megan Rapinoe and the rest of the team. As their fight for equal pay fades from media coverage, we need to keep reminding the U.S. Soccer Federation and other overlords of athletic organizations that women do care about sports and we want to support women athletes.

From Bicycles to Surfing–freeing women to lead their lives

Fashion never sleeps, and the holiday season when people are planning end-of-year celebrations, is an especially active time. Fashion decrees what women should wear and influences how they lead their lives. The people who decide what is fashionable have usually been men. In fact, women who have chosen for themselves what they want to wear have often been harshly punished–either by law or, perhaps even more damaging, by laughter.

When Amelia Bloomer and several other leaders of the Women’s Suffrage movement during the mid-nineteenth century introduced the bloomer costume they were criticized and laughed at for their efforts. The Bloomer outfit consisted of a dress worn over wide pants. The obvious health benefits of not wearing a long, heavy skirt that scraped up dirt from the roadway and streets did not persuade men that women should be allowed to determine how they want to dress. As the activist AngelinaGrimke wrote, the bloomer dress suggested that women should have the freedom to move around the streets and participate in public events. It was the freedom the new style offered women that was frightening to many conservatives.

In the end it wasn’t disapproval as much as jokes and laughter that drove the sensible bloomer dresses from the streets of America. Relentless scorn in newspapers pushed women back to more conventional, and restrictive clothes. Bicycle costumes brought a brief revival of bloomer costumes in the 1890s, but they soon disappeared. It took more than fifty years for women to win the freedom to wear short skirts and eventually pants.

Now it is the turn of the Muslim world to design clothes for women that enable them to choose a lifestyle outside the sheltered walls of their family home. The DeYoung Museum in San Francisco currently has an exhibit of clothes designed for Muslim women. Many of them are in conventional styles showing some of the many varieties of clothing worn by Muslim women and other Middle Eastern women, but some of them offer glimpses of new lifestyles as well as new clothing styles.

Surfing costume

The exhibit shows outfits suitable for active sports, such as surfing, but all of them fit within the comfort zone of women following Muslim standards for dress. The DeYoung Museum may be too far away for you to visit, but the exhibit is accompanied by a lavish

catalog full of illustrations of some of the most exciting fashions now being shown anywhere—many of them designed by women to help women live more exciting, active lives. And if you cannot buy a copy for yourself, ask your local public library to buy one for the whole community to share. It is an eye-opening experience for everyone.

Do robots ask questions?

Reading about a 19th century woman forgotten by most history books may seem a long way from robots, but that was the path I followed this week. I met Mary Treat in Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel Unsheltered. If you have read reviews of Kingsolver’s book you probably know that Mary Treat was a well-known scientist who corresponded with Charles Darwin and with the Harvard botanist Asa Gray.

Textbook written by Mary Treat

Born in 1830 in upstate New York, Mary Treat received only the standard female education of the time, which did not include science. Universities did not admit women as students, so where did Treat’s knowledge about biology and botany come from? It seems to have been driven mainly by the curiosity. That is what led her to want to know about the life of the world around her. During the 1870s, she and her husband moved to Vineland, New Jersey, which was one of several Utopian communities built during the 19ths century. Situated close to the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, it was full of plants and creatures that had seldom been studied by scientists. Mary’s husband didn’t care much about plants or insects, so he soon disappeared from her life.

In Kingsolver’s novel, we are first introduced to Treat, as she is sitting in her living room patiently holding one of her fingers in the grip of a carnivorous plant. What drove this woman to study plants and insects while other women were concentrating on dress patterns and cookery? It seems to have been mainly curiosity—the quality that sets many human beings apart from most other species as they look for answers to thousands of questions about the world they live in.

You can ask almost any teacher about how they recognize the children who will someday go on to make a mark on the world and time and time again you get the answer “curiosity”.  Perhaps all children are born to ask questions, but many of them eventually give up the quest. Poverty and the stress of difficult family life and social conditions push some children into abandoning the gift of curiosity, but there are other reasons too.

For centuries men were considered to have a natural monopoly on education. They were the ones who went out into the world and searched for answers while the women stayed home. Women weren’t supposed to ask too many questions, but somehow despite this, some women, like Mary Treat, kept their curiosity alive. Treat made many contributions to biological sciences. Just think what she could have done if she had been accepted into Harvard and studied with Asa Gray instead of having to learn it all on her own?

One of the things that fascinates me about studying women’s history learning about how and why some women have overcome the obstacles in their path and kept their curiosity alive. If we could understand that, perhaps we could do a better job of encouraging both men and women, to use their curiosity to explore the world.

And what has this to do with robots? Well, one of the things about robots is that no matter how many questions they may learn to answer, or even to generate in a narrow task-focused area, they haven’t yet started to ask questions of their own. A workplace filled with robots that have been trained to do a task, will sit passively overnight or during a vacation shutdown. A workplace filled with human beings in a similar situation will come up with a dozen ways to escape their prison and move on to something more interesting. Until robots start asking questions, I don’t think we have to worry about them taking over the world.

Meanwhile we need to keep our children asking questions as they grow up and lead us into the future.