She Did It!

21 Women Who Changed the Way We Think


By Emily Arnold McCully

Illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully

Cover design or artwork by Emily Arnold McCully

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Prepare to discover new heroes among these twenty-one women who challenged the status quo, championed others, and made their voices heard. From Jane Addams to Alice Waters, from groundbreaking artists and social justice advocates to scientific pioneers and business innovators, a strong thread of trailblazing women runs through American history. Written in compelling, accessible prose and vividly illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Emily Arnold McCully, this collection of inspiring and expertly researched profiles charts the bold paths these women forged in the twentieth century.

The subjects profiled include:

Jane Addams Ethel Percy Drusilla Baker Gertrude BergRachel CarsonShirley ChisholmJoan CooneyIsadora DuncanBarbara GittingsTemple GrandinGrace HopperDolores HuertaBillie Jean KingDorothea LangePatsy MinkVera RubinMargaret SangerGladys TantaquidgeonIda M. TarbellMadame C. J. WalkerAlice WatersSecond Wave Feminism


AARP is a registered trademark. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2018 by Emily Arnold McCully
Cover illustration © 2018 by Liz Casal
Designed by Liz Casal
Cover design by Liz Casal

All rights reserved. Published by Disney Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Disney Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.

ISBN 978-1-368-02738-0


to every girl who
intends to help make the
world a better one

Ida Minerva Tarbell pioneered investigative journalism. At a time when the press would print anything that sold papers or magazines, Tarbell had a passion for facts. With a talent for finding buried secrets and the people willing to share them, Ida took on one of the most powerful men in the United States: John D. Rockefeller. The articles she wrote about his Standard Oil Company showed that it had succeeded by using unfair and illegal methods—and led to new laws about what businesses can and can’t do. Ida Tarbell’s career reminds us that a democracy must have fearless and accurate reporting for the people to be served.

ida tarbell was born on November 5, 1857, on her grandmother’s little farm in western Pennsylvania. Two years later, the Drake well struck petroleum (oil) just a few miles away. For the first time, people had figured out how to extract it from the ground. Oil was an ideal fuel to light lamps, grease machine parts to work smoothly, and, later, to run automobiles.

Thousands of people hoping to get rich quick rushed to western Pennsylvania to dig their own wells. Ida’s father, Franklin Tarbell, went there, too. Ida’s new home was surrounded by tree stumps, filthy oil spills, ghastly oil fires, horses that got stuck in the mud and died, bad smells, and deafening noises.

a curious child

Ida was a bright little girl, tall for her age, with a curiosity that got her in trouble at times. Once she tossed her baby brother into a creek to see if he would float. (He did.) Another time, she sneaked into a room to peer at the body of a woman who had burned up in a stove fire. That adventure brought on endless nightmares.

Ida read the Bible, but she was more interested in science. People who figured the Earth’s age based on what the Bible said believed it was six thousand years old, but the scientists Ida read said the Earth was much older. This was a shocking denial of Biblical teaching. So, too, was Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, which said animals and humans had a common ancestor: the ape. Ida was desperate for the truth. She wrestled with the differences between science and the Bible, and, on the topic of evolution, chose to believe science. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. No one in the family agreed with her.

After truth, Ida’s second great passion was fairness, and that is why John D. Rockefeller made her angry. Rockefeller owned a company called Standard Oil which used underhanded methods to drive small oil producers like Ida’s father out of business. The unfairness of Rockefeller’s practices and his contempt for the truth disgusted Ida.

rockefeller and standard oil

John D. Rockefeller, born in 1839, showed a precocious gift for making money. By age twenty, he had formed his own wholesale grocery company in Cleveland, Ohio. When the Drake well succeeded, he saw a new opportunity: refining, or turning raw petroleum into the kerosene that lit lamps around America.

Starting in 1863, Rockefeller bought one refinery, then built another. He branched out, buying land to make barrels, warehouses, and boats to store and transport oil. In time, his company, Standard Oil, controlled nearly all the oil refineries and pipelines in the United States. But Standard didn’t make its money honestly. Rockefeller crushed his competition by making secret deals with the railroads that carried oil to his refineries. He cut prices to force other companies out of business, then bought them up. After investigations like Tarbell’s turned the public against him, he gave away millions of dollars, becoming one of America’s most important philanthropists.

Fairness was an issue for Ida at home, too. Her father controlled the family finances, leaving her mother feeling powerless. Marriage itself seemed unfair. Ida began to realize that a career in any field would be difficult, if not impossible, if she were required to serve and obey a husband. She wanted to support herself and control her own life. When she was fourteen, she vowed never to marry.

women’s education

Ida was a serious girl and believed her life must have a purpose. By the time she graduated from high school, she had decided to become a biologist. That meant going to college. But few colleges admitted women. Nearby Allegheny College was one that did.

Ida was the only girl in her freshman class at Allegheny. At the time, it was widely believed that academic study—especially in the sciences—was harmful to women’s brains and reproductive organs. Ida was aware that her male classmates thought that having a woman in their classes meant the material had to be simplified. She was shy to begin with, and their disapproval made her acutely uncomfortable. It wasn’t long before she and the handful of intelligent girls who joined her won them over. And the lessons were not simplified.

Ida was lucky to find a sympathetic science professor who encouraged her to be a biologist. The scientific methods she learned—look beneath the surface, find proof—would later help make her a superb reporter.

becoming a journalist

Ida had only two choices as a woman college graduate: teach or become a missionary in her parents’ Methodist church. She took a job teaching at a school in Ohio. After two years of being overworked and underpaid, she returned to her family home in Pennsylvania, where her microscope was waiting. She hoped she could do some independent research. But very quickly the Reverend Theodore Flood came to dinner and asked her to help out on the magazine he edited, the Chautauquan. She accepted.

The Chautauquan was published by the Chautauqua movement. This group offered lectures and seminars by renowned figures on its campus in western New York and mail-order courses for people at home. Ida’s broad education and intense curiosity made her the ideal person to answer questions from readers who had no reference books at home and were confused by articles in the magazine.

She was a natural at journalism and enjoyed working with the magazine’s employees. They were mostly women and became Ida’s friends. She mastered all the details of magazine production and became indispensable to the editor. When her first articles were published, she was thrilled to see her name in print.

Ida stayed with the magazine for six years. In that time, the steel, oil, and railroad businesses grew quickly. Wealth in these industries was concentrated among a small number of “robber barons,” men who grew rich at a time when government did not regulate businesses. Immigrant labor was cheap, and natural resources and the environment were not protected. Ida personally kept up with national and world events—and she thought the Chautauquan should pay more attention to them, too. “All about me were people who at least believed themselves materially secure,” she said. “They lived comfortably within their means, they were busy keeping things as they were, preserving what they had.” Ida didn’t want to be comfortable—she wanted to be challenged and take part in the world. She was almost thirty and wondered: Did she have a future at the Chautauquan? What, now, was the purpose of her life?

To find out, she took a bold step. In 1890, she quit her job and moved to Paris. She had one hundred dollars in her pocket and no job prospects, except the slim hope she could sell articles about France to US newspapers.

breaking free

Paris in 1890 was in its Belle Époque, a time between wars when many French people were well off and enjoyed the arts. But Ida lived hand to mouth. Once she even pawned her coat. Still, the city thrilled her, and she managed, in time, to sell articles. She made friends and visited salons—intellectual discussion groups—led by women. She dreamed of having her own salon.

Tarbell was planning to make Paris her permanent home. Then one day, a sandy-haired, blue-eyed, fast-talking Irish American bounded up four flights to her rented room. He introduced himself as Sam McClure and asked her to join his brand-new magazine in New York. Ida had heard of him. McClure was a brilliant, ambitious man, blessed with charm. Alas, there was no money to fund the flood of ideas he had for his magazine—though he didn’t tell Ida that. (She soon found out.)

Ida Tarbell stayed in Paris, sending articles to McClure’s. But Sam kept begging until she came back to the United States to join the staff. Before long, she and her colleagues would include all the great “muckrakers.” They were a new kind of reporter: one who investigated corruption that hurt ordinary people.

pioneer muckraker

At first, the new magazine struggled to find subscribers who would pay to receive it every month. McClure, on a hunch, decided that a series of articles about Napoleon Bonaparte, who had once ruled as emperor of France, would attract readers. It did. McClure’s circulation doubled.

Next, McClure assigned Tarbell to write about an American hero, Abraham Lincoln. She was to roam the nation, interviewing people who had known the president. A lone woman on the road made people suspicious at first, but she won their trust and gathered a load of stories.

Tarbell already worshipped Lincoln. To her, he had had the same disappearing pioneer values as her father: He was smart, skilled, brave, honest, and witty. Her twelve-part Lincoln series ran in 1895–96 and boosted the magazine’s circulation again, to over three hundred thousand, higher than that of any rival magazine.

In 1899, McClure brought Tarbell back to New York to be the magazine’s desk editor (manager). McClure was in and out of the office, always in a state of nervous excitement, full of ideas, ordering his staff to go out and find more news! He needed a cool head to keep order, and Ida Tarbell had one. She quickly earned the respect and affection of her colleagues.

McClure’s had exposed corruption in city governments and on Wall Street, New York City’s financial center. President Teddy Roosevelt, who favored new laws to protect the people from dishonest business, took notice. But sending reporters around the country to write great stories was expensive, and McClure’s finances were shaky. Tarbell and her editors needed to find another great story.

Sam McClure’s idea was trusts, a secretive method of organizing businesses to help them defeat the competition. Several trusts had recently been formed in the steel, sugar, coal, and oil industries. But what was the hook that would grab the world’s attention? One day as Tarbell began musing about her childhood in the oil regions, her colleagues realized their subject was John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company—and Tarbell was the one to write about it.

the history of standard oil

Word of the new project got out. People warned Tarbell that the secretive and vindictive Rockefeller would ruin the magazine. With so much at stake for the powerful company—nicknamed “the Octopus” for the many businesses and politicians it controlled—she herself might be harmed. Sources in the oil business would refuse to give her information about Standard. Ida ignored the threats.

Congress had investigated Standard Oil’s practices several times, so Tarbell assumed she would simply read through all the records. But she soon discovered that most of the crucial records had been hidden or destroyed. Tarbell kept digging and even interviewed Standard employees when she could. One executive at Standard, Henry Rogers, actually offered to speak to her, thinking she’d write flattering things about him. He put a stop to their meetings when she learned too much from other sources. However badly Standard Oil had treated her father, Ida wrote a fair history of the company and its rapid rise to power over the oil industry.

Tarbell’s series about Standard Oil began in McClure’s in 1902 and ran for nineteen installments. It proved the company had gotten discounted rates for shipping oil through dishonest practices, giving Standard an edge over the competition to smash it out completely. Facts were what mattered to Tarbell. Her case was airtight. Tarbell’s exposé of Standard Oil was as popular and interesting as a thriller.

More important, her articles changed public opinion and got the government to act. In 1911, the US Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil had broken the law. The giant company was forced to divide into smaller pieces.

Ida Tarbell was forty-eight when the series was completed. In 1904, her book The History of the Standard Oil Company was published, becoming the most important business book of the century.

democracy dies in darkness

Even when Tarbell was well into her eighties, the press continued to ask her opinions on important questions of the day. She always responded modestly and clearly. Her celebrity faded a little but never disappeared. She had fought tirelessly for fairness, ethics, and a United States of America where everyone could make a living. She had helped to invent investigative journalism. In today’s era of fake news and “curated news,” where people can read only what they want to, the United States needs honest, thorough reporting more than ever for democracy to survive.


In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term muckraker to describe journalists who were seeking to expose scandals and corruption among political and business leaders. “The men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society,” he remarked in a speech. But he also thought journalists were going too far in their exposés, accusing them of concentrating only on the negative, like the man with the muck rake in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. As an exasperated Tarbell pointed out, the man in Bunyan’s tale was a symbol of the corrupt rich who could not take their eyes off their dirty muck—not of those exposing them. Still, the term muckraker stuck.

As tenements in US cities filled with immigrants in the late 1800s, Jane Addams changed the way people thought about the poor. Before then, Americans mostly depended on relatives and religious organizations for help during hard times. But when waves of immigrants arrived, often without family, their needs overwhelmed private charities. In 1889, Addams founded Hull House in Chicago’s factory district to try to improve the lives of its residents. On a wider scale, Addams became a potent political force—a leader in the battle against child labor and for education, a crusader for women’s suffrage and world peace. In 1931, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

jane addams was born on September 6, 1860, in Cedarville, Illinois, the eighth of nine children. Her father, John Addams, was a well-to-do mill owner and banker. A state senator and strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln, he helped found the Illinois Republican Party. Partly because she associated Lincoln with her father, Jane credited the president with influencing her life and work.John Addams, like “Honest Abe,” was known for his integrity. Even during the Civil War, when contracts to supply the Union Army went to businesses with political connections, no one ever dared try to bribe John Addams for favors. Jane adored her high-minded father. But she constantly worried that she was falling short of his expectations.

a childhood of loss

Jane Addams lost her mother when she was two. At four, she contracted tuberculosis of the spine. She saw herself as an “ugly pigeon-toed little girl, whose crooked back obliged her to walk with her head held. . .upon one side.” Her appearance made her painfully self-conscious but also deeply sympathetic to others.

One day, she went with her father to a nearby mill in the poorest section of town. As she later recalled: “On that day I had my first sight of the poverty. . . .I remember launching at my father the pertinent inquiry why people lived in such horrid little houses so close together, and. . .I declared with much firmness when I grew up I should, of course, have a large house, but it would. . .[be built]. . .right in the midst of horrid little houses like these.”

She was expressing the prejudice people often feel toward the poor, yet with no inclination to separate herself from them.

A desire to help others was central to Jane’s personality. So was a strong sense of responsibility. But when she was young, she lacked the confidence to carry out these feelings, as a dream once illustrated: Everyone else in the world was dead, and it was up to her to reinvent a wagon wheel. There was a forge in the dream, but she could only stare at it, paralyzed, not knowing where to start.

Wanting to care for others, Jane planned to become a doctor, a remarkable idea for a girl at that time. The first woman doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell, had graduated in the mid-1800s, and by 1880, only about twenty-four hundred women practiced medicine in the country. At a time when women were discouraged from every profession, Jane thought studying science would make others take her seriously. But few institutions offered even a bachelor’s degree to women. Jane set her sights on one of them, Smith College.

Her father (who remarried when Jane was eight) seems never to have praised or encouraged her. He refused to let her go to Smith, ordering her instead to attend the local Rockford Seminary. He argued that her first duty would always be to her family. Jane was crushed, but she obeyed him.

Rockford turned out to have an excellent faculty. Most important to Jane’s future, she found a group of serious-minded classmates who loved to discuss ideas, especially those surrounding the battle for women’s rights. Her closest friend was Ellen Gates Starr, who was as cheerful and lively as Jane was passionate and serious.

searching for purpose

Jane graduated at the top of her class and planned to go to Smith to prepare for medical school. Again, her father put his foot down, saying her duty was to family. Soon after, he died suddenly of a ruptured appendix. Jane was devastated. The meaning was ripped from her life. But her father’s death also opened a door. Jane, her sister, and her stepmother decided to move to Philadelphia to join Jane’s stepbrother who studied medicine there. Jane enrolled in Philadelphia Women’s Medical College.

But worsening pain from her childhood spine ailment soon sent her to the hospital. She lay strapped to a bed for six months. She was told her back was too weak for her to ever have children. She didn’t return to college, but she recovered enough to travel.

In Europe she wrestled with herself over how she could carry on her father’s greatness. She spent two years visiting cathedrals and museums, even a bullfight, but she was most drawn to the poorer districts of cities. She saw there were ways other than practicing medicine to help the needy. One was the new “settlement movement,” in which volunteers lived in a lower-income area and offered education, health care, and other services to poor people. As factory-manufacturing in cities replaced individual skilled work, crowded city slums were increasingly filled with people unable to earn enough to support their families.

Her curiosity about the settlement movement took her to East London’s Toynbee Hall, founded in 1884 to try to address increasing poverty. Toynbee Hall provided lodging and a center where wealthy university graduates could live among and help the poor. The goal of its founders was to end poverty altogether. Jane Addams was deeply moved by what she saw.

She decided to found her own settlement house. She talked it over with Ellen Starr, who was now teaching in Chicago. Ellen, whose nature was to see possibilities rather than difficulties, readily agreed to be Jane’s partner. Their settlement house would be located in an industrial neighborhood in Chicago where struggling factory workers and immigrant families lived.

attitudes toward poverty before jane addams

Until Jane Addams brought the settlement movement to America, attitudes toward poor people were often negative. If people were strong enough to work, the reasoning went, then it was their own fault if they couldn’t support their families. In 1855, an article in the New York Times described parts of the city “crowded with the poorest” where “lazy, loafing men” were hanging around. So poor people were sent to dreaded places called poorhouses and forced to work in dirty conditions for bad food. Their children went to orphanages, where conditions weren’t much better.

charity begins at home

Addams and Starr developed their mission statement: “To provide a center for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago.” The term higher showed that they believed in promoting culture—art, music, and literature—as a way of uplifting the poor. Theirs was a lofty purpose. In a society that had suddenly produced extremes of wealth and poverty, they wanted everyone to have equal opportunities. They would use trial and error to determine what worked. After years of passivity and doubt, Addams had a clear goal and was bursting with energy and ideas.

The old mansion they leased, Hull House, had been built decades earlier. At times it had contained a shop, a home for the elderly, and a factory. The attic was said to be haunted. The surrounding streets stank of uncollected garbage. The mostly foreign-born residents didn’t know how to demand city services, and their elected officials were famously corrupt.

Into that setting, Addams moved with her family heirlooms, paintings, and silver to create an atmosphere of beauty and comfort for her clients. She and Starr began raising money from donors. Their mostly Irish, German, and Polish neighbors greeted the women with suspicion. Why were such well-off single women moving there? Boys threw stones that broke the windows.

an idea takes shape

Addams and Starr opened a day care center, the city’s first kindergarten, clubs for boys and girls, handicrafts classes, and a battered-wife shelter. They added a coffeehouse, gymnasium, and swimming pool. Before long, the women were nursing the sick, washing newborns, and preparing corpses for burial. Hull House was becoming the heart of the community.

By its second year, two thousand people were showing up every week, wanting help and advice and using Hull House’s programs. Education—always Addams’s first priority—was offered at every level, from kindergarten to night school college courses. There were music lessons, a lending library, a drama group, discussion groups of every kind, and an employment office. Helping workers find jobs also meant helping them join unions to bargain for better wages and conditions so they would not be at the mercy of employers. Residents were consulted on each new undertaking, neighborhood girls assisted in children’s classes, and young men taught in the gymnasium.

Hull House attracted more young women committed to social work. In addition to running the various programs, these women tried to solve pressing issues of the day. Addams and her associates investigated and protested dangerous working conditions, especially for children, and asked their clients if their families had nutritious meals.

Every day some crisis seemed to arise—and with it a new lesson. On their first Christmas, for example, Hull House handed out candy to the children. Several girls refused it: They worked in a candy factory and couldn’t stand the sight of it. After a small boy was killed in an accident at a factory, Addams discovered the owners had made his parents sign a form saying the company was not responsible for “carelessness.”

Addams became increasingly political. She pushed the city of Chicago to pass laws to improve safety, health, and sanitation. She pressed for laws to make all children go to school. When the mayor appointed Addams its first female garbage inspector, it was hot news. The publicity helped her to battle corruption and injustice.

onto the world stage

As she played a bigger part in city life, Addams was appointed to Chicago’s Board of Education. And when workers at the Pullman Company struck for higher wages, disrupting train travel all over the country, she was the one who stepped in.

the pullman strike of 1894

The Pullman Car Works in southern Chicago built railroad cars—and dominated the lives of its workers. They labored sixteen hours a day, and many lived in poor housing in Pullman’s company town. When the company cut its workers’ pay by 30 percent, it made no cuts in the cost of rent and said it would fire workers who didn’t live in their town. Near starvation, the workers went on strike in May 1894. Other railroad workers joined the strike until two hundred thousand people had stopped working.


  • "A rich and multilayered celebration of women's innovation and perseverance."—Publishers Weekly
  • "The illustrations, consisting of portraits and spot art over white backgrounds, are striking and whimsical. A thorough introduction to the women's-rights movement and its American origins."—Booklist
  • "[T]his book provides insights into the lives of important women, many of whom have otherwise yet to be featured in nonfiction for young readers."—Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
Nov 4, 2018
Page Count
272 pages

Emily Arnold McCully

About the Illustrator

Emily Arnold McCully was born left-handed in Galesburg, Illinois. She has written and illustrated numerous books for children and young adults, including Mirette on the High Wire, for which she received the Caldecott Medal. Emily is also the author of A Promising Life: Coming of Age with America and Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Challenged Big Business–and Won! (a finalist for the YALSA Best Nonfiction Book of the Year). She has two grown sons, one grandson, and lives in New York City and Columbia County, New York, where she grows flowers and vegetables. You can visit her online at

Learn more about this illustrator