Love it or hate it, you may know the name Mother Jones from the progressive news magazine & website. But its namesake, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was a fearless fighter for the working class and a tireless labor activist. Her opponents in industry and congress labeled her “The most dangerous woman in America!” Jones combined radical organizing methods and energetic speeches to mobilize thousands of lower-class workers into unions between 1872 and 1924. She literally shaped the way civil disobedience could be used to fight for economic justice.
The fiery Mary Harris Jones actually started her life quite humbly. She was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1837. Her family was one of the starving thousands that fled the Irish Potato Famine and emigrated across the Atlantic. They landed first in Canada, where her father worked laying railroad tracks, and eventually settled in the United States. She went to school in Toronto, then moved to the US to begin a career as a simple dressmaker in Tennessee.
Young Mary Harris experienced far too many tragedies in her early life. In Memphis, she married George Jones in 1861, an iron worker and active member of the Iron Molders’ Union. He fought for workers’ rights at a time when unions were still in their infancy. In rapid succession, they had four young children together. But a devastating yellow fever epidemic in 1867 killed her husband and ALL FOUR children. She was only 30.
“One by one, my four little children sickened and died. . . I sat alone through nights of grief. No one came to help me.”
In shock and heart-broken, Mary moved to Chicago and opened a seamstress shop, sewing clothes for the wealthy residents of the North Side. It has here, watching workers slave away in factories, that Mary’s resentment for economic inequality began to bubble. But then suddenly, tragedy struck again. She lost both her home and shop in The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (see related blog post).
With all her possessions in ashes, Mary sought shelter with the Knights of Labor. There, she slowly began to see the labor movement as her new family, and started working as a activist. She would commit the rest of her life to the struggle for humane wages and working conditions.
Mary found her voice and began giving inspirational speeches to encourage workers to unionize. She traveled to numerous strikes, helping coal miners in Pennsylvania in 1873 and railroad workers in 1877. From 1880 onward, Jones participated in hundreds of strikes across the country. The way in which she genuinely cared for any and all workers earned her the well-deserved nickname “Mother” Jones.
They also called her the “Miner’s Angel,” but rejected that label, saying bluntly, “I’m no angel.” Mother Jones became an active campaigner for the United Mine Workers Union in West Virginia. In the 1890s, she mobilized miners’ wives to march with brooms and mops in order to block company strikebreakers from entering the mines.
She once proudly said of herself, “I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser!”
Her movement assisted both the United Mine Workers and the American Railway Unions, which launched major strikes for living wages in 1894. For Jones, it was about more than just a fair union contract. She argued that miners should be able to direct their own economic destinies, a radical idea at the time.
Mother Jones even encouraged militant action when warranted. While the militias and the strikes were often brutally crushed, they helped perfect Jones’ methods for mobilizing struggling communities. She emerged from these skirmishes undeterred, inspired by the new labor and socialist movement.
She was considered by the authorities (both corporate and political) to be a dangerous radical. Five-feet tall, now with snow-white hair, and in an all-black dress, Jones was indeed a confrontational presence. When she was mocked as the “grandmother of all agitators,”
Mother Jones replied that she would someday be known as “the great-grandmother of all agitators!”
She believed in organizing at the community level to demonstrate to workers their capacity to manage their own destiny. Wherever she went, she entered into the lives of the toilers and truly became a part of them. She put women and children at the center of struggles, making it a family-based movement.
One of Jones’ key contributions was building unions that bridged racial and ethnic divides. She believed that unskilled immigrants and blacks should be included as well. She condemned white supremacy and argued that black and immigrant workers were some of the best union members.
Oddly, Mother Jones opposed Women’s Suffrage. She feared that focusing on the vote was diverting working-class women from more important economic justice. She saw the suffrage movement as only a rich women’s distraction. “You don’t need a Vote to raise Hell!” she proclaimed.
A political progressive, she was a founder of the Social Democratic Party in 1898. Jones also helped establish the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, and published numerous articles in the International Socialist Review.
When asked where she lived, Mother Jones replied that her home was “wherever there was a fight.”
Jones insisted that the government address social injustice as well. Demanding child labor laws, she organized children textile workers to march on President Theodore Roosevelt’s Oyster Bay home in 1903. In 1914, the Colorado militia massacred 20 women and children in a miners’ tent colony. Jones persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to intervene and negotiate a truce.
At other times, the authorities were not so tolerant of Mother Jones. When violence broke out during a 1912 miners strike in West Virginia, the court convicted her, at age 82, to 20 years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder. Nationwide rallies and protests led the governor to quickly commute her sentence. Undeterred, she returned to organizing workers. Nothing it seemed could dissuade Mother Jones from her work.
Mary was also a global organizer who believed in a world-wide labor revolution. By 1910, she was fighting for Mexican labor rights against the country’s dictatorship and its US supporters. When she finally traveled to Mexico City in 1921, workers showered her with red carnations and blue violets, calling her “Madre Juanita.”
Newspapers of the day called her a “Folk Hero” or “the most well-known woman in America.”
Mother Jones lived her last years with friends in Silver Spring, MD. In 1930, her life was celebrated with special labor events across the country. She even gave her last speech for an Edison moving picture camera. She died in November of that year. A friend of laborers to the end, she asked to be buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Illinois, next to victims of a 1898 mine riot. Her funeral was attended by thousands.
Mother Jones was truly an inspirational folk hero to generations of American laborers for over 6 decades. Many of her dreams were not realized in her lifetime, but they did in fact come to pass after World War II, when our grandfathers returned home as GIs. They took jobs in countless factories and mills scattered across the US and, yes, joined countless labor unions. These unions ensured fare pay, benefits, and pensions to millions of American men and women of the Greatest Generation.