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Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones (1837-1930): Labor Activist and Organizer, Speaker, Teacher
By: Michael Barga
Introduction: The early roles of Mary Harris Jones were schoolteacher, dressmaker, wife to a union activist, and mother of four children. Tragedies led to the loss of these roles and taking up of a dynamic life in labor movement activism which placed her in the national spotlight. She is known as a fiery speaker and organizer who considered her home wherever oppression was present, and ‘Mother’ Jones was active in New York, Colorado, and even Mexico. She prided herself in the title ‘Mother’ given to her by workers starting in 1897, as well as embracing the title “the most dangerous woman in America” given to her by a U.S. district attorney. ‘Mother’ Jones is considered a major figure in the narrative of American labor whose legacy has given her an almost mythical quality.
Education and Career: Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones was born in Cook County, Ireland to a Catholic farming family and immigrated to Canada to escape the potato famine. Her exact birth year is uncertain but may have been from 1830-1844, although most scholars accept 1837. Jones’ education was vocational and led to later work as a dressmaker and teacher during her early years in Chicago and Tennessee respectively. As a teacher, she married iron molder George Jones who was active in the union. Her four children and husband died in a yellow fever epidemic in 1867, and the Iron Molders union paid for their funerals holding a meeting in his honor.
The following notice appeared in the Iron Molders’ Journal :
Memphis, Tenn., October 20, 1867.
At a special meeting of Iron Molders’ Union, No. 66, held October 15th, 1867, the following preamble and resolutions were unanimously adopted in respect to the memory of our departed brother, George E. Jones:
Whereas, It has pleased Almighty God, in his infinite wisdom, to remove by death, after a short but painful illness, an earnest and energetic brother; therefore be it
Resolved, That we truly sympathize with the widow and relatives of our deceased brother, and offer our condolence for their irreparable loss in this world; hoping that God may reveal that all things work together for our good.
Resolved, That a copy of these resolutions be presented to his widow and other relatives, and also be published in the daily papers of this city and I. M. I. Journal.
Before the young Mary Harris Jones moved back to Chicago to take up her previous occupation as a dressmaker, her immediate response to the loss of her family was service towards others who had yellow fever in quarantined houses.
Mary did work for some of the wealthiest women in the city whose lives sharply contrasted the poor’s experience of wandering the streets in dire conditions. She was particularly disturbed by the fact that her “employers seemed neither to notice nor to care.“1 In 1871, tragedy struck Jones again when the great Chicago fire burned her shop and left her nearly penniless. Her response to losing everything was similar to that when she lost her family; she had greater awareness and empathy with those who seemed to have nothing left despite day-after-day of tireless work. Jones would get personally involved in these workers’ situations, placing herself at risk just as she had in serving those afflicted with yellow fever in Tennessee.
The drastic changes in her own life were accompanied by changes to the nature of work caused by the industrialization of the United States. One response to these changes was the Knights of Labor, a secret organization of peaceful workers. Mary became involved at the invitation of an iron molder from Tennessee who knew her husband, and any plans for getting back into the dress-making business were left behind as she discovered a talent in public speaking that even she had previously not realized.
The Knights were idealists who did not believe in strikes or the violence that often was associated with direct worker opposition actions to management. Their hope lay in collectives owned and fairly run by the workers themselves who currently contributed so much to the success of the business and wealth of the owners. Jones became an organizer of meetings, recruiter of new members, and familiar face to the poor throughout Chicago in these early years.
Her relationship with the Knights would continue throughout the remainder of her life, and her active role, as a woman, was a rarity in the Knights during this time. A statement in her later years shows her encouragement for union involvement by women even before the passage of suffrage: I have never had a vote and I have raised hell all over this country. You don’t need a vote to raise hell. You need convictions and a voice.2
She remained loyal to the Knights’ peaceful mission but often doubted their position on strikes and more assertive tactics. From the late 1870’s until shortly before her death in 1928, ‘Mother’ Jones would begin supporting those who more directly opposed industrialists and eventually embarrassed those who shied away from such protest. She particularly took to miners, and some would call her the “Miner’s Angel” in addition to her other nicknames. Her first encounter with a serious strike occurred in 1877 in Pittsburgh. Local railroad workers and their families, already in severe poverty, refused to accept another wage cut. The strike episode ended in arrests and deaths, including some children in the crowd, at the hands of troops brought from out of the area.
Mary returned to Chicago after seeing the turbulence of the “Great Upheaval,” a depression that had placed 4 million workers out of jobs at one point. Jones began lengthy conversations with Terence V. Powderly, a firm believer in the Knights’ method of gentle pressure on the government to affect change rather than the lost cause of temporary strikes. Mary contended that leaders in the labor movement needed to act more boldly so strikes could be won and favorable changes could be sustained.
In the early 1880’s, Mary Jones took interest in the creation of many radical groups in Chicago which spoke of a future filled with peace and justice for all. Still, she considered these groups lacking a plan and the practicality that would bring about the future of which they spoke. By 1885, Jones saw strikes of workers across the city which culminated in the Haymarket Square incident. The incident occurred in spring 1886. Marchers were calling for an eight-hour day and a national strike on the first of May to press the issues with employers.
Mary had given her support through fundraising and speaking, but the “un-American” crowd of mostly immigrants was joined by police officers at the end of the demonstration. A bomb went off that injured some of the officers leading to open shooting and an eventual prosecution and conviction of anarchist leaders, including seven executed by the state. Mary felt Powderly, now leader of the Knights, had failed the labor movement by not standing for the injustice of the trial, while Powderly felt the organization must not become associated with violence in any way. She could no longer minimize her disagreements with the Knights’ tactics and left Chicago to travel as a labor organizer, although she would remain friends with Powderly and other Knights throughout her life.
This early period of traveling is undocumented but likely mirrors her later agenda of going where the next strike was to occur. Her public speaking, filled with wit, rhythm, and antagonism, was an asset wherever she went and was matched by a genuine care for workers and their families. ‘Mother’ Jones name begins appearing in the newspapers around 1890, and she was enlisted by the United Mine Workers to help set up local branches throughout the country.
Norton, Virginia was the site of ‘Mother’ Jones’ first coalmine strike in 1891. She held her meeting on the highway since the Dietz mining company had threatened most of the establishments favorable for her assembly. Despite her efforts to avoid troubles, she ended up getting arrested anyhow. In her autobiography, Jones recalls that paying a related $25 fine may have saved her life. Many in the town believed there was a plot to place her in jail and secretly kill her if she had not paid the amount due. In the end, this first strike would be a failure, conditions were maintained, and the union leaders were fired by Dietz. In 1894, she helped organize a reception and speech for Eugene Debs, the founder of the American Railway Union, in light of opposition by the chief of police. It was a rallying moment for another strike that would go on to fail, this time for miners in Birmingham, Alabama.
After Birmingham, Mary Jones held temporary jobs in factories and mills around the south. She found that women and children appeared to be the most common employees and decided to return to the North and west where the labor fight was at least being fought by grown men.2 By 1897, leaders of the labor movement including Debs and Samuel Gompers recognized Jones’ ability to organize miners and their families. While at a conference in Wheeling, WV, she was asked to be on salary for United Mine Workers (UMW) as an organizer, a position she accepted. The conference was connected to a series of strikes which had ultimately unsuccessful results. Later in 1897, she addressed men at a railway union convention where her most famous nickname, ‘Mother’ Jones became a staple among the men.
Mary was never discouraged by failures. She would meet with the men to sign them up with a union, while encouraging the women and children to non-violently create a ruckus at locations where strikebreakers were expected. Some of her early successful work was with Pennsylvania miners, whose membership climbed to 100,000 from an original 8,000. Jones had assisted strikers in winning a ten percent wage increase. She returned to WV to help a drive and was considered a new force by other leaders, yet ‘Mother Jones’ tried to live the life of miners. Even if she could afford it, she ate the food a miner would eat, stayed in the cramped quarters of mining families, and scolded other leaders who did not share her passionate yet principled commitment.
‘Mother’ Jones appealed to the miners as a person rather than a professional. She was willing to encourage but also willing to express anger and make accusations at miners who would not face up to their employers. Miners were used to such treatment from their wives and mothers who largely held the community together while they were on the job. While she appealed to their religious convictions, Jones was a huge critic of the churches that refused to preach about the brutality of coal mine guards and starvation of their own children. From 1901-1902, great progress was made in southern West Virginia led by Mary’s efforts, and UMW President Mitchell asked her to switch to the northern part of the state which was still struggling.
In June of 1902, a statewide strike was organized which led to arrests, brutal beatings, and deaths of organizers and workers alike. Injunctions were granted daily to prevent speeches and meetings on the grounds that the strike events would disrupt the peace, yet Mary defiantly continued her work leading to a court marshal, another one of her many arrests. In court, she insulted the judge and was given a suspended sentence that forbade her to go to jail since he felt Jones was posing as a martyr. The strike would end in a massacre of eight miners and limited success.
At this time, ‘Mother’ Jones focused on events related to children’s labor capped by a march from Philadelphia to New York in the summer of 1903 which stirred publicity and sought an audience with President Roosevelt. One speech corresponding to this time took place at Coney Island and illustrates her brutally honest style:
“Fifty years ago there was a cry against slavery, and the men of the North gave up their lives to stop the selling of black children on the block. To-day the white child is sold for $2 a week, and even by his parents, to the manufacturer. Fifty years ago the black babies were sold C.O.D. (Cash on Delivery). To-day the white baby is sold to the manufacturer on the installment plan. He might die at his tasks and the manufacturer with the automobile and the yacht and the daughter who talks French to a poodle dog, as you can see any day at Twenty-third Street and Broadway when they roll by, could not afford to pay $2 a week for the child…“3
When she returned to West Virginia, her activities led to a court marshaled house arrest. She was eventually released based on the illegal nature of the governor’s action highlighted by the outrage of the public and media, who were well acquainted with her at this point. Another key event in Mother Jones’ many involvements in the labor movement was a “machine-gun massacre” in Ludlow, Colorado. National Guardsmen raided a tent colony of workers and their families resulting in 20 deaths, mostly women and children in the summer of 1914. Not long after, Mother Jones would testify before Congress about the event which was just another opportunity to get the story of injustice in public awareness.
Mary ‘Mother’ Jones turned down a comfortable life in her later years with her brother in Canada and the Powderly household in the D.C. suburbs to continue her work. She continued her ever-varying work, campaigning for Senator John Kern in the 1916 elections based on his previous sympathy toward her and the labor cause. In 1917, ‘Mother’ came to the aid of a protester of WWI who had been set up as the perpetrator of a bombing. In 1918, she continued her work on the west coast and ended up arrested at a steelworkers speaking engagement. After a speaking engagement with a Mexican labor organization in 1921, she began to stay with the Powderly’s in Silver Spring, MD more often.
‘Mother’ Jones last strike appearance occurred in Chicago on behalf of dressmakers in 1924. She passed away in 1930 in her 90’s, but Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones is considered one of the most significant figures in the labor movement. Her legacy and somewhat legendary status continue to this date, most notably through her autobiography and the labor magazine named “Mother Jones” in her honor.
Initially, her autobiography had limited success. Historians scrutinized it for its inaccuracy which has been acknowledged since the first edition. In addition, the work does not contain personal reflections by ‘Mother’ Jones or information unavailable by public record. Critics also believe she did not discuss her disagreements and scorns of union leaders in the autobiography. Instead, Jones appears to be drawing positive attention to the labor movement as a whole in her autobiography, and the first edition failed to have the impact of her many speeches, falling out of print rather quickly.
In the early 1960’s, a wave of interest led to republishing of the Autobiography of Mother Jones. Today, she is praised by the labor movement for the demonstration of an authentic individual who faithfully served the unions in commonality with struggling workers across the continent. The reprint included supplemental materials like timelines that enhanced the rhetoric-heavy work. The autobiography’s revelation of the things she said which miners could not have said without losing their jobs, her use of historical rhetoric to connect the labor movement with American heroes, her disregard for the long-term outcomes of violent action, and the powerful agitator mindset she brought regardless of the circumstances was better received during the 1960’s. The whole nation seemed to question authority while the autobiography became more prominent on the tables “in many miners’ living rooms” next to the Bible.3
Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones died on November 30, 1930 but continues to stand for an agitation against institutions. This is especially evident in the “What is Mother Jones” website section of the magazine named in her honor:
Mother Jones is a nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative, political, and social justice reporting. Why should you read or support us? Because “smart, fearless journalism” keeps people informed—”informed” being pretty much indispensable to a democracy that actually works. Because we’ve been ahead of the curve time and again. Because this is journalism not funded by or beholden to corporations… Because we’re expanding our investigative coverage while the rest of the media are contracting. Because you can count on us to take no prisoners, cleave to no dogma, and tell it like it is.4
1. The Autobiography of Mother Jones, Ed. Mary Field Parton, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1972: 13.
2. Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America by Linda Atkinson, New York: Crown Publishers, 1978, 55, 92.
3. Mother Jones Speaks, Ed. Philip S. Foner, New York: Monad Press, 1983, 102, 15.
4. Mother Jones magazine website: http://motherjones.com/about.
Archives of The Catholic University of America website: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/jones.cfm.
“Radical Rhetoric, American Iconography, and ‘The Autobiography of Mother Jones,’ ” by Eric G. Waggoner, Appalachian Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2 (WINTER 2005), pp. 192-210.
For More Information: Visit the American Catholic History Classroom at http://cuomeka.wrlc.org/exhibits/show/industrial, or Contact theAmerican Catholic History Research Center and University Archives firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-319-5065.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Barga, M. (2012). Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones (1837-1930): Labor activist and organizer, speaker, teacher. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/organizations/labor/jones-mary-harris-mother/