Mother Jones was Feisty Rabble Rouser
is Women's History Month. It seems a fitting occasion to remember
Mother Jones, deemed by a federal prosecutor in 1913 to be the "most
dangerous woman in America." Jones was the most colorful and beloved
labor agitator at the end of the nineteenth century. White-haired,
pink-cheeked, and dressed in matronly black dresses and hat, she was a
tireless champion of the working poor and a feisty rabble rouser who
used fiery rhetoric to excite crowds and attract media attention and
public support. She led marches, dodged bullets, served jail terms, and
confronted business titans and police with disarming courage.
in Cork, Ireland, in 1837, Mary Harris was only ten years old when she
and her family fled the potato famine in search of work and hope in
North America. They settled in Toronto, where Mary learned to sew,
attended school, and became certified to teach. In 1861 she moved to
Memphis and began teaching. There, as the Civil War was erupting, she
met and married George Jones, an iron molder and staunch union member.
They had four children-then disaster struck.
1867 a yellow fever epidemic devastated Memphis, killing Mary Jones's
husband and four children. The grief-stricken 30-year-old widow moved
back to Chicago and took up dressmaking, only to see her shop, home, and
belongings destroyed in the great fire of 1871.
gritty woman who had lost her family and finances drifted into the
labor movement and soon emerged as its most passionate advocate. She
became a tart-tongued speaker for the United Mine Workers (UMW), various
other unions, and the Socialist party. For forty years, she
crisscrossed the nation, recruiting union members, supporting strikers
(her "boys"), raising funds, walking picket lines, defying court
injunctions, berating politicians and mine owners, and spending time in
jail. "My address is like my shoes," she told a congressional committee.
"It travels with me wherever I go."
Mother Jones, the militant
matriarch, became a national celebrity. One newspaper said she was "the
most remarkable woman in America." Self-righteous and profane, Mother
Jones cultivated a combative candor intended to excite crowds and make
headlines. "Get it straight. I'm not a humanitarian, I'm a hell-raiser,"
she told a labor gathering.
Jones became a folk hero among working-class Americans. Miners labeled
her a "female Robin Hood" because she commanded the respect and
attention of mine owners, governors, and U. S. presidents. Coal miners,
said the UMW president, "have had no more staunch supporter, no more
able defender than the one we all love to call Mother." During a miners'
strike in West Virginia, Jones was arrested, falsely convicted of
"conspiracy that resulted in murder," and sentenced to 20 years in
prison. The outcry over her plight helped spur a U.S. Senate committee
to investigate conditions in the coal mines. The governor set her free.
Jones was especially determined to end the exploitation of children in
mills, mines, and factories. In 1903 she organized a highly publicized,
weeklong march of child mill and mine workers from Pennsylvania to the
New York home of President Theodore Roosevelt. The children, many of
whom were under age twelve, were physically stunted and mutilated, most
of them missing fingers or hands from machinery accidents. This was
public theater designed to increase general awareness of the need for
social justice. President Roosevelt refused to see the ragtag children,
but, as Mother Jones explained, "our march had done its work. We had
drawn the attention of the nation to the crime of child labor." Soon the
Pennsylvania state legislature raised the legal working age to
However radical Mother Jones was as a labor organizer,
she had no sympathy for feminism. "I don't belong to the women's club,"
she snarled. "I belong to the fighting army of the working class. The
plutocrats have organized their women. They keep them busy with suffrage
and prohibition and charity." She opposed allowing women to vote
because she feared it would undermine families. "Women are out of place
in political work," she said. "There is already a great responsibility
upon women's shoulders-that of rearing rising generations. . . . Solve
the industrial problem and the men will earn enough so that women can
remain home." Jones naively insisted that women did not need the vote to
make them heard. "I have never had a vote and I have raised hell all
over this country!"
Mother Jones lost most of the strikes she
participated in, but she won the war. Over the course of her long life
she saw average wages increase, working conditions improve, and child
labor diminish. Her own commitment to the cause of social justice never
wavered. At her funeral in 1930, one of the speakers urged people to
remember her famous rallying cry: "Pray for the dead and fight like hell
for the living."