Mother Jones

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: As a labor organizer and fiery orator, Mother Jones inspired workers and breathed life into union organizing efforts in the early twentieth century.

Early Life

The birth date of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones is in dispute as are other critical facts about her early life. This uncertainty is not unusual for poor and working-class people whose lives are often not recorded in traditional ways. Even births, deaths, marriages, and work history may not be documented.

In her autobiography, Jones herself gave 1830 as her birth year, but she gave other dates in interviews throughout her life. Most historians agree on 1830, although one cites 1839 and another 1843. Her father migrated to the United States from Ireland and worked as a laborer building canals and railroads. The family followed and settled initially in Toronto, Canada, where young Mary Harris went to school, graduating in 1858 or 1859. Little is known of her father and mother or her siblings.

Mary Harris taught school in Michigan in 1859, worked as a dressmaker in Chicago in 1860, and again taught school in Memphis, Tennessee. In Memphis, she met George Jones, a member of the Iron Workers’ Union, and in 1861 they were married. George Jones and all the couple’s children died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1867. In her autobiography, Mother Jones claims to have had four children, but some evidence exists to suggest it may have been one or three. No one disputes the fact that Jones was alone after 1867 with no family and no permanent home.

Mother Jones left Memphis in 1867 to return to Chicago, where she resumed working as a dressmaker for the wealthy. In 1871, she was burned out of her home and lost all of her possessions in the great Chicago Fire. Following the fire, she began attending nightly lectures at the Knights of Labor building, which was located near the place where many homeless refugees from the fire were camping out. Records of these years of her life are scarce, but it is known that Mother Jones traveled during the 1870’s and 1880’s from one industrial area to another speaking and organizing, usually in connection with the Knights of Labor. In 1877, she was in Pittsburgh for the first nationwide industrial strike, that of the railroad workers. In 1886, she was in Chicago, active in organizing for the eight-hour work day. In 1890, when the Knights of Labor District 135 and the National Union of Miners and Mine Laborers merged to form the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), Mary Harris Jones became a paid organizer for the union. She was approximately sixty years old and about to enter the national stage. She was thought of as “the Miner’s Angel,” the most dangerous woman in the country, or America’s most patriotic citizen, depending upon the point of view of the different people who encountered her.

Life’s Work

Until her health failed in the late 1920’s, Mother Jones traveled the nation speaking and organizing not only for coal miners but also for textile, railway, and steel workers. She figured in most major strikes in the United States in the early 1900’s, but was repeatedly drawn to the coalfields of Pennsylvania, Colorado, and West Virginia. For a time, she was active in Socialist Party politics, particularly in the campaigns of Eugene V. Debs. She supported Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa in his fight for better wages and living conditions for Mexican workers, who were often used as strike breakers, particularly in Western mines. She did not support woman’s suffrage or other social reform efforts of her era that were not founded solely on working-class rights.

Her speeches reveal that Mother Jones saw herself as an agitator and educator charged with the tasks of teaching the American working class about the nature of capitalism and mobilizing an international working-class movement. In 1909, she told the national convention of the UMWA that she was there to “wake you up.” At a UMWA district convention in 1914 she explained, “I hold no office only that of disturbing.” In 1920, near the end of her public speaking career, she summarized her mission: “I am busy getting this working man to understand what belongs to him, and his power to take possession of it.”

Mother Jones was so effective at “disturbing” workers that corporate and government officials often went to great extremes to keep her from speaking. She was arrested many times, imprisoned, and forcefully escorted out of strike zones where she had been called to help organize. Her success as an educator is less easily documented, but her speeches and audience responses reveal a talented, tireless woman who was able to move people to action while instructing them about the nature of their conflicts and their place in history.

Conditions in mines and mining communities in the early 1900’s were stark. Wages were low; mines were unsafe; rates of deaths and disabling injuries were very high; children were often employed. Miners lived in company-owned housing and were often paid in scrip, a substitute currency...

(The entire section is 2106 words.)