Form and Content
Linda Mae Atkinson’s Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America is an illustrated biography of Mary “Mother” Jones, a history text, and a sociology text. Using many moving black-and-white photographs, Atkinson’s illustrated biography portrays the dramatic life of union organizer and activist Jones as she journeyed from County Cork, Ireland, where she was born in 1830, to Washington, D.C., where she died in 1930. Her courageous, inspiring life is narrated in an exciting fifteen chapters, each of which concentrates on controversial incidents whose bloody, confrontational, and often tragic scenarios consistently highlight the gulf between the rich and poor and the conflicts that American owners and workers faced throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A brief but vividly written introduction sets the stage for these class-based confrontations by providing an overview of the United States’ economic conditions in the early nineteenth century and by providing numerous dramatic quotes from Jones and those wealthy businesspeople who opposed her demands for unionization. Thus, Jones was dangerous because she consistently spoke up on behalf of the underprivileged in a dialogue with those who were privileged.
In the book’s early chapters, Atkinson’s narrative outlines the formative years of Jones: her birth in poverty-stricken County Cork and her involvement in the class struggles between the upper-class English gentry, who owned most of the farmland in Ireland, and the cotters and peasants (her father among them), who rebelled against these absent landowners. Atkinson explains how, from these conditions of dire economic necessity and cruel exploitation by wealthy aristocrats and industrialists, Jones became politicized, growing into one of the most respected and feared organizers of labor in nineteenth and early twentieth century American history.
Mother Jones is a narrative account of how working people in Memphis, Chicago, and Colorado fought their bosses. By quoting from Jones’s autobiography and from a range of newspaper and eyewitness reports, contemporaneous periodicals, and more recent histories of American labor, Atkinson’s biography dramatizes for the young reader a controversial era in American social history. Jones played a central role in the developing trade unions, a role that directly challenged the hegemony of corporations, often with tragic results.