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Heroines of History: These are American women, and their actions were not motivated by fortune or fame. There was no glory, and in many cases very little recognition for their activities. They simply did what needed to be done, and they did so in an extraordinary way. They roared without making a sound and it is time that they were given a voice. Mary Harris Jones, we hear you.
Once dubbed the “most dangerous woman in America” by a US District Attorney, Mary Harris Jones was a hell-raiser who passionately fought for the rights of the working class, and as such earned herself the moniker of Mother to thousands of workers across the United States. Born in Cork, Ireland, sometime between 1830 -1837, Mary and her family were forced to flee to America when she was a young girl to escape the famine. Settling in Toronto, Canada, Mary attended school and trained as a teacher and dressmaker. In her twenties, she moved to Chicago for a short time and then on to Memphis, Tennessee to work as a dress maker. It was in Memphis, that she met and married Mr. George Jones.
George was an iron molder and a staunch member of the Iron Molders’ Union. It was from him that Mary learned about unions, and the work that they did for the working class. However, Mary’s familial happiness wasn’t to last for long. In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic struck and within the span of a week Mary lost not only her husband, but her four children as well. Grief stricken, Mary moved back to Chicago and found work as a dressmaker. She had her own shop, and worked for many of the wealthiest citizens of Chicago. It bothered her to see the poor and destitute working class struggling day to day while she worked in some of the richest houses in the city. In 1871, tragedy struck again when Mary lost her shop and home to the Chicago fire.
Alone and homeless, Mary struck out in a new direction and joined the Knights of Labor. While she remained in Chicago a couple more years as a dressmaker, she developed a fiery passion in the fight for rights of the working class. Mary, it seemed, had a natural talent as an orator. At barely five feet tall, she was able to captivate audiences with her speeches. She spoke of the injustices of starvation wages, hellishly long hours and nightmarish working conditions. Her compassion tended to the spirits of the workers while her passion rallied them to action even when things seemed hopeless. If her rhetoric was unable to convince the men, she would resort to shaming them into action, speaking of the times that she was jailed. She would tell them that if they were unwilling to fight, she would fight for them and go back to jail if necessary.
Mary Harris Jones travelled across the country, staying in shanty towns and miner’s tents. She had no permanent home, instead her home was where ever there was a fight that needed fighting. In 1877 she helped organize workers at the Pittsburgh railway strike. She organized and ran educational meetings to teach workers of their rights. In 1897, she earned her nickname “Mother” after speaking at the Railway Union Convention. Very much a progressive, Mary helped found the Social Democratic Party in 1898 and became involved with the United Mine Workers (UMW) in 1890, going on their payroll as an organizer in 1900.
Despite her paid involvement with the UMW, Mother Jones still went where she was needed most, and unlike any other labor organizer, she involved women, children and African American’s in her protests. In 1902, she led a march of miner’s wives armed with brooms and mops through the Pennsylvania coalfields to rout out strike breakers. In 1903, she organized and led the “March of the Mill Children” from Kensington, Pennsylvania all the way to the President Theodore Roosevelt’s private home in Long Island, New York. Many of the children involved in the caravan had been maimed by textile machinery, yet were still forced to work hellishly long hours. At night, Mother Jones would hold rallies and put on skits and street theater in whatever city they were in to help raise awareness of the plight of child labor. These evening “entertainments” attracted thousands of people and put the issue of child labor onto the front pages of newspapers across the country.
In 1904, Mary resigned as the UMW organizer and became a lecturer for the Socialist Party of America. She focused her attentions of raising funds for the Mexican revolutionists who were being arrested and deported back to Mexico. In 1905, she helped found the Industrial Workers of the World and was the only woman to sign the manifesto that called for a convention to organize all industrial workers. In 1911, Mary left the socialist party and returned to the payroll of the UMW as an organizer.
Mother Jones garnered national attention once again in 1912-1913 during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike in West Virginia, because of the frequent violence that would break out between the strikers and the mining officials. On September 21, 1912, she led a march of miner’s children through the streets of Charlestown. On February 12, 1913 she led a protest about the conditions in the strike area and was arrested at the rally. A military court convicted her of conspiring to commit murder and sentenced her to 20 years in jail. Because of the uproar caused by her conviction on trumped up charges the US Senate ordered an investigation into the coal mining conditions in West Virginia. Before the investigation began, the newly elected governor pardoned Mother Jones and set her free on May 18, 1913.
Free from jail, and with an investigation underway in Virginia, Mother Jones turned her attention to the miner’s strikes in Colorado. Her participation in these strikes led to her being evicted from mine company property on several occasions and led to her arrest twice. However, it was the “Machine-Gun Massacre” on April 20, 1914 in Ludlow, CO that truly incensed Mary. Mine company employees opened fire on a tent colony of miners and their families killing twenty and injuring dozens. After this incident Mother Jones again took to travelling the country, this time telling the story of Ludlow and the appalling conditions the Colorado miners faced. Once again, her actions gained national attention causing members of the House Mines and Mining Committee and President Wilson to get involved. They proposed that a truce be called and a grievance committee established at each mine.
Mother Jones then moved on to the garment workers’ strike and streetcar workers’ strike in New York City, followed by the steel workers strike in Pittsburgh. In 1921, as a guest of the Mexican government, she attended a meeting of the Pan-American Federation of Labor. Disagreeing with the politics of John L. Lewis, Mother Jones left the UMW in 1922. Now in her nineties, Mother Jones continued to speak whenever her health permitted – she was hospitalized several times – and in 1923 worked her last strike with the coal miners in West Virginia.
Her last public appearance was on May 1, 1930 – purported to be her 100th birthday – at a reception in Silver Spring, Maryland. Despite her age, she still spoke with the same passion and fervor. Mother Jones, the “Angel of the Miners,” died on November 30, 1930 and, by her request, was buried in the Union Miners Cemetery at Mount Olive, Illinois near the victims of the Virden mine riot of 1898.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones this is in your honor. Thank you for all that you did.