When your entire family, a husband and four children, die from yellow fever and then your business is destroyed in the Great Chicago fire you might be tempted to just give up. But not Mary Harris Jones, who instead, went on from extreme adversity to become ‘Mother Jones’ ‘the most dangerous woman in America’. That, at least, was how American mine owners saw her and she gave them good cause for their animosity.
Mary Harris was born in Cork City in 1837 emigrating to Canada with her family as a teenager. Later, as a qualified teacher, she moved to the USA and married George Jones, a union organizer, in Memphis, Tennessee. There she abandoned teaching and became a dressmaker.
It was in Memphis that she lost her family to disease. All her children were under five years of age. After that unthinkable tragedy she moved to Chicago and established a dress making business there. In 1871 a huge fire that killed 300 people and destroyed 9 square kilometres of the city took her business and her house with it.
After that she threw in her lot with organized labour and some of the most iconic unions in American history, the United Mine Workers, the Knights of Labour and the Industrial Workers of the Worker, better known as the Wobblies. Given her personal trauma her philosophy and personal motto ‘pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living’ is particularly poignant. She travelled the USA organizing, speaking and motivating workers and their families to take action to improve their lot.
She was ardently opposed to the use of child labour. In 1903 she organized children to march in their thousands from Philadelphia to the New York home of President Theodore Roosevelt bearing banners with the slogan ‘We want to go to school and not the mines.’
During a West Virginia miners strike she ignored a court order secured by the mine owners and in her subsequent trial the District Attorney, appropriately named Blizzard, declaimed that ‘There sits the most dangerous woman in America … She comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign … crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out.’
You might well have expected a female radical like Mother Jones to be a suffragist, but she wasn’t. She was opposed to votes for women or female participation in politics. Her philosophy was “You don’t need the vote to raise hell!”. She was of the opinion that men should earn sufficient money to allow their wives to bring up children. Equally unusually she claimed to be considerably older than she actually was, possibly in the interests of self protection, hence the nickname ‘Mother’ Jones.
She became so influential that, in the case of a mining strike in Colorado she was able to force the infamous ‘robber baron’ John D. Rockefeller into a face to face meeting and extract significant concessions from him on behalf of the moners.
Denounced in the Senate as the ‘grandmother of all agitators’ she responded by saying ‘I hope to live long enough to become the great grandmother of all agitators’. This she did, dying at the age of 93
Mary Harris ‘Mother Jones’, labour activist and champion of the working man was born 178 years ago on what, appropriately, has become International Labour Day.
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