The Most Dangerous Woman In America: Mary Harris (aka Mother Jones) 

Although she celebrated what she called her 100th birthday on May 1, 1930, baptismal records from Cork, Ireland place Mary Harris’ real date of birth some time in the summer of 1837.  When she was a teenager, her family emigrated to Toronto, Canada, to escape from the Great Famine. After completing her secondary Catholic education, she moved to Monroe, Michigan, where she taught in a convent. She grew tired of teaching and moved to Chicago, where she worked as dressmaker. From there, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in her early twenties, where she met and married George Jones. George was iron molder and a unionist. Together, they had four children. Life as a wife and mother was very short lived for Mary, though. In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic took the lives of her husband and all four children, all of whom were under the age of five. Alone, she returned to Chicago and opened up her own dress making shop. Her shop was quite successful and catered to some of the wealthiest women in the city. Oddly, it was while working to provide custom tailored clothing for the rich that she became emotionally enamored with unionism and the conditions of the poor. The contrast between her customers and the great majority of the rest of Chicago made think there had to be a better, more just way for people to live.

Tragedy would strike Mary again, in 1871, when she lost both her home and her shop in the Great Chicago Fire. After this, she began to travel across the country. The Industrial Revolution changed the nature of work, and not necessarily for the betterment of workers. She moved from town to town in support of workers’ struggles to gain a fair share of the wealth that industrialization was providing for just a select few. Mary helped organize a massive show of support for Eugene Debs, the leader of the American Railway Union, even though he had just served a six-month prison sentence, for defying a court order not to disrupt railroad traffic in support of striking Pullman workers.

When she was invited to address the railway union convention, in 1897, the men of the union began to call her “Mother”, a nickname that stuck. Claiming to be older than she really was, wearing outdated black dresses and referring to the male workers as “her boys” helped add to her persona.

That summer, when Mine Workers called a nationwide strike of bituminous (soft coal) miners, she arrived in Pittsburgh to help. This is where she became known by the full title, “Mother Jones”, to millions of working men and women across the country. She organized for the Mine Workers, from the anthracite and coal fields in eastern Pennsylvania  and West Virginia, to the harsh camps of Colorado. Anywhere miners, textile workers or steelworkers were fighting to unionize, you were likely to find Mother Jones. She was banned from more towns and jailed more than any union leader of her time (which says a lot because breaking and preventing unions was practically a national pastime of the period.)

In 1902, West Virginia district attorney, Reese Blizzard, called her “The most dangerous woman in America.” According to Blizzard, all she had to do was point her finger and twenty thousand men would lay down.

Jones was ideologically separated from other female activists of her time by the fact that she did not concern herself with the issue of women’s suffrage. She believed that motherhood was more important than politics, and that neglecting the role of motherhood led to juvenile delinquency.  She was once quoted as saying, “You don’t need the vote to raise hell,” which she proved to be true often enough.

In 1903, Mother Jones organized children that worked in mills and mines to participate in what came to be known as The Children’s Crusade. She led them on a march, from Philadelphia to Oyster Bay, New York, to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt.  Although Roosevelt refused to meet with the marchers, this event did manage to bring the conditions of child labor to the forefront of the national agenda.

In 1912, she was charged with a capital offense by a military tribunal in West Virginia and held under house arrest for weeks. She refused to accept the legitimacy of the ruling and so did the people of West Virginia. Eventually, after 85 days of confinement, public outcry influenced the governor to release her. Shortly after her release, she went to Colorado to help organize more coal miners. There, she was arrested again. After she served her time, she was escorted from the state.  This was just prior to the Ludlow Massacre, a where National Guardsmen gunned down 20 people — mostly women and children — with machine guns, in a mining camp in Ludlow, CO.  Outraged by this event, Mother Jones traveled across the country, telling the story, and even testified about it before Congress. This gained her a meeting with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., which actually prompted him to visit his mines, in Colorado, and introduce some much needed reforms.

Mother Jones remained an organizer with the United Mine Workers, into the 1920s, and continued to speak and agitate on behalf of unions, almost up until the time of her death. She died, at the age of 93, on November 30, 1930, in Silver Spring, Maryland. From there, she was taken and buried in the Union Miners Cemetery, in Mount Olive, Illinois.

Among other tributes, including having an elementary school named after her in Adelphi, Maryland, the magazine Mother Jones was named for her in 1970. Originally considered to be an underground publication, MoJo is one of America’s most award winning and respected journalistic magazines, some 43 years later.

Among her most famous quotes: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” This phrase is as pertinent in today’s labor movement as the day she said it.