Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Labor Organizer "Mother Jones": "Pray for the Dead and Fight Like Hell for the Living"

Mary Harris Jones, "Mother Jones," Labor Organizer and Activist (baptized 1 August 1837)

Union membership is at an all-time low in the United States--today just 10.7% of American workers belong to unions, compared to 50 years ago, when nearly a third of American workers were union members. 

 Ewan McGaughey, 'Do corporations increase inequality?' (2015)

So today's post is about Mary Harris Jones, schoolteacher, dressmaker, community organizer, union activist, and all-around ass-kicker. 

Mary Harris Jones,
"Mother Jones"
Born in Cork County, Ireland, Mary Harris was baptized on 1 August 1837--her exact date of birth is not known, but the Cork [Ireland] Mother Jones Commemorative Committee celebrated the 175th anniversary of her birth in 2012. 

(Some sources suggest Mary Harris was born in 1830, with the Encyclopedia Britannica offering a precise date, 1 May 1830. If you've been reading this blog, you know how shabbily the EB treats women, so it's amazing they have an entry on Mary Harris Jones at all, no matter what they decide about her date of birth.)

Mary Harris migrated to Canada with her family at some point during the Great Famine (1840-49) though, again, dates are not certain, with some sources suggesting that her arrival in Canada was during the 1850s. Once there, Mary Harris could get an education, which she did at the Toronto Normal School. 

Mary Harris worked as a teacher, moving to the United States in 1859, when she began teaching in a convent in Michigan. But Harris found the convent "a depressing place" and moved to Chicago, where she worked as a dressmaker, and then to Memphis, where she again taught. 

In 1861 in Memphis she married George Jones, an ironworker and member of the National Iron Moulders Union. After her marriage, she again turned to dressmaking, setting up her own shop, and she gave birth to four children.

But in the yellow-fever epidemic of 1867, Mary Harris Jones lost her husband and her children--three boys and a girl, all under the age of five. As Jones later recalled, “the rich and the well-to-do fled the city" while the poor died: “One by one my four little children sickened and died. . . I sat alone through nights of grief. No one came to me. No one could.”

Jones returned to Chicago, opening another dressmaking shop, sewing clothing for the wealthy of the city. But during the Great Fire of 1871, she once again lost everything. At this moment of great loss, Jones discovered the Knights of Labor, the first great union organization in the United States, founded in 1869. 

Mary Harris Jones transformed herself into "Mother Jones"--and dedicated herself to the labor movement. She traveled throughout the country, organizing strikes, giving speeches, railing against injustice. When asked about her home, she replied, "Wherever there was a fight." 

(It may be that Jones herself first suggested she was born in 1830--she was small, just five feet tall, and chose to dress all in black. She may have been exaggerating her age in order to amplify her role as the fierce, white-haired mother-figure, "Mother Jones.")

She spent the next fifty years fighting. As Sarah K. Horseley notes in her biographical essay on Mother Jones: "From the late 1870s through the early 1920s, Jones participated in hundreds of strikes across the country. Living by the philosophy, 'wherever there is a fight,' she supported workers in the railroad, steel, copper, brewing, textile, and mining industries."

Mother Jones in Seattle, 30 May 1914

In 1902, Mother Jones was called "the most dangerous woman in America" at her West Virginia trial for violating an injunction that banned striking miners from meeting to organize. According to District Attorney Reese Blizzard, "She [Jones] comes into a state where peace and prosperity reign ... crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out." 

Jones's actions spanned decades and movements:
In addition to organizing laborers in the western US, Mother Jones helped found the Social Democratic Party (1898) and the Industrial Workers of the World (1905) and published articles in the International Socialist Review. . . . 
. . . Jones often demanded that the government address social injustice. She organized children textile workers to march on President Roosevelt’s home in 1903. Four years later she secured a Congressional inquiry into the fate of Mexican revolutionists imprisoned in America. In 1914, the Colorado militia massacred twenty women and children in a miners’ tent colony in Ludlow, Colorado. Jones persuaded President Wilson to insist that the owners and workers arrive at a truce.
Jones was not a participant in the suffrage movement--which she regarded as a movement of well-to-do women, giving them something to do, and distracting from the serious economic issues faced by working women: “the plutocrats have organized their women. They keep them busy with suffrage and prohibition and charity.” 

As for Jones, she fought with and for working women, organizing miners' wives to block strikebreakers, supporting young female mill workers who were demanding better wages, and agitating to change child labor laws. But Mother Jones believed that women should be wives and mothers rather than workers--and thus fought for better wages for men, arguing that "working men deserved a wage that would allow women to stay home to care for their kids."

As for issues of race, she built labor movements that "bridged racial and ethnic divisions," condemning white supremacists in union organizations, working on behalf of African-American miners, and arguing that Mexican and Italian immigrants should be included in unions. As the Mother Jones Museum notes in its essay "Who Was Mother Jones?":
When an African-American woman, impressed with Mother Jones [sic] commitment to their cause, suggested she would kiss Jones’ skirt hem in gratitude, Jones replied, “Not in the dust, sister, to me, but here on my breast, heart to heart.”
For her political actions, Jones was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned more than once--at age 82, she was sentenced to twenty years, though she was released from prison after serving 85 days. 

She slowed down after 1920, but Mother Jones never quit. In fact, she was back in court in 1924, accused of libel, slander, and sedition, she made an appearance at a dressmakers strike in Chicago in the same year, and she published her autobiography in 1925.

Mary Harris Jones--Mother Jones--died on 30 November 1930. She may have been a hundred years old--or perhaps "just" 93. She was buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois. 

Whether you approve of her politics or not, you have to admire this spirit: "I'm not a lady, I'm a hellraiser." 

I've linked (above) to Eliott J. Gorn's 2002 biography, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America.  For a shorter read, you may like the entry on Mary Harris Jones from the Gale Encyclopedia of U. S. Economic History, available here.