Teddy Roosevelt once called Mother Jones “the most dangerous woman in America” when she was 87 years old.
Mary Harris Jones, or “Mother Jones”, was born to a tenant farmer in Cork, Ireland, in 1837. Her family fled the potato famine when she was just 10, resettling in Toronto . She immigrated to North America with her family as a child to escape the Irish famine. She spent her early years in Canada and trained to be a dressmaker and teacher.
She trained to be a teacher and took a job in Memphis, where on the eve of the Civil War she married George Jones, a union foundry worker and started a family. In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic swept through the city, taking the lives of her husband and all four children. A widow at 30, she moved to Chicago and built a successful dressmaking business – only to lose everything in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Jones then threw herself into the city’s bustling labor movement, where she worked in obscurity for the next 20 years. By the turn of the century, she emerged as a charismatic speaker and one of the country’s leading labor organizers, co-founding the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
She traveled the country to wherever there was labor struggle, sometimes evading company security by wading the riverbed into town, earning her the nickname “The Miner’s Angel.” She used storytelling, the Bible, humor, and even coarse language to reach a crowd.
Mother Jones was deeply affected by the “machine-gun massacre” in Ludlow, Colo., when National Guardsmen raided a tent colony of striking miners and their families, killing 20 people—mostly women and children. She traveled the country, telling the story, and testified before the U.S. Congress.
In addition to miners, Mother Jones also was very concerned about child workers. During a silk strike in Philadelphia, 100,000 workers—including 16,000 children—left their jobs over a demand that their workweek be cut from 60 to 55 hours. To attract attention to the cause of abolishing child labor, in 1903, she led a children’s march of 100 children from the textile mills of Philadelphia to New York City “to show the New York millionaires our grievances.” She led the children all the way to President Theodore Roosevelt’s Long Island home.
Jones also had little patience for hesitation, volunteering to lead a strike “if there were no men present.”
A passionate critic of child labor, she organized a children’s march from Philadelphia to the home of Theodore Roosevelt in Oyster Bay, New York with banners reading, “We want to go to school and not the mines!” At the age of 88, she published a first-person account of her time in the labor movement called The Autobiography of Mother Jones (1925). She died at the age of 93 and is buried at a miners’ cemetery in Mt. Olive, Illinois.
She said: “I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I said if he had stolen a railroad, he would be a United States Senator.”
She said: “Whatever the fight, don’t be ladylike.”
Collins, Gail. America’s Women, 2003, p. 287-289; The Illinois Labor History Society, www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/majones.htm; photo from George Meany Memorial Archives and The Writer’s Almanac by Prairie Home Productions.