In 1902, the “most dangerous woman in America” was a five-foot-tall, silver-haired woman in her 60s. Labor organizer and anti-capitalist firebrand Mary Harris Jones—known as “Mother” Jones—was a grandmotherly woman who dressed in black with a froth of lace at her throat and a jaunty bonnet on her head. What made her so dangerous, according to the prosecuting attorney who described her as such, was her charisma—her ability to convince tens of thousands of coal workers to unionize, and, if necessary, put down their tools and go on strike until they were given shorter work days and higher wages. Jones was on trial for disobeying an injunction that banned all demonstrations near the mines; she’d been arrested mid-speech and insisted on finishing it before she was taken into custody, ending with a cry to “Keep up this fight! Don’t surrender!”
Active from the 1890s through the 1920s, Mother Jones worked tirelessly to persuade coal miners, brewery bottle washers, textile mill hands, and other laborers to fight for higher wages and better working conditions. She never shied away from a strike, no matter how violent, and spent many nights in jail after ignoring orders to stay away from sites of conflict. She never lacked for a sound bite: “Get it straight, I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser,” she snapped after a hapless speaker introduced her as the former to the crowd that had come to hear her speak, and she once exhorted a gathering of West Virginia coal miners to “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!”
In her 60s when she came to the public’s attention, Mother Jones had the appearance of a harmless, elderly woman, but a miner who met her in the late 1890s remembered that she “would take a drink with the boys” and spoke “some pretty rough language when she was talking about the bosses,” language that would “have been considered a little fast in ordinary women.” But Mother Jones was far from ordinary. “She had a complete disregard for danger or hardship and would go in wherever she thought she was needed,” the miner remembered. When she was on her way to meet with striking mine workers in Raleigh, West Virginia, in 1917, the car in which she was riding was shot at, then surrounded by drunken men carrying rifles. One aimed directly at her, promising to “shoot her damned head off.” Without missing a beat, 80-year-old Mother Jones said, “Oh, no you won’t.” The gunman backed down. She “didn’t appear to scare at all,” remembered one of her fellow passengers.
A native of Cork, Ireland, Jones was fond of telling audiences that she “was born in revolution,” a reference to Irish struggles against British oppression. She also claimed May 1, the international workers’ holiday, as the date of her birth—which she said was in 1830, seven years earlier than it actually was. The truth was a bit more complicated; Jones devoted only four pages of her 1925 autobiography to her life before the labor movement, and shrouded what she did write in half-truths and mythmaking. The reality is that before she became Mother Jones, Mary Harris Jones endured unimaginable loss. Her exact birth date was not recorded, but Mary Harris was baptized on August 1, 1837, the second child in a poor, Catholic family. The potato was Ireland’s chief food crop, and when a particularly severe strain of potato blight hit the country in 1845, thousands died in the famine that followed. Many more escaped the Great Hunger by emigrating to North America, Mary’s father and brother among them. They worked as laborers, first in Vermont, then in Toronto, Canada, where Mary, her mother, and siblings joined them at some point in the early 1850s.
Along the way, Mary learned dressmaking skills. Then, when she was around 20, she attended several months of teacher’s college in Toronto. The training was enough to get her a job as a schoolteacher in Monroe, Michigan, though she soon learned that she “preferred sewing to bossing little children.” She swapped between dressmaking and teaching jobs as she moved from Monroe to Chicago, then to Memphis in 1860. Shortly thereafter, she met and married a skilled iron worker named George Jones, a member of the International Iron Molders Union. Reading about the iron workers’ strikes in the monthly Iron Molders’ International Journal may have given Mary her first real introduction to the American labor movement.
George and Mary Jones were the parents of four children, three girls and a boy, when yellow fever swept through Memphis in 1867. “All about my house, I could hear weeping and the cries of delirium,” she remembered. “One by one, my four little children sickened and died. I washed their little bodies and got them ready for burial. My husband caught the fever and died. I sat alone through nights of grief.”
Alone again, she moved back to Chicago, where she and a partner opened a dressmaking business. Sewing for the city’s wealthy elite, Mary Jones “had ample opportunity to observe the luxury and extravagance of their lives,” she wrote. From the windows of their mansions, she watched “poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry” as they walked along the city’s frozen lakefront, while her employers “seemed neither to notice nor to care.”
But tragedy seemed to follow Jones wherever she went. On October 8, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burned three and a half square miles of the city to the ground. Mary Jones’ home and business were among the over 17,500 buildings destroyed that night. She escaped with her life and the clothes on her back, taking shelter on the shores of Lake Michigan when the heat became too great. “We stayed all night and the next day without food on the lake front, often going into the lake to keep cool,” Jones recalled in her autobiography.
Mary Jones was now 34. Within the space of four years, she had lost literally everything. Her life took a new turn as she became acquainted with the growing labor movement. She began attending Knights of Labor meetings “in an old, tumbled down, fire scorched building” for the pleasure of listening to the “splendid speakers” as much as anything else. Founded in 1869, the Knights of Labor sought to organize workers of all trades and supported the movement for an eight-hour work day.
In her autobiography, Mother Jones suggested that she joined the Knights of Labor in the immediate aftermath of the fire, although the organization didn’t allow women members until 1880. She wrote, “From the time of the Chicago fire I became more and more engrossed in the labor struggle and I decided to take an active part in the efforts of the working people to better the conditions under which they worked and lived. [...] I learned in the early part of my career that labor must bear the cross for others’ sins, must be the vicarious sufferer for the wrongs that others do. These early years saw the beginning of America’s industrial life. Hand and hand with the growth of factories and the expansion of railroads, with the accumulation of capital and the rise of banks, came anti-labor legislation. Came strikes. Came violence. Came the belief in the hearts and minds of the workers that legislatures but carry out the will of the industrialists.”
Indeed, attempts to unionize and strike at the beginning of America’s industrial era often exacted a lethal price. Living in Chicago, Jones had a prime seat to witness these violent conflicts between workers and company owners, which were frequent throughout the 1870s and ’80s. In July 1877, Chicago workers walked off the job in support of a railway strike in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where, in Pittsburgh, 20 men, women, and children had been killed by a militia firing on protestors. Chicago’s general strike lasted three days and only ended when police turned their guns on the crowd, leaving around 30 dead and 200 injured. On May 1, 1886, the city was the center of a nationwide walkout in support of the eight-hour-day; of the 300,000 American workers who walked off the job that day, 40,000 of them were in Chicago. The walkout had been peaceful, but an open meeting called by anarchists on May 4 in Haymarket Square turned into a riot when a bomb was thrown by an unknown individual. Seven police officers were killed in the resulting melee, along with at least four of the demonstrators. Many others, both police and civilians, were wounded. (Never an ideologue, Jones told The New York Times in 1913 that she was neither an anarchist nor a socialist. Around the same time, she described herself to another reporter as “a social revolutionist” who believed “in collective ownership of the means of wealth.”)
Perhaps it was these deadly struggles that inspired Jones to become increasingly active in the labor movement. In 1897, Jones’ name first appeared in print as “Mother” Jones, in a Chicago Evening Journal article covering her journey to Washington to appeal the death sentence of an American Railway Union activist accused of derailing a train. Moved by her powerful speech, the men of the union had begun calling Jones “Mother,” and the name stuck. But though she organized workers in many trades—and eventually came to be seen as the symbolic mother of the entire labor movement—coal miners were her “boys” first and foremost. Mining was backbreaking labor performed in filthy, cramped, and dangerous quarters. Mines caved in or their roofs collapsed; coal dust exploded. Breathing the dust was dangerous, too, leading to respiratory diseases like black lung and emphysema. Wages were low. Some coal companies paid their employees in “scrip” instead of money. Issued as metal coins or paper, “scrip” was only redeemable at the company store—which, due to a mining town’s isolated setting and the coal company’s almost total control, was the only place to buy goods. Prices, of course, were artificially high, so that management might profit again. Mother Jones came to national attention on the front lines of the so-called “Coal Wars”—armed conflicts between labor and management in Appalachia and Colorado.
These “Coal Wars” were devastating to the country, which relied on coal for almost every industry—supplying the concentrated heat to fabricate iron and steel, and powering steam engines, furnaces, and forges used for transportation, machinery, and electricity. And Jones was able to bring it all to a grinding halt. “There are 8,000 miners in this field…Not a car has been loaded to-day,” one newspaper reporter wrote, describing the effect Jones had on the output of West Virginia mines. As one of the most important figures in the movement for coal workers’ rights, she earned the ire of such powerful men as J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller Jr. But she wasn’t afraid of them. Jones’ rants against industrialists drew tremendous support: “Mother Jones by her earnestness moved the large audience to applause when she bade defiance to John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil owners and ‘invisible government’ which she held responsible for the sufferings of ‘her boys’ and the cruel sacrifice of ‘her babes,’” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of a speech Jones gave in support of striking Colorado miners in 1914.
Her “boys” were mostly white men. While Mother Jones welcomed black miners to the fight against “scab” labor hired by management to replace striking workers, she was not, in the words of biographer Elliott Gorn, “immune to bigotry.” She sometimes used language that would today be considered racist, and worried about the “importation” of immigrant strikebreakers. But overall, “the dominant theme of her life and work was inclusion, not exclusion,” even if “she probably never thought about racism and inequality as problems, which of course they were in the coal towns and in the union hierarchy.”
Women usually didn’t work in the mines, but child labor frequently contributed to the income of mining families just scraping by. Young boys could operate doors in the coal mine or sort coal above ground, while their sisters might find employment in the textile mills. Children of just 10 or 12, and some much younger, worked 60 hours a week. “Every day little children came into Union Headquarters, some with their hands off, some with the thumb missing, some with their fingers off at the knuckle,” Jones wrote in her autobiography. “They were stooped little things, round shouldered and skinny.”
In 1903, Mother Jones organized a march of 100 child mill workers—boys and girls—from Philadelphia to New York City, where, she told a reporter, “I am going to show Wall Street the flesh and blood from which it squeezes its wealth.” The long march proved too hard for some of the children, and Jones sent them back: “As we marched on, it grew terribly hot. There was no rain and the roads were heavy with dust. From time to time we had to send some of the children back to their homes. They were too weak to stand the march,” she recalled. Sixty marchers made it to New York and paraded up Second Avenue by torchlight on July 23. The following week, Jones and a delegation of five children marched to Sagamore Hill, summer home of President Theodore Roosevelt. They were unable to meet with Roosevelt, but Mother Jones’ “Children’s Crusade” did much to publicize the plight of child workers.
None of this was remotely what an elderly widow was supposed to be doing with her life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mother Jones’ behavior rubbed up against the era’s rigidly defined gender roles, which decreed women belonged in the domestic sphere, taking care of children, while their husbands went out into the world of business. In the same West Virginia courtroom where she was labeled America’s most dangerous woman, Mother Jones was lectured by a judge who told her she should follow “the lines and paths which the Allwise Being intended her sex should pursue,” or perhaps “join some Charity Organization.” Her response, as usual, was sharp and to the point: “If I had my way I would tear down every Charity Institution in the country today [and] build on their ruins the Temple of Justice.”
Refusing to follow gender norms is, of course, one of the things that made Mother Jones dangerous to the status quo. Asked by a congressman if she thought her behavior was “ladylike,” Mother Jones didn’t mince words. “A lady is a parasitical outgrowth of the system we live under,” she replied, perhaps remembering the days she sewed for Chicago’s well-to-do. How many men “lost their lives in the mines to send one society girl [presumably the mine owner’s daughter] to finishing school, give her a trip abroad, marry her off—that is, make a ‘lady’ of her?” she asked.
On the other hand, Mother Jones was more than willing to use societal expectations about “little old ladies” to her advantage. She added to the illusion of age by wearing outmoded black dresses and lied about her birth date to make herself seem more elderly than she really was. She recalled with glee how, at one railroad strike stopped by federal intervention, she “slipped through the ranks” of troops who saw her as “just an old woman going to a missionary meeting to knit mittens” instead of the famous labor agitator.
Surprisingly, she did not believe in giving women the vote. “I am not a suffragist,” she told The New York Times in 1913. “In no sense of the word am I in sympathy with woman’s suffrage.” Sounding very much like the “do as I say, not as I do” anti-ERA crusader Phyllis Schlafly in the 1970s, Mother Jones thought women were “out of place in political work.” There was already “a great responsibility” upon their shoulders, she said, “that of rearing rising generations.” A working woman and activist herself, Mother Jones ignored the needs of other working women, unmarried women as well as wives and widows whose wages helped support their families and themselves. But she also firmly believed that women could be activists without the vote. “I have never had a vote, and I have raised hell all over this country,” she told a gathering of suffragists in 1914. “You don’t need a vote to raise hell! You need convictions and a voice!” Despite their fundamental disagreement, Mother Jones nevertheless left the suffragists with some sage advice. “You must stand for free speech in the streets,” she told the crowd. “No matter what your fight, don’t be ladylike.”
Jones’ 100th birthday was celebrated across America on May 1, 1930—though it was neither her birthday nor her real age. “Though the years have robbed Mother Jones of her strength,” one paper read, “she can still make fiery speeches in a voice surprisingly strong. She can ‘cuss,’ too.” Four months later, Jones again made headline news. “Mother Jones Given 10 More Days to Live” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced on September 29, 1930. Then, as if testament to both her strength and stubbornness, a follow-up story a few days later proclaimed that Jones, despite doctors’ predictions, “remained alive today, largely because of her will to live.” When the end finally came, on November 30, 1930—fully 62 days after she had been given 10 days to live—newspapers announced that “Mother Jones will rest in death where she fought in life—beside her ‘boys.’ The centenarian [sic] labor crusader willed that she be buried in the Mt. Olive Union Miners Cemetery, dedicated to the strikers killed in the mine riot of 1898.”
All her life, Jones never mellowed. “Hell, I never have worn those and I don’t want to now,” she told a well-meaning friend who tried to pin a corsage on her at a celebration of her “100th” birthday a few months prior to her death. “Armed with only the weapons of a burning mother’s love, a flaming tongue, and indomitable spirit,” Mother Jones “went forth to convince a cold-money-glutted world of [the need for] justice, mercy, and love,” a priest recalled in his eulogy. A crowd of mourners more than a mile long followed her coffin from the church to the cemetery.
Mother Jones’ legacy for today’s social justice movement is her physical courage and unwillingness to give up or back down. Above all, Mother Jones knew how to harness the righteous anger of individuals to stand together in the face of oppression. “The enemy seeks to conquer by dividing your ranks, by making distinctions between North and South, between American and foreign,” she told a group of striking miners in 1903. “I know no East or West, North nor South when it comes to my class fighting the battle for justice.”
By Lynn Peril
This piece originally appeared in the January/February 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
Top photo: Mother Jones at the White House, 1924. Via Library of Congress, prints & photographs division [LC-DIG-NPCC-12396]
More from BUST