A Celebration of Women Writers

Mary Harris (Mother) Jones: c. 1837-1930

Who was "Mother Jones"?

According to a West Virginia District Attorney named Reese Blizzard, Mother Jones was "the most dangerous woman in America". According to Clarence Darrow, she was "one of the most forceful and picturesque figures of the American labor movement". Sixty-five years after her death, her name is still part of current culture, as the title of a magazine.

While Mary Harris claimed 1830 as her birthdate, researchers suggest that it was more likely 1837, in County Cork, Ireland. Her family emigrated to Toronto, Canada, when she was a child. She trained to be a teacher at Toronto Normal School from 1858-1859, and worked briefly as a teacher and as a dressmaker. In 1861, Mary Harris married George Jones, an iron molder and union organizer, in Memphis, Tennessee. The couple had four children - but all four children, and Mary's husband, died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1867. Mary Jones returned to Chicago, where she worked as a dressmaker until her shop was destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871.

During the next few years, "Mother" Jones became increasingly active in the union movement. Her life is in some ways a history of the labour movement in the United States. A brief sampling of her activities reports her involved in the rail strike of 1877, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere; organizing the coal fields of Pennsylvania in 1899; at the founding convention of the IWW in 1905; visiting rebel Mexico in 1911; being arrested at Homestead in 1919; and working with dressmakers in Chicago in1924.

Mother Jones has a notable place in American history. Her work as a union organizer and orator and her influence on the making of history have had more lasting significance than her writing. However, The Autobiography of Mother Jones which she partly wrote and partly dictated, clearly illustrates the power of both her voice and her convictions. Written in a natural, colloquial style, it paints a forceful picture of the working conditions and people of the mining camps, railroad towns, and textile industry that she worked with. A sense of her voice can also be obtained from a short article which she wrote in 1901. A tributeby Eugene V. Debs gives a view of her life as seen by one of her contemporaries.

Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living! - Mother Jones

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom