“Mother” Jones

Don Wyeth

“Mother” Jones

2 mins
July 13, 2021

 I recently discovered another historical figure that was completely omitted from my high school American History class; one Mary G. Harris, baptized August 1, 1837, County Cork, Ireland and died November 30, 1930, Adelphi, Maryland (aged 93). 

“Harris and her family were victims of the Great Irish Potato Famine, as were many other Irish families. The famine drove more than a million families, including the Harrises, to immigrate to North America when Harris was 10.” womenshistory.org. When she was in her teens, her family immigrated to Canada and then to the United States, where they were the target of severe dis-crimination because of their immigrant status and the fact that they were Irish Catholics.

After graduating from a normal (teacher education) school on the East Coast, she moved to Chicago, married George E. Jones and had four children. Tragically, however, she lost her husband and all four children to yellow fever in 1867. A millinery shop that she operated at the time consequently burned in the great Chicago fire of 1871. At this turning point in her life, she became active in the union movement and “…became an organizer for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers union.” en.wikipedia.org.

Mary Jones emerged as one of the most famous female labor activist of the 19 century. She was a self-professed hell raiser in the area of economic justice concerns. “She was so strident that a US attorney once labeled her the most dangerous woman in America.”

Mother Jones

Addressing a large crowd at a railway union convention in 1897, the men of that union began to refer to her as Mother Jones, a moniker that would stick with her for the rest of her life. She was supported by millions of working man and women in her crusade “…for her efforts on behalf of the miners.” aflcio.org.

In the United States Census of 1900, a full 1/6 of American children under 16 years old were part of the labor force. “In 1901, workers in Pennsylvania's silk mills went on strike. Many of them were young women demanding to be paid adult wages. … John Mitchell, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, brought Mother Jones to north-east Pennsylvania in the months of February and September to encourage unity among striking workers.” 

Mary had some interesting tactics upper sleeve for this moment, which were quite effective. “[S]he encouraged the wives of the workers to organize into a group that would wield brooms, beat on tin pans, and shout "join the union!"  She felt that wives had an important role to play as the nurturers and motivators of the striking men, but not as fellow workers.” She openly accused the mill owners of robbing and demoralizing young female workers; denying these young women their right to go to school.  “In 1903, she organized a Children's March from Philadelphia to the home of then president Theodore Roosevelt in New York.”

Mother Jones continued her union organizing work for the UNWA into the 1920s and was invited to frequently speak at union gatherings until her death. She left behind an invaluable account of her experiences in the labor movement; The Autobiography of Mother Jones (1925). 

In her twilight years she went to go live with her friends Walter and Lilly May Burgess on a farm in Adelphi, Maryland. She stands in a group of social giants along side of Susan B Anthony who left our country a better and more equitable place.

This article was orginally reported by
Don Wyeth

Passionate and intelligent columnist from Madison, WI.