Mary Harris Jones

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Mary "Mother" Jones (18301930) is one of the great legends of American progressive politics. After losing her own family to yellow fever, Mary Jones found in the lives of the downtrodden a new family to nurture and support. She did this for seventy years as a trade union organizer, a feminist, and a campaigner against child labor in America.

"Mother Jones" was born in 1830, near Dublin, Ireland to parents who were eager to emigrate. When Mary was five years old, her father came to America, where he went to work building canals and railroads, a job similar to the one he had held in Ireland. Once he became a naturalized American citizen around 1840, he sent for his wife and daughter.

The family first settled in Toronto, Canada, where Mary's father was working on one of the first Canadian railroads. They later moved to Michigan. Mary was an excellent student and she graduated with high honors from high school. She became a teacher at a Catholic school in Monroe, Michigan, soon after graduation.

She moved to Chicago to explore the possibilities of becoming a professional dressmaker, but, at age 30, returned to teaching, this time in Memphis, Tennessee. There she met and married Robert Jones, an iron worker who was an enthusiastic member of the Iron Moulder's Union. During the first four years of their marriage they had four children. Work was plentiful in Tennessee, and for a time the family enjoyed a modest prosperity. But in 1867 a sudden yellow fever epidemic swept through Memphis, taking the lives of Mary's husband and all of her children. At 37, Mary Jones's life was devastated and she was completely on her own.

She returned to Chicago and worked as a dressmaker, but her bad luck continued when her dressmaking business was destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871. Homeless and penniless, she turned to her deceased husband's fellow union members for help. Their compassion towards her touched her heart. She felt that the union had saved her life. From that time on, she pursued union organizing with an astonishing enthusiasm that made her an American legend.

Mary Jones began working as a union activist with the Knights of Labor. This union was founded in 1869 in an attempt to unite all workers under a single organization. Mary discovered she had a real talent for inspiring others with her speeches. The Knights of Labor often sent her to particularly tense spots during strikes. She could inspire workers to stay with the union during the hard days of labor action, when there was neither work nor money.

Joining strikers in the coal mines of Pennsylvania in 1873, she witnessed conditions bordering on slavery and children near starvation. Her own Irish heritage caused her to work passionately on behalf of the mostly Irish workers. It was her kindly, protective concern for the workers in the Pennsylvania coal mines that earned her the nickname "Mother Jones."

Mother Jones moved from strike to strike. In 1877 she was involved in the nationwide walkout for better conditions for railroad workers. In 1880 she was in Chicago on behalf of workers trying to obtain an eight-hour day. She also took part in the strike at the McCormick-Harvester works, where a bomb killed several policemen and police fired randomly into a crowd of union workers, killing 11 people and wounding dozens of others.

In her 60s Mother Jones became an organizer for the United Mine Workers Union. Since judges were reluctant to jail such an elderly woman, her age was an asset to the union movement. As she grew older, her attention focused on securing laws that prohibited child labor. She made speeches and engaged newspaper writers to accompany her to places where children were working in slave-like conditions. She also became active in the movement to obtain the right of women to vote.

During the final years of her life, Jones continued to move around the country, giving fiery speeches and organizing workers. She was one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party in 1898 and of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. She helped to organize the coal fields of Pennsylvania in 1899. At age 82 she was arrested during a violent strike in West Virginia and sentenced to 20 years in jail. Public outcry was so loud that she was pardoned by the governor and released. She then went on to spend six days in Michigan's Copper Country in August 1913, supporting a copper miners' strike. A woman of astonishing vigor, she marched three blocks in a miners' parade at age 83. In her 90s, she returned to Chicago to work at organizing dressmakers.

On her 100th birthday Mother Jones was asked to speak on the radio about her experiences. She spoke long and well, denouncing the exploitation by business of the American worker and urging all her listeners to organize to transform an unjust society that had fallen into a great Depression. Unchanged by time and full of passion for justice for the American worker, Mother Jones died in Silver Springs, Maryland, in 1930. She became a legend in her lifetime.

See also: Chicago Fire of 1871, Industrial Workers of the World, Knights of Labor, Labor Movement, United Mine Workers


Fetherling, Dale. Mother Jones, Miner's Angel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974.

Mooney, Fred. Struggle in the Coal Fields. Morgantown: West Virginia University Library, 1967.

Jones, Mary Harris. Autobiography of Mother Jones. Mary Parton, ed. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1925.

. Mother Jones Speaks: Collected Speeches and Writings. Philip S. Foner, ed. New York: Monad Press, 1983.

. The Correspondence of Mother Jones. Edward Steel, ed. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

Werstein, Irving. Labor's Defiant Lady: The Story of Mother Jones. New York: Thomas Crowell Press, 1969.

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JONES, Mary Harris

Born 1 May circa 1830, Cork, Ireland; died 30 November 1930, Silver Spring, Maryland

Wrote under: Mother Jones

Daughter of Richard and Helen M. Harris; married George Jones, 1861 (died 1867)

A descendant of Irish freedom fighters, Mary Harris Jones attended public schools in Toronto, where her father had found railroad work. Her early career alternated between teaching and dressmaking in the U.S. and Canada. In 1867 her husband (an iron molder and union organizer) and four children perished in a yellow fever epidemic, and Jones began a new life as a Chicago dressmaker. Tragedy again intervened: the Chicago Fire destroyed her business in 1871.

Jones' lifework arose from the ashes when she became involved with the Knights of Labor. Her career as union gadfly, wandering wherever workers needed organizing, renewed commitment, or publicity, began with a Pittsburgh railroad strike in 1877. Jones expended her greatest efforts on behalf of miners, particularly in the bitter struggles in West Virginia and Ludlow, Colorado, where she was jailed for her organizing work. She also exposed abusive child labor, conducting undercover investigations in Southern mills and organizing a march of child strikers.

She helped establish the radical labor publication An Appeal to Reason in 1895 and the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, supported the Mexican Revolution in 1910, and spoke at the first Pan American Labor Conference in 1921. Before she died, shortly after claiming her 100th birthday, Jones had attained the status of labor's guardian angel, able to unify workers with fiery rhetoric emphasizing principles that transcended union politics.

Jones was primarily an activist and orator; her recorded speeches and testimony before Congressional committees reveal the power of her unminced words and florid metaphors. Her writings retain an oratorical quality; compelling calls to action, memories of earlier struggles, denunciations of capitalist ogres, and forthright statements of principle are loosely organized and dramatically presented.

Jones' articles in the International Socialist Review paint a horrifying picture of life in Southern mills and coal mines, and denounce church and legislative complicity supporting such conditions. Child labor aroused her maternal wrath; she warns of its dire consequences for the health of the children and the nation. Although she calls for the replacement of oppressive capitalism with socialism, her articles lack any theoretical strategies for social reconstruction.

In her Autobiography of Mother Jones (1925, edited by M. F. Parton), Jones elaborates upon these themes, while presenting herself as the tireless, roving champion of the oppressed, conveniently disguised as an old woman more readily suspected of knitting "mittens for the heathens of Africa" than fomenting workers' revolts. Although disorganized and inaccurate in details and chronology, Jones provides readers with graphic personal reminiscences of most major labor upheavals of her era and reveals her genius for dramatic strategies to publicize her cause.

Jones' class consciousness is paramount in her autobiography and explains her negative evaluations of prohibition and woman suffrage. Although a feminist in her personal assertiveness, her denunciation of the "lady," and her insistence that the militancy of miners' wives determines a strike's success, Jones criticizes the concept of careers for women. She sees factory work, the career open to women of her class, as less satisfying than raising a family and states as her ultimate goal a society that provides amply for family welfare. Espousing no consistent theoretical dogma, she chooses her stands on all issues according to her convictions.

Selflessly eschewing financial rewards for her work, Jones, in her autobiography, criticizes those union leaders who enrich themselves in the cause. She does not similarly reject the rewards of notoriety; seeing herself as an agitator in the tradition of Jesus and the American heroes of 1776, she takes pride in her designation by her foes as "the most dangerous woman in the country."

Jones provides us with one of the foremost American examples of the worldwide phenomenon of the power of postmenopausal women, who, exempt from the demands of childbearing, use maternal qualities in a new leadership role. Her importance as a union organizer and reputation as indomitable unionism personified have been undeservedly forgotten. Jones's autobiography forces us to remember her and her philosophy, women's activity in the developing labor movement, and the relationship of class to feminism.

Other Works:

Excerpt from The Autobiography of Mother Jones in Motherland: Writings by Irish American Women About Mothers and Daughters (1999).

The papers of Mary Harris Jones are at the Department of Manuscripts and Archives, Catholic University, Washington, D.C.


Ashby, R. and D. G. Ohrn, eds., Herstory: Women Who Changed the World (1995). Downing, C. A., An Examination of Rhetorical Strategies Utilized by Mary Harris "Mother" Jones Within the Context of the Agitative Rhetoric Model Developed by John Waite Bowers and Donovan J. Ochs (dissertation, 1987). Felder, D. G., The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time: A Ranking Past and Present (1996). Fetherling, D., Mother Jones, the Miners' Angel (1974). Goldfarb, R. L., "A Rhetorical Analysis of Selected Speeches of Mary Harris "Mother" Jones" (thesis, 1966). Mikeal, J. E., "Mother Jones: The Labor Movement's Impious Joan of Arc" (thesis, 1965). Nies, J., Seven Women (1977). Raffaele, Sister J. F., "Mary Harris Jones and the United Mine Workers" (thesis, 1969). Rolka, G. M., 100 Women Who Shaped World History (1994). Scholten, P. C., Militant Women for Economic Justice: The Persuasion of Mary Harris Jones, Ella Reeve Bloor, Rose Pastor Stokes, Rose Schneiderman, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (dissertation, 1986). Thompson, F., Introduction and Bibliography to The Autobiography of Mother Jones (1976). Tonn, M. B., "Effecting Labor Reform Through Stories: The Narrative Rhetorical Style of Mary Harris (Mother) Jones" in Constructing and Reconstructing Gender: The Links Among Communication, Language, and Gender (1992). Tonn, M. B., The Rhetorical Personae of Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, Industrial Labor's Maternal Prophet (dissertation, 1989). Truman, M., Women of Courage (1977).

Reference works:

DAB. Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (1937). NCAB. NAW.

Other references:

Labor Hall of Fame (1996). NR (20 Feb. 1915). NYT Magazine (1 June 1913).


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Mary Harris Jones

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (1830-1930) was an Irish immigrant who devoted her life to improving conditions of the working class. A vagabond agitator, she worked primarily among miners, supporting their strikes and urging them to unionize.

The early years of Mary Harris Jones are obscured by lack of records and her own inconsistencies in reporting her history. She was born in 1830 (some historians argue that 1843 is the accurate date) to Irish parents who migrated to America when she was a child. She graduated from normal school in Toronto, taught in public and parochial schools in Canada and the United States, and practiced the trade of dressmaking in Chicago. She took a teaching job in Memphis, Tennessee, where she met and married George E. Jones, an iron moulder, in 1861. Six years later, she lost her husband and four children to a yellow fever epidemic.

Jones returned to Chicago and dressmaking. Made homeless by the Great Fire of 1871, she began to attend meetings of the Knights of Labor. There she developed her commitment to rectifying inhumane working conditions, and she began a life-long friendship with Terrence V. Powderly, who led the Knights from 1879 to 1893. Jones's particular contribution was to mobilize workers and to publicize their plight, which she did with her forceful personality and her flamboyant and salty oratory. Without a home, she went from town to town, from strike to strike, staying in hotels, in the homes of sympathizers, or in jails. When asked where she lived, she replied, "Wherever there is a fight."

Mother Jones worked on behalf of workers in the railroad, steel, copper, brewing, garment, and textile industries. She was particularly appalled by child labor, and in 1903 she marched with a group of adult and child textile workers from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt's home at Oyster Bay, New York, in a public demonstration against the evils of child labor. But she worked most prominently and persistently among the coal miners of West Virginia and Colorado. At times the United Mine Workers paid her a salary, though she was often at odds with its leadership. The miners themselves adored her and called her "Mother."

Jones's own courage and willingness to risk arrest, jail, and violence served powerfully to inspire the miners. She also exhorted women to support strikes, and she developed the tactic of organizing miners' wives, armed with mops and brooms, to demonstrate and to keep strikebreakers from entering the mines. While she encouraged militance among women in mining families, she held traditional ideas about women. Jones sometimes joined in labor activism with working women, but she did not believe that women should work outside the home. She publicly opposed women's suffrage, in part because its supporters were mostly privileged women and because it would co-opt working-class women and divert them from economic issues. She said, "You don't need the vote to raise hell."

A pragmatic socialist who on occasion supported Democratic candidates, Jones was more interested in immediate reforms than in long-range socialist goals. She helped to found the Social Democratic Party in 1898 and the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, but she never lived easily in any organization and frequently clashed with leaders and associates. She served in the defense of various radicals, including Western Federation of Miners' leaders Bill Haywood, George Moyer, and George Pettibone; California socialist Tom Mooney; and Mexican rebels who were imprisoned in the United States.

Jones continued to be active past 1920 when, by her count then, she was in her nineties. She spent most of her last decade at the Washington, D.C., home of the Powderlys. On May 1, 1930, the American Federation of Labor staged celebrations of her birth in major cities, which Jones addressed by radio. Though ill, she enjoyed visits by reporters and hundreds of well-wishers. She died on November 30. As she had wished, Mother Jones was buried in the Miners' Cemetery in Mt. Olive, Illinois, near the graves of miners killed in the labor strife at Virden in 1898.

Further Reading

Jones published her autobiography in 1925, but Autobiography of Mother Jones (paper edition, 1969), contains major gaps and inaccuracies. Dale Fetherling, Mother Jones, The Miners' Angel: A Portrait (1974) provides the fullest account of her life; the much briefer Mother Jones, Woman Organizer; and Her Relations with Miners' Wives, Working Women, and the Suffrage Women (1976) examines her life from an interesting angle. The magazine Mother Jonescontinued to publish in the 1980s, retaining some of the activism of its namesake. □

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Mary Harris Jones, 1830–1930, American labor agitator, called Mother Jones, b. Ireland. Interested in the labor movement for many years, she became active in it after the death of her husband and four children (1867) from yellow fever. She won fame as an effective speaker and by 1880 was a prominent figure in the movement. One of the founders of the Social Democratic party (1898) and the Industrial Workers of the World (1905), she was active in organizing miners, garment workers, and streetcar workers. In 1913, her organizing activities were blamed for violence in West Virginia coal fields and she was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. The sentence was commuted, and in 1914 her graphic description of the massacre of 20 people by machine-gun fire during a Ludlow, Colo., miner's strike convinced President Wilson to try to mediate the dispute. A long-time champion of laws to end child labor, she continued as a union organizer and agitator into her nineties. She wrote an autobiography in 1925, which contains some factual inaccuracies.

See biographies by D. Fetherling (1974) and E. J. Gorn (2001).