Portrait of Mary "Mother" Jones Poster
Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (August 1, 1837 – November 30, 1930), born in Cork, Ireland, was a prominent American labour and community organiser, who helped co-ordinate major strikes and co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World. Her activities were done under the moniker of Mother Jones, after which Mother Jones magazine is named.
Jones emigrated with her family to Canada when she was roughly fourteen or fifteen years old. The young Mary acquired a Catholic education in Toronto before her family moved to the United States. She became a teacher in a convent in Monroe, Michigan. After becoming tired of her assumed profession, she moved first to Chicago and later to Memphis, where she married George Jones, a member of the Iron Workers' Union, in 1861. She eventually opened a dress shop in Memphis on the eve of the Civil War.
Two turning points in her life were the 1867 deaths of her husband and their four children (all under the age of five) during a yellow fever epidemic in Tennessee, and the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. After her entire family succumbed to the disease, she returned to Chicago to begin another dressmaking business. She lost her hard-earned home, shop and possessions in the Great Fire. This second loss catalysed an even more fundamental transformation: she turned to the nascent labour movement and joined the Knights of Labour, a predecessor to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or "Wobblies"). The Haymarket Riot of 1887 and the fear of anarchism and revolution incited by union organisations led to the rapid demise of the Knights of Labour. Once the Knights ceased to exist, Mary Jones became largely affiliated with the United Mine Workers. With the UMW, she frequently led strikers in picketing and encouraged the striking workers to stay on strike when the management brought in strike-breakers and militias. As another source of her transformation into a radical organiser, biographer Elliott Gorn draws out her early Roman Catholic connection – including bringing to light her relationship to her estranged brother, Father William Richard Harris, Roman Catholic teacher, writer, pastor, and Dean of the Niagara Peninsula (in St Catherine's) in the Diocese of Toronto, who was "among the best-known clerics in Ontario." It is likely that Mary Jones’ political views were also shaped by the 1877 railroad strike, Chicago’s radical labour movement, and the Haymarket Riot and depression of 1886. Active as an organiser and educator in strikes throughout the country at the time, she was particularly involved with the UMW and the Socialist Party of America. As a union organiser, she gained prominence for organising the wives and children of striking workers in demonstrations on their behalf. She became known as "the most dangerous woman in America," a phrase coined by a West Virginia district attorney, Reese Blizzard, in 1902, at her trial for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking miners. "There sits the most dangerous woman in America", announced Blizzard. "She crooks her finger—twenty thousand contented men lay down."
Mary Jones was ideologically separated from many of the other female activists of the pre-Nineteenth Amendment days due to her aversion to female suffrage. She was quoted as saying that “You don’t need the vote to raise hell!” Her opposition to women taking an active role in politics was based on her belief that the neglect of motherhood was a primary cause of juvenile delinquency.
Jones became known as a charismatic and effective speaker throughout her career. She was a storyteller, who would liven her rhetoric with real and folk-tale characters, punctuate with participation from audience members, flavour it with passion, and include humour-ridden methods to rile up the crowd such as profanity, name-calling, and wit. Occasionally she would include props, visual aids, and dramatic stunts for effect. By the age of sixty, she had effectively assumed the persona of Mother Jones by claiming to be older than she actually was, wearing outdated black dresses and referring to the male workers that she supported as ‘her boys’. The first reference to her in print as ‘Mother Jones’ was in 1897
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