Who was Mother Jones?

1 Mother JonesMary Harris “Mother” Jones was a fearless fighter for workers’ rights. When she was mocked as the “grandmother of all agitators,” in the U.S. Senate, Mother Jones replied that she would someday like to be called “the great-grandmother of all agitators.” She helped to shape a spirit of civil disobedience in the cause of justice. Mother Jones deeply believed that a workers movement would replace “this moneyed civilization with a higher and grander civilization for the ages to come.”

Mary Harris’ early life was shaped by struggles that she viewed as part of a system of class injustice. She was born in 1837 in Cork, Ireland, enduring the Great Hunger where she witnessed starved corpses carted off while food was taken to the ports of the River Lee to be exported. Harris emigrated to Canada and  then the U.S., earning a living as a teacher and seamstress, then moved to Memphis where she married union iron molder George Jones and started a family. But when yellow fever struck the city, “the rich and the well-to-do fled the city”, while workers like her husband perished from it. “One by one my four little children sickened and died. . . I sat alone through nights of grief. No one came to me. No one could.” Jones then moved to Chicago, where she sewed for the wealthy until the Great Fire of 1871 made her homeless.

Jones emerged from these struggles indomitable, inspired by the birth of a new labor and socialist movement that contested these injustices. When asked to state her address, Jones often replied that her home was “wherever there was a fight.” From the 1890s through the 1920s she was on the road, and played a role in many strikes and demonstrations. Many commentators and newspapers called her a “folk hero” and “most well-known woman” in the United States. On this website, we are building a map that shows the breadth of her involvement.

Jones emerged as an activist as part of the unemployed movement of the 1890s, which in style was similar to the Occupy Wall Street movement–occupation and encouragement of militant direct action. This movement became connected to the new industrial unions of the era, the American Railway Union organized by Eugene Debs, and the United Mine Workers Union, which launched major strikes in mid-1894. While the armies and the strikes were bitterly crushed and ridiculed, they helped to shape Jones and others to create a movement that mobilized communities of struggle.

Three years later, the United Mine Workers launched a strike for a living wage in the coal fields. Jones was a strategic part of the union since that time. It was more than about union contract for her. She argued that ordinary miners should direct their economic destiny and that the public  should own the coal and natural resources, not corporations. She believed in organizing at the community level to demonstrate workers capacity for managing their destiny. She believed that the so-called unskilled worker, immigrants and African-Americans should be the base of the new movement. She put women and children at the center of struggles in the coal fields, making a family-based movement.

One of the Jones’ key contributions was building workers’ commitment to unionism that bridged racial and ethnic divisions. She condemned white supremacists in the union movement, and argued for instance that the black miners of West Virginia were the best trade unionists. In the southwest, she argued Mexicans and Italians should be the base for the movement. When an African-American woman, impressed with Mother Jones commitment to their cause, suggested she would kiss Jones’ skirt hem in gratitude, Jones replied, “Not in the dust, sister, to me, but here on my breast, heart to heart.”

13 MOther Jones Seattle

Mother Jones speaking in Seattle

A friend observed that Jones “is above and beyond all, one of the working class… Wherever she goes she enters into the lives of the toilers and becomes a part of them.”

Jones was also a transnational organizer who believed in a global labor movement. By 1910 she was the most well-known U.S. figure fighting for Mexican labor revolutionaries against the Diaz dictatorship and his U.S. corporate and political supporters. The Mexican rebels were part of the same cause as American unionists, she argued. When she traveled to Mexico in 1921, workers threw red carnations and blue violets around Jones, who they called Madre Juanita, until she was covered up to her shoulders.

Much has been written about Mother Jones, and this site provides a window to appreciative and critical works on her. She was called the “miner’s angel” but she rejected that label, saying, “I’m no angel.” We don’t think she was a saint and don’t think history is well-served by considering her uncritically.  But we think her life opens a window to understanding how ordinary people responded and rebelled against growing inequality in the late 19th and early 20th century. Her story covers a wide swath of history that is seldom remembered; it opens a window for discussion.

Her dream and the dreams of ordinary workers who considered her a folk hero were not realized in her time, but these ideas allow us to think of labor and human rights with a new appreciation for difficulties and promises.

Today, a resurgence of economic inequality has caused a renewed interest in her life. In 2012, Mother Jones was honored with the Cork Mother Jones Festival, bringing her to life in the city of her birth. Her story, they felt, deserves a new audience. We couldn’t agree more. Join us in building the Mother Jones Heritage Project, including the Mother Jones Museum in Mt. Olive, Illinois.