Mother Jones: The Woman
Mary Harris Jones, this magazine’s namesake, crafted a persona that made her a legend among working people. So why is so little about her remembered today?
By Elliot J. Gorn
May/June 2001 issue
Upton Sinclair knew Mother Jones. The author of the best-selling exposé of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle, even made her a character in one of his novels, a lightly fictionalized work called The Coal War, which chronicled the bloody Colorado coal strike of 1913-14: “There broke out a storm of applause which swelled into a tumult as a little woman came forward on the platform. She was wrinkled and old, dressed in black, looking like somebody’s grandmother; she was, in truth, the grandmother of hundreds of thousands of miners.”
Stories, Sinclair wrote, were Mother Jones’ weapons, stories “about strikes she had led and speeches she had made; about interviews with presidents and governors and captains of industry; about jails and convict camps.” She berated the miners for their cowardice, telling them if they were afraid to fight, then she would continue on alone. “All over the country she had roamed,” Sinclair concluded, “and wherever she went, the flame of protest had leaped up in the hearts of men; her story was a veritable Odyssey of revolt.”
When Sinclair wrote these words, Mother Jones was one of the most famous women in America. Articles about her regularly appeared in magazines and newspapers, and for many working Americans, she had achieved legendary, even iconic, status. Yet the woman for whom Mother Jones magazine is named is scarcely known any longer. Some might recognize her name, know something about her activism on behalf of working people, or even recall her famous war cry: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” But few remember much about Mother Jones, who battled corporate presidents and politicians, who went to jail repeatedly for organizing workers, and who converted tens of thousands of Americans to the labor movement and the left.
As I worked on a recent biography of Mother Jones, however, I came to appreciate her significance for our own times. With dramatic speeches and street theater, she organized workers, women, and minorities, drawing public attention to their hardships and giving them a voice. Mary Jones’ greatest achievement may have been creating the persona of Mother Jones. She was born Mary Harris in Cork, Ireland, in 1837. When she was barely 10 years old, she witnessed the horrors of the potato famine, which drove her family from their homeland to Toronto, Canada. Her parents established a stable, working-class household, and young Mary learned the skills of dressmaking, and also trained to be a teacher, a high ambition for an Irish immigrant woman of her day.
Wanderlust struck her in early adulthood–she taught for a few months in Monroe, Michigan, then moved on to Chicago, and another few months later to Memphis, Tennessee. There, on the eve of the Civil War, she met and married George Jones, a skilled foundry worker and a member of the International Iron Molders Union. They had four children together. In 1867 a yellow fever epidemic struck Memphis, killing George and their four children. Now a 30-year-old widow, Jones returned to Chicago and dressmaking, where her tiny shop was burned out in the great fire of 1871. For the next quarter century, she worked in obscurity. As the new 20th century approached, Mary Jones was an aging, poor, widowed Irish immigrant, nearly as dispossessed as an American could be. She had survived plague, famine, and fire, only to confront a lonely old age.
But then she invented Mother Jones. Or, to put it more precisely, she began to play a role that she and her followers made up as they went along. By 1900, no one called her Mary, but always Mother; she wore antique black dresses in public, and she began exaggerating her age.
The new role freed Mary Jones. Most American women of that era led quiet, homebound lives devoted to their families. Women, especially elderly ones, were not supposed to have opinions; if they had them, they were not to voice them publicly–and certainly not in the fiery tones of a street orator.
Yet by casting herself as the mother of downtrodden people everywhere, Mary Jones went where she pleased, spoke out on the great issues of her day, and did so with sharp irreverence (she referred to John D. Rockefeller as “Oily John” and Governor William Glasscock of West Virginia as “Crystal Peter”). Paradoxically, by embracing the very role of family matriarch that restricted most women, Mother Jones shattered the limits that confined her.
For a quarter of a century, she roamed America, the Johnny Appleseed of activists. She literally had no permanent residence. “My address is like my shoes,” she told a congressional committee. “It travels with me wherever I go.” She was paid a stipend by the United Mine Workers and, for a few years, by the Socialist Party. But she always felt free to work in whatever cause most needed her–striking garment workers in Chicago, bottle washers in Milwaukee breweries, Pittsburgh steelworkers, El Paso streetcar operators, Calumet copper miners. She helped workers fight not just low pay, 12-hour days, and horrifying mortality rates, but also the servitude of company stores and company housing. She also spoke out in defense of IWW leaders on trial for murder in Boise (she was one of the original signers of the Industrial Workers of the World charter), labor activists imprisoned in California, and Mexican revolutionaries in Arizona.
Mother Jones lost as many battles as she won, but still she got results. She was by far the most famous and charismatic organizer for the United Mine Workers. When she began working for that fledgling union in the 1890s, it had 10,000 members; within a few years, 300,000 men had joined, and she organized many of their wives into “mop and broom” brigades, militant women who fought alongside their husbands.
The moniker “Mother” Jones was no mere rhetorical device. At the core of her beliefs was the idea that justice for working people depended on strong families, and strong families required decent working conditions. In 1903, after she was already nationally known from bitter mine wars in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, she organized her famous “march of the mill children” from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s summer home on Long Island. Every day, she and a few dozen children–boys and girls, some 12 and 14 years old, some crippled by the machinery of the textile mills–walked to a new town, and at night they staged rallies with music, skits, and speeches, drawing thousands of citizens. Federal laws against child labor would not come for decades, but for two months that summer, Mother Jones, with her street theater and speeches, made the issue front-page news.
The rock of Mother Jones’ faith was her conviction that working Americans acting together must free themselves from poverty and powerlessness. She believed in the need for citizens of a democracy to participate in public affairs. Working families, Mother Jones argued, possessed vast, untapped powers to fight the corporations that bound them to starvation wages and the corrupt politicians who did the businessmen’s bidding. But only strong, democratic organizations of citizen-activists, she felt, could achieve real egalitarian change. So, as we reclaim the memory of this great American, what was her legacy for the 21st century? Certainly some of her impassioned rhetoric would seem overheated in the cool medium of television. And in a world where oratory is a lost art, her speeches today might come across as over-blown and strident, even to many progressives.
Her agenda was also limited, even by the standards of her time. Mother Jones opposed giving the vote to women–or, to be more precise, she believed that suffrage was a false issue, a bourgeois diversion from the real problem of worker exploitation. She argued that only powerful organizations of workers–industrial unions–could bring justice. And while she helped organize women in various trades, she believed that working-class women were better off in the home than having their labor exploited.
In a sense, Mother Jones’ greatest strength was also her fundamental weakness: She saw the world primarily through the lens of class. Her single-mindedness sometimes blinded her to the unique issues facing women and minorities. Yet such myopia might help bring a little clarity to our own times. She offers a vivid reminder of what remains among the most underacknowledged issues of our day: that America is a class-riven society, where the wealthy have grown obscenely rich as working people have fallen further behind.
Here, Mother Jones’ voice would have risen loud and clear. Her memory evokes the great American tradition of protest. It reminds us that passion still matters, and that a well-crafted symbol can offer inspiration, emboldening us in a world where the possibility of meaningful change sometimes seems beyond our reach.
Mother Jones’ founders envisioned a magazine devoted to a new brand of socially conscious journalism—one that took on corporate as well as political power. Twenty-five years later, that mission remains as timely as ever.
By Adam Hochschild
May/June 2001 issue
When the first issue of Mother Jones arrived back from the printer 25 years ago, the 17 of us then on the magazine’s staff eagerly clustered around to rip open the boxes and touch and feel the printed pages at last. We were then working in cramped quarters above a San Francisco McDonald’s, and the smell of frying burgers drifted up from below. We would have been amazed to know that the magazine would still be here, some 200 issues and several offices later. Multinationals like McDonald’s endure forever, it seems, while dissenting magazines flare up, attract a little attention, and then die. While copies of Mother Jones may not blanket the world today quite as thoroughly as do Big Macs, more than 165,000 households will receive the issue you are reading, and the magazine’s Web site logs 1.25 million page views each month.
None of us here a quarter century ago could have dreamed of the World Wide Web; in fact, for the first few years the magazine was even set in hot type, a 19th-century technology using molten lead. Look at an early issue of Mother Jones under a magnifying glass and you’ll notice the subtly irregular pits and flecks in the letters. Printing purists feel about hot type the way rail buffs feel about steam engines. But despite changes in how the magazine is produced, the causes it covers and its passion for justice are very much the same.
Mother Jones was born in a time of upheaval. It was early 1974 when several of us first met in the San Francisco living room of the late journalist and activist Paul Jacobs to begin planning the magazine. We were still living in the afterglow of the 1960s, when the civil rights and antiwar movements had put hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets, shaken the country to its core, brought an end to legal segregation, and helped force U.S. withdrawal from the bloody, unjust war in Vietnam.
Although these crusades were fragmented or spent by the early ’70s, it was still a heady time politically. The movements for environmental protection and for women’s rights had just been born, or, more correctly speaking, reborn. The language of progressive politics had deepened. People who dreamed of a more just society now began to understand that the personal was also political, and that politics also included the health of our fragile and much-abused planet. In a sense, it seemed as if the ’60s were still going on, with new strains of activism in the air and new political earthquakes to come. We were, perhaps, a bit too naive about the remarkable staying power of the American political and corporate system.
Something else was in the air in 1974. Two enterprising young Washington Post reporters had uncovered the Watergate scandal; when Richard Nixon resigned in August of that year, investigative journalism had changed the course of history. For anyone who believed in the power of the printed word, it was an exhilarating moment. And in the late ’60s and early ’70s, cities throughout the country were giving birth to alternative newspapers, many with a strong progressive bent. It was among reporters for this new generation of weeklies that Mother Jones found many of its best writers.
Up until that time, American investigative journalists had traditionally targeted politicians. We thought the country was ready for a magazine of investigative reporting that would focus on the great unelected power wielders of our time—multinational corporations. And we wanted that reporting to carry far. That meant it had to be a magazine that was well written: For our very first issue, Jeffrey Klein, one of the editors, found a piece by Li-li Ch’en that ended up winning a National Magazine Award. It also meant a magazine that would attract the eye: Louise Kollenbaum, our art director, designed a publication that would be a home for first-rate photographs and artwork. And finally it meant a magazine with the careful business planning necessary to take us well beyond the relatively small readership of the older left-leaning periodicals. Richard Parker, who worked as both editor and publisher, saw to it that Mother Jones took the best of what could be learned from the world of commercial publishing. Two of the talented young writers who first appeared in Mother Jones during the 1970s, Doug Foster and Deirdre English, each later went on to spend more than five years as the magazine’s top editor.
Once launched, the magazine took about a year and a half to fully hit its stride. It was clear when that happened, in the late summer of 1977. Mark Dowie was business manager of Mother Jones. In his spare time, he had written and published one piece in the magazine. One day an insurance investigator he knew asked him, “Have you heard about the Ford Pinto?” The Pinto, then the best-selling subcompact car in America, had a reputation for bursting into flames when rear-ended at low speeds. Dowie’s investigation yielded an extraordinary tale. Not only had Pinto crashes killed at least 500 people and painfully injured many more, but even before the first Pintos came off the assembly line, company engineers had warned management that the gas tank was dangerously close to the rear of the car. Ford executives then projected that it would cost them more money to shut down and retool their assembly line than to pay off the damage claims from the anticipated deaths and injuries. Dowie obtained the memo where they made these cost-benefit calculations.
Dowie’s story won many awards and got repeated by major newspapers, TV networks, and talk-radio programs. And that is how many of the magazine’s stories have had the greatest impact: by being picked up in the establishment media, which are usually too timid to launch Mother Jones-style investigations, despite their vastly greater resources.
The Pinto exposé was also the first time all of us at the magazine tasted the greatest pleasure of working at a place like this—hearing your enemies denounce you. Pressed by dozens of reporters for comment, Ford issued a statement claiming that Dowie’s story was all wrong, filled with “distortions and half-truths.” Several months later, racing to forestall a government safety hearing, Ford recalled 1.5 million Pintos for repairs.
Not long after this, we were paid a tribute of a different sort. It had never surprised us that Mother Jones annoyed repressive governments—our writers had had copies of the magazine confiscated from their baggage at Soviet airports and at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, and had been barked at by government officials and U.S. diplomats in places like El Salvador. But after a number of our stories irked authorities in Washington, the Internal Revenue Service launched an investigation into the magazine’s nonprofit status. And once the Reagan administration came into office, the probe took a harsh turn. The IRS claimed that even though Mother Jones lost money every year, it should pay taxes on the income it received from sources like advertising. This vendetta was so absurd that many mainstream newspapers ran editorials in our defense. The IRS finally dropped the case, but not until it had cost us huge legal bills.
Dozens more corporate exposés followed the Pinto story. In 1979, a team of writers put together a prize-winning package of stories on “dumping”—the unloading on Third World countries of pesticides, medicines, and other products banned in the United States as unsafe. The stories’ impact rippled throughout the world, and lawmakers in three countries introduced bills outlawing dumping. No one used the word globalization in those days, but you can’t cover U.S. corporate malfeasance without following the story abroad. Today that is more true than ever.
Mother Jones has also remained a strong voice for social justice: Racial discrimination, women’s rights, environmental justice, and the plight of immigrant farmworkers are all issues you will find covered in the magazine from its first year of publication to the present. Another major theme over the years—from investigations of costly, useless weapons programs in the Carter and Reagan military budgets to the U.S. Arms Trade Atlas on today’s Mother Jones Web site—has been the bloated American military budget and the way the United States uses its superpower influence overseas.
Although the magazine’s values have remained constant over the last quarter century, the world it exists in has changed enormously. The gap between rich and poor has grown wider—worldwide and in our home city of San Francisco, where the silicon boom has filled the streets with SUVs and has pushed rents far beyond what artists or the poor can afford. And while big money has always called the tune in American politics, the money has become bigger than ever and its influence ever more blatant. In 1996, the magazine launched the Mother Jones 400, an investigation of the largest donors to political campaigns. The latest MoJo 400, which appeared in the March/April issue, examined the business sectors that financed the campaign of George W. Bush—and what they expected in return.
American journalism has also changed markedly between 1976 and 2001. Twenty-five years ago an exposé that showed how a major corporation’s products injured people was certain to outrage readers; we could be sure hundreds of them would write to their members of Congress, join a boycott campaign. But in the electronic age, people often feel they are drowning in information. The investigative journalist must meet a higher standard. He or she must not only provide crucial detail that cannot be found elsewhere, but must tell the story in such a way that readers cannot put the magazine down. And sometimes even that is not enough to force citizens or governments into action. Look at the long delay before Europe and the United States intervened, ever so reluctantly, in the former Yugoslavia—and didn’t intervene at all to stop the genocide in Rwanda.
Since our birth in 1976, control of the American mass media has become ever more centralized. When our friend Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, published his 1983 book, The Media Monopoly, it was subtitled A Startling Report on the 50 Corporations That Control What America Sees, Hears and Reads. In each subsequent edition, Bagdikian jokes, he has had to reduce the number of corporations; it is now down to six. All of this makes alternative, noncorporate news sources like Mother Jones more crucial than ever. One thing you can be sure of is that the magazine will never be part of AOL Time Warner.
Yet one of this country’s great paradoxes is that new forms of media monopoly and of free speech evolve at the very same time. If the 17 staff members who cheered the arrival of those first boxes of Mother Jones had gone to sleep like Rip van Winkle and then woken up today, one thing would leave us amazed and cautiously heartened: the Internet’s capacity to bring dissenting points of view to millions of people all over the world—and to enable those people to communicate with one another. Mother Jones was part of this process early on, in 1993, when it became the first general-interest magazine to publish on the Web.
So what can a Rip van Winkle of today expect in Mother Jones on its 50th anniversary? Perhaps by then both paper and computers will have been replaced by something we cannot even imagine. But technology is not what matters. One thing is certain: The world of 2026 will not have seen the end of injustice, of discrimination, of poverty, and of political and social violence. It will still have brave, determined men and women everywhere who will be fighting to change all of that. And Mother Jones will be on their side.