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-driven 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.
Elliott J. Gorn is the author of the recently published Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America.