Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute
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Mother Jones

Mother Jones

"[W]herever desperate workers went on strike, wherever exploited child laborers cried for help, this querulous, gray-haired, black-bonneted woman with a high-pitched voice and piercing stare appeared to lead them on," writes Joseph Gustaitis about Mary Harris Jones.

Born in Ireland on May 1, 1830, Mary Harris immigrated with her family to the United States in 1838. She attended school in Toronto, Canada and, as a young woman, worked as a dressmaker and as a school teacher. In 1861, she married George Jones, an iron molder and strong union supporter. Six years later, her husband and four children died in a yellow fever epidemic.

Mary Jones moved to Chicago where she opened a dressmaking business, but soon after, her home was destroyed in the great Chicago fire of 1871. Taking refuge in a church basement, she wandered into nearby meetings of the Knights of Labor. She became involved in the labor movement, a cause to which she remained committed the rest of her life.

Determined to encourage and support workers' organizing efforts, she traveled all over the country to inspire them with fiery speeches and words of encouragement. Over her long career as a union organizer, Mary Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones, organized coal miners, child textile workers, street carmen, steel workers and metal miners.

Although she often clashed with its leadership, Mother Jones worked as an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America for much of her life. She dedicated 40 years to helping coal miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania win union representation. "In the Miners' cause she waded creeks, faced machine guns, and taunted many a mine guard to shoot an old woman if he dared," writes historian Priscilla Long.

Mother Jones often organized the women in mining towns to become an active and vital part of the struggle for worker's rights. One tactic she used was the "dishpan brigade." When coal miners were on strike in Arnot, Pennsylvania, in 1900, Mother Jones organized the women to prevent replacement, or scab, workers from taking the striking workers' jobs. The women gathered at the mine, banging together their pots, pans, brooms and mops, while screaming and shouting at the scab workers. "From that day on the women kept continual watch of the mines to see that the company did not bring in scabs. Every day women with brooms or mops in one hand and babies in the other arm, wrapped in little blankets, went to the mines and watched that no one went in. And all night long they kept watch," wrote Mother Jones.

Mother Jones was particularly outraged by the conditions in which children worked in textile mills and coal mines. To learn firsthand about the conditions of child workers, she worked in textile mills in the South. While in Kensington, Pennsylvania in 1903 to help organize support for a textile workers strike, Mother Jones described the plight of children working in the mills: "Every day little children came into Union Headquarters, some with their hands off, some with the thumb missing, some with their fingers off at the knuckle. They were stooped little things, round shouldered and skinny. Many of them were not over 10 years of age, although the state law prohibited their working before they were twelve.”

Jones led a march of child workers from Philadelphia to ask President Theodore Roosevelt, vacationing at his summer home in Oyster Bay, New York, for a federal law "prohibiting the exploitation of children. President Roosevelt refused to see them but the march did draw attention to their cause, and the Pennsylvania legislature soon passed a child labor law. Mother Jones, who lived to be 100 years old, shared the struggles and successes of workers around the country. Her motto was "Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living."

Joseph Gustaitis. "Mary Harris Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America," American History Illustrated. January 1988.

Priscilla Long. Mother Jones, Woman Organizer and Her Relations with Miners' Wives, Working Women and the Suffrage Movement. Boston: South End Press, 1976.

Autobiography of Mother Jones. Edited by Mark Field Parton. Introduction by Clarence Darrow. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1925.

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