Mary Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones, was a prominent labor leader and organizer during the late 1800s and the early 1900s. She gained national notoriety by traveling to areas of labor strife to organize and assist the striking workers. Mother Jones aided the coal miners of West Virginia and Colorado, the steel workers of Pennsylvania, and the streetcar workers in Chicago. She argued for class solidarity and equality through her version of class warfare, which emphasized collective action. She believed that all workers, regardless of skin color or nationality, were one and the same and needed to band together to defeat the capitalists who were keeping
them from what was rightfully theirs. After years of fighting for “her boys,” she died in 1930.
Mary Harris was born on August 1, 1837, in Cork, Ireland, into a family of farmers. Her father and oldest brother left in 1847 during the potato famine and traveled to Canada, where the rest of the family joined them in Toronto in the early 1850s. Jones attended public school in Toronto through high school and then went to Monroe, Michigan, where she taught at a Catholic school for a year. She continued south to Chicago and sewed dresses for the wealthy women of the city. She then moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she married George Jones, an ironworker and member of the National Union of Iron Molders. The yellow fever epidemic of 1867 killed George and their four children; Jones returned to Chicago and opened a dressmaking shop where she again sewed for the wealthy. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed her store and left Jones homeless.
Mary Jones's name appeared in print for the first time when she participated in Coxey's Industrial Army. This protest march of unemployed workers was begun by Ohio businessmen Jacob Coxey. Jones volunteered to help organize the Kansas City section of the group; in the end her group was only able to reach St. Louis. After the failure of Coxey's Army to achieve its stated goals, she traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to help the United Mine Workers with its strike; while the strike was not successful, this was the beginning of the relationship between the union and Jones. During her travels Jones also traveled in the South and saw the use of child labor in the mills; Jones claimed that it was the children in these mills who gave her the nickname “Mother Jones.”
In the summer of 1903 Jones focused on ending child labor. She went to Philadelphia during the silk weavers’ strike and tried to gain recognition for the strike by taking the child workers to city hall. When this failed she organized almost 400 textile workers in Kensington, Pennsylvania, and began a march to New York City. Six days into the march Jones decided to change the objective of the march and traveled to Oyster Bay, New York, to speak with President Theodore Roosevelt. She arrived at the president's home on July 29 but was turned away because Roosevelt had known Jones was coming and had gone on a camping trip with some of his family to a nearby bay. The strike ended a few days later.
Jones traveled to Colorado to help in the coal strike that was beginning there in late 1903. She was arrested on March 26, 1904, after martial law was declared, and she was deported from the state; she attempted to return to the strike zone but was deported again. She attempted to reenter the state through Utah but was quarantined there under the belief she had contracted smallpox; she escaped the quarantine and traveled the East Coast to raise funds until the strike ended in June.
She became disillusioned with the infighting of the UMWA and resigned her position in January 1905 to become a lecturer for the Socialist Party. She attended the first few meetings of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and while she did not participate actively in the group she did raise funds for three of its leaders who were arrested for the murder of the Idaho governor in 1905. Jones then became a leader in the campaign to free the leader of the liberal party in Mexico, Manual Sarabia, who was arrested in Arizona for conspiring to cross into Mexico and incite rebellion. She severed her ties with the Socialist Party in 1911 when the party's national secretary refused to repay a loan she gave to him.
Rejoining the UMWA in 1912, Jones traveled once again to southern West Virginia during the Paint and Cabin Creek strikes that lasted until 1913. She led more than 200 miners to Charleston on August 15, 1912, to present their grievances to the governor. She then organized a group of women to harass strikebreakers and help set up tent colonies for the striking miners; she also traveled to Washington, DC, to testify before a congressional investigative committee. She was arrested on February 13, 1913, for conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the shooting of a mine guard. The ruling of the court martial was never known, but she was imprisoned until May 7, after the strike had ended.
Jones participated in the streetcar strikes in 1916 and was blamed for inciting a group of women who overturned a streetcar in New York City. She then went to Pittsburgh in February 1919 to assist the steel workers who were striking. She was again arrested in August for speaking without a permit. After her release she traveled from steel center to steel center across the United States to raise funds and assist strikers.
She again traveled to West Virginia and went to the southern counties of Mingo, Logan, and McDowell to aid in the strike. In January 1921 she attended the Pan-American Federation of Labor in Mexico City as an AFL delegate. She returned to West Virginia and in August gave a speech after the death of Sid Hatfield; she urged the striking miners not to kill the pro-operator sheriff in Logan County. She attended the UMWA national convention and asked for the union to come back together so it could better aid its members.
Her final appearance at the UMWA convention was in February 1922, while her final act of union organizing came in the summer of 1926 when she spoke to striking dressmakers in Chicago. She returned to Washington, DC, and stayed in the home of the Powderlys. After making occasional visits to Maryland to visit her friends, the Burgesses, their home turned into her permanent residence.
Mother Jones died on November 30, 1930, at the age of 93. Her involvement in the labor strikes and activities brought national attention to the plight of the common worker and helped to bring positive changes to the lives of “her boys.” She despised suffragists because she believed they were taking the focus away from an equitable society based on class and believed they were neglecting their duty of raising the children of the nation. She also hated anyone who she believed was not doing enough to create proper social change; one of these enemies included the head of the UMWA, John L. Lewis. Her personal opinions applied to the dead as well as the living. She called Jesus “the greatest agitator of them all” and believed that Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson were all “Reds.” Jones was able to use her notoriety to focus the nation's eyes on the suffering of the workers she loved dearly.
See also: American Federation of Labor (AFL) ; Coxey, Jacob (1854–1951) ; Coxey's Army ; Cripple Creek War (1894) ; Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) ; Powderly, Terence V. (1849–1924) ; Roosevelt, Theodore (1858–1919)
Cordery, Simon. Mother Jones: Raising Cain and Consciousness. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012.
Gorn, Elliott J. Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.