Although she always claimed her birthday was May 1st–International Worker’s Day, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was born on August 1st, 1837 (although she also claimed to be born years earlier, in part to maintain her grandmotherly public persona).
Even though she would end up as an iconic figure in the American labor movement, Jones was born in Cork, Ireland, to Roman Catholic parents. She emigrated to Ontario when she was a teenager. She taught in Michigan for a while, and then moved to Memphis.
Tragically, in 1867 her husband (who was a miner) and their four children perished to yellow fever in Tennessee–while the rich could leave the city, the poor of Memphis nowhere to go. Jones was devastated, and moved to Chicago where she opened a dressmaking business. However, her home and business were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. But with “I reside wherever there is a good fight against wrong” as one of her mottos, she started down the path of labor activism.
Jones’ talent lay in her oratory skills. Tom Tippett, of the United Mine Workers said that with one speech “she could keep the strikers loyal month after month on empty stomachs and behind prison bars.” From ExplorePAHistory.com, when one Pittsburgh judge asked her if she had a permit to speak out for miners on the streets, she said she did, and when the judge asked who issued it, she replied “Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams!” (Adding, I’m sure, “Natch.”)
One of her early entries into labor rights was through Terence Powderly’s the Knights of Labor, which was the first labor organization to allow the full participation of women in their ranks. Jones was also present with Big Bill Haywood and Eugene Debs at the 1905 founding of the International Workers of the World (IWW), the socialist, all-inclusive labor party.
Unlike other female activists of her time, Jones didn’t organize with or around the suffrage or temperance movement (telling suffragists “You don’t need the vote to raise hell!” and calling prohibition “the worst affliction this country has”). Jones did, however, understand “no strike has ever been won that didn’t have the support of the woman,” recognizing the important social role that the family and wives of workers played in the success of strikes, and recruiting miner’s wives to march and enforce striking.
It was also Jone’s embrace and personification of a “Mother” figure that led her to be so credible when fighting for children’s rights or “her boys”–the male mine workers, and also gave her an edge (and some the leeway) to get away with her “rough” language and volatile statements like “The militant, not the meek, shall inherit the earth” (from her 1925 autobiography). As Mother Jones magazine puts it, “Paradoxically, by embracing the very role of family matriarch that restricted most women, Mother Jones shattered the limits that confined her.”
Her persona and charisma also allowed her to lead a “Children’s Crusade” in 1903, where Jones reported that 10 thousand out of 75 thousand Pennsylvania textile workers on strike were children (at the start of the twentieth century, 284,000 children between 10-15 worked in mines, mills and factories). Jones organized a group of children to march from Kensington Pennsylvania to Oyster Bay to see President Theodore Roosevelt at his home. Roosevelt did not meet them, but the march itself drew national attention to child labor.
Jones worked primarily with the United Mine Workers. She took part in the 1913 Colorado coal strike, where the tense politics of the country’s labor relations seemed to culminate in a 14-month-long strike, which ended with the Ludlow massacre. After being arrested, jailed, and expelled from Colorado for her involvement, Jones was one of the organizers who ended up meeting face-to-face with John D. Rockefellar Jr., the mine’s owner.
Her legacy lives on in more than in the Woody Guthrie song “Union Maid” or the namesake of Bitch Media’s fellow non-profit progressive media organization. She reminds us that activism is not relegated for the young (speaking of octogenarian activists, RIP Lolita Lebrón, Puerto Rican nationalist, whose last arrest came at the age of 81.), and that labor rights and issues are far from over. The exploitation of labor in a globalized economy, roadblocks for undocumented works in the states, and rampant (and legal) discrimination of transgendered people are just some contemporary reasons to remember Jones’s words “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”