March 17, 2010

Mother Jones: from County Cork to the Coal Mines

Mother_Jones.jpg
"I'm not a humanitarian. I'm a hell-raiser"

Top of the morning to you this St. Patrick's Day! We thought that the day might be a fitting time to commemorate the life of an Irish immigrant who was hailed as "the the grandmother of all agitators," the "Miners' Angel," "labor's Joan of Arc," and "The Most Dangerous Woman in America."

Mary Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones, was an Irish immigrant who emerged as one of the most famous women in America. Today, her life is largely relegated to the dustbins of history - rather unfair, given her colorful life and the importance that she had to the labor movement. Born in County Cork, she and her family emigrated to Canada and then to the U.S. to escape the potato famine. She worked as a teacher and a seamstress and gave birth to four children. After losing her husband and children to yellow fever in 1867 and becoming dispossessed in 1871 by the great Chicago fire, she became a labor educator, organizer and tireless crusader for basic worker rights, for stopping the work exploitation of children, and for mine workers. She was also one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), aka "the Wobblies." There's some dispute as to the date of her birth (she said 1830, others say 1837), but she lived to the age of either 93 or 100, an activist to the end of her days.

Biographer Dale Fetherling says of her:

" [she] was born . . . less than 50 years after the end of the American Revolution. Yet, she died on the eve of the New Deal. She was alive when Andrew Jackson was president, and she sometimes quoted from speeches she heard Lincoln make. As an adult she knew the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. She rode in automobiles, and she saw the railroads link the oceans. She saw and was seen in films and came to know the everyday use of the telephone, the electric light, and the radio. She watched unions grow from secret groups of hunted men to what she feared was a complacent part of the established order.... It may have been a good time to live in America. But it also was a time in which one needed to fight very hard to survive. That she did."

As an activist, she was highly effective - particularly in an era in which women's voices were often muted. She was effective at harnessing the status of women in her organizing efforts:

"Mother Jones was notable for attracting publicity and attention from the government for the cause of workers. One of her best-known activities was leading a march of miners' wives "who routed strikebreakers with brooms and mops in the Pennsylvania coalfields in 1902." Another was leading the "children's crusade," a caravan of striking children from the textile mills of Kensington, Pennsylvania, to President Theodore Roosevelt's home in Long Island, New York, in 1903, to dramatize the case for abolishing child labor."
Biographer Elliott J. Gorn notes:
"Her fame began when, toward the end of the nineteenth century, she transformed herself from Mary Jones into Mother Jones. Her new persona was a complex one, infused with overtones of Christian martyrdom and with the suffering of Mother Mary. Perhaps it is best to think of Mother Jones as a character performed by Mary Jones. She exaggerated her age, wore old-fashioned black dresses, and alluded often to her impending demise. By 1900, she had stopped referring to herself as Mary altogether and signed all of her letters "Mother." Soon laborers, union officials, even Presidents of the United States addressed her that way, and they became her "boys."
The persona of Mother Jones freed Mary Jones. Most American women in the early twentieth century were expected to lead quiet, homebound lives for their families; few women found their way onto the public stage. Ironically, by making herself into the symbolic mother of the downtrodden, Mary Jones was able to go where she pleased and speak out on any issue that moved her. She defied social conventions and shattered the limits that confined her by embracing the very role that restricted most women."

Canny as she was in creating her own highly effective persona, she eschewed any pretense to gentility: "No matter what the fight, don't be ladylike! God almighty made women and the Rockefeller gang of thieves made the ladies."

We can't really do the woman full justice in this post - here's a list of resources that are well worth exploring to learn more about the inimitable Mother Jones:

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1 Comment

Thnak you for this fine research. As a radical in the 70's, I subscribed to Mother Jones magazine.

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This page contains a single entry by Julie Ferguson published on March 17, 2010 9:34 AM.

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