Biography of Mother Jones, Labor Organizer and Agitator

Mother Jones
Courtesy Library of Congress

Mother Jones (born Mary Harris; 1837– November 30, 1930) was a key radical figure in United States labor history. She was a fiery orator, a union agitator for mine workers, and a co-founder of the International Workers of the World (IWW). The current-day political magazine Mother Jones was named for her maintains her legacy of left-wing politics.

Fast Facts: Mother Jones

  • Known For:  Radical political activist, orator, organizer of mine worker union, co-founder of the International Workers of the World.
  • Also Known As: Mother of All Agitators. the Miner's Angel, Mary Harris, Mary Harris Jones
  • Born: August 1, 1837 (although she claimed May 1, 1830 as her birth date) in County Cork, Ireland
  • Parents: Mary Harris and Robert Harris
  • Died: November 30, 1930 in Adelphi, Maryland
  • Education: Toronto Normal School
  • Published Works: "The New Right," "Letter of Love and Labor," "Autobiography of Mother Jones"
  • Spouse: George Jones
  • Children: Four children (all of whom died in a yellow fever epidemic)
  • Notable Quote: "In spite of oppressors, in spite of false leaders, in spite of labor’s own lack of understanding of its needs, the cause of the worker continues onward. Slowly his hours are shortened, giving him leisure to read and to think. Slowly, his standard of living rises to include some of the good and beautiful things of the world. Slowly the cause of his children becomes the cause of all....Slowly those who create wealth of the world are permitted to share it. The future is in labor’s strong, rough hands."

Early Life

Born Mary Harris in County Cork, Ireland, young Mary Harris was the daughter of Mary Harris and Robert Harris. Her father worked as a hired hand and the family lived on the estate where he worked. The family followed Robert Harris to America, where he had fled after taking part in a revolt against the landowners. The family then moved to Canada, where Mary went to public school.

Work and Family

Harris became a schoolteacher first in Canada, where, as a Roman Catholic, she could only teach in the parochial schools. She moved to Maine to teach as a private tutor, then to Michigan where she got a teaching job in a convent. Harris then moved to Chicago where she worked as a dressmaker.

After two years, she moved to Memphis to teach and met George Jones in 1861. They married and had four children. George was an iron moulder and also worked as a union organizer. During their marriage, he began working full-time in his union job. George Jones and all four children died in a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee, in September and October of 1867.

Begins Organizing

After the death of her family, Mary Harris Jones moved to Chicago, where she returned to work as a dressmaker. Mary claimed that her pull to the labor movement increased when she sewed for wealthy Chicago families.


"I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking alongside the frozen lake front....The tropical contrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of the people for whom I sewed was painful to me. My employers seemed neither to notice nor to care."

Tragedy struck Jones' life again in 1871. She lost her home, shop, and belongings in the Great Chicago Fire. She had already connected with the secretive worker's organization, the Knights of Labor, and became active speaking for the group and organizing. After the fire, She left her dressmaking to take up full-time organizing with the Knights.

Increasingly Radical

By the mid-1880s, Mary Jones had left the Knights of Labor, finding them too conservative. She became involved in more radical organizing by 1890.

A fiery orator, she spoke at the location of strikes around the country. She helped coordinate hundreds of strikes, including work with coal miners in Pennsylvania in 1873 and railroad workers in 1877.

She was named often in newspapers as "Mother Jones," a white-haired radical labor organizer in her signature black dress, lace collar, and plain head covering. "Mother Jones" was a loving moniker given her by workers, grateful for her care of and devotion to working people.

United Mine Workers and Wobblies

Mother Jones's principally worked with the United Mine Workers, although her role was unofficial. Among other activist actions, she helped organize strikers' wives. Often ordered to stay away from miners, she refused to do so, and she frequently challenged the armed guards to shoot her.

Mother Jones focused on the issue of child labor as well. In 1903 Mother Jones led a children's march from Kensington, Pennsylvania, to New York to protest child labor to President Roosevelt.

In 1905, Mother Jones was among the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, the "Wobblies"). She worked within the political system as well. She was a founder of the Social Democratic Party in 1898.

Later Years

In the 1920s, as rheumatism made it more difficult for her to get around, Mother Jones wrote her "Autobiography of Mother Jones." Famed lawyer Clarence Darrow wrote an introduction to the book.

Mother Jones became less active as her health failed. She moved to Maryland and lived with a retired couple.

Death

One of her last public appearances was at a birthday celebration on May 1, 1930, when she claimed to be 100. (May 1 is the international labor holiday in most of the world.) This birthday was celebrated at workers' events around the country.

Mother Jones died on November 30 of that year. She was buried at the Miners Cemetery at Mount Olive, Illinois, at her request: It was the only cemetery owned by a union.

Legacy

Mother Jones was once labeled "the most dangerous woman in America" by a U.S. district attorney. Her activism left a strong mark on U.S. labor history. The 2001 biography by Elliott Gorn has added significantly to the details known of Mother Jones' life and work. The radical political magazine, Mother Jones, is named for her and she remains a symbol for passionate labor activism.

Sources

  • Gorn, Elliott J. Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. Hill and Wang, 2001.
  • Josephson, Judith P. Mother Jones: Fierce Fighter for Workers' Rights. Lerner Publications, 1997