Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (1830-1930) was an Irish immigrant who devoted her life to improving conditions of the working class. A vagabond agitator, she worked primarily among miners, supporting their strikes and urging them to unionize.
The early years of Mary Harris Jones are obscured by lack of records and her own inconsistencies in reporting her history. She was born in 1830 (some historians argue that 1843 is the accurate date) to Irish parents who migrated to America when she was a child. She graduated from normal school in Toronto, taught in public and parochial schools in Canada and the United States, and practiced the trade of dressmaking in Chicago. She took a teaching job in Memphis, Tennessee, where she met and married George E. Jones, an iron moulder, in 1861. Six years later, she lost her husband and four children to a yellow fever epidemic.
Jones returned to Chicago and dressmaking. Made homeless by the Great Fire of 1871, she began to attend meetings of the Knights of Labor. There she developed her commitment to rectifying inhumane working conditions, and she began a life-long friendship with Terrence V. Powderly, who led the Knights from 1879 to 1893. Jones's particular contribution was to mobilize workers and to publicize their plight, which she did with her forceful personality and her flamboyant and salty oratory. Without a home, she went from town to town, from strike to strike, staying in hotels, in the homes of sympathizers, or in jails. When asked where she lived, she replied, "Wherever there is a fight."
Mother Jones worked on behalf of workers in the railroad, steel, copper, brewing, garment, and textile industries. She was particularly appalled by child labor, and in 1903 she marched with a group of adult and child textile workers from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt's home at Oyster Bay, New York, in a public demonstration against the evils of child labor. But she worked most prominently and persistently among the coal miners of West Virginia and Colorado. At times the United Mine Workers paid her a salary, though she was often at odds with its leadership. The miners themselves adored her and called her "Mother."
Jones's own courage and willingness to risk arrest, jail, and violence served powerfully to inspire the miners. She also exhorted women to support strikes, and she developed the tactic of organizing miners' wives, armed with mops and brooms, to demonstrate and to keep strikebreakers from entering the mines. While she encouraged militance among women in mining families, she held traditional ideas about women. Jones sometimes joined in labor activism with working women, but she did not believe that women should work outside the home. She publicly opposed women's suffrage, in part because its supporters were mostly privileged women and because it would co-opt working-class women and divert them from economic issues. She said, "You don't need the vote to raise hell."
A pragmatic socialist who on occasion supported Democratic candidates, Jones was more interested in immediate reforms than in long-range socialist goals. She helped to found the Social Democratic Party in 1898 and the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, but she never lived easily in any organization and frequently clashed with leaders and associates. She served in the defense of various radicals, including Western Federation of Miners' leaders Bill Haywood, George Moyer, and George Pettibone; California socialist Tom Mooney; and Mexican rebels who were imprisoned in the United States.
Jones continued to be active past 1920 when, by her count then, she was in her nineties. She spent most of her last decade at the Washington, D.C., home of the Powderlys. On May 1, 1930, the American Federation of Labor staged celebrations of her birth in major cities, which Jones addressed by radio. Though ill, she enjoyed visits by reporters and hundreds of well-wishers. She died on November 30. As she had wished, Mother Jones was buried in the Miners' Cemetery in Mt. Olive, Illinois, near the graves of miners killed in the labor strife at Virden in 1898.
Further Reading on Mary Harris Jones
Jones published her autobiography in 1925, but Autobiography of Mother Jones (paper edition, 1969), contains major gaps and inaccuracies. Dale Fetherling, Mother Jones, The Miners' Angel: A Portrait (1974) provides the fullest account of her life; the much briefer Mother Jones, Woman Organizer; and Her Relations with Miners' Wives, Working Women, and the Suffrage Women (1976) examines her life from an interesting angle. The magazine Mother Jonescontinued to publish in the 1980s, retaining some of the activism of its namesake.