Mary Harris (Mother) Jones - Union Activist Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Mary Harris (Mother) Jones - Union Activist

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Mary Harris Jones, affectionately known as Mother Jones to union members throughout the United States during her career as a union activist, was surely one of the most interesting figures of her time.

During her lifetime, this woman, who started her career as a union organiser while in her 40s and continued until well into her 90s, was labelled as 'The most dangerous woman in America', 'The miner's angel' and 'The grandmother of agitators'.

How this white-haired woman, who stood about five feet (1.52 metres) tall and looked like everybody's grandmother, earned those labels is worth investigating.


Mother Jones, who gave her date of birth as 1 May, 18301 came by her strong convictions and her inclination to act on these convictions naturally. She was born in Cork, Ireland, where her family tradition held that her grandfather had been hanged for his anti-English activities. While she was still a child, her father, Richard Harris, moved his family to Toronto, Ontario,Canada, to avoid prosecution for his political activities. While there, he worked as a labourer with railway construction crews.

After completing public school2 and Normal school3, Mary Harris worked as a teacher and as a dressmaker. In 1861, while working as a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee, she met and married George Jones, an iron molder and organiser for the Iron Moulders Union. They had four children together before Yellow Fever killed all of her children and her husband in 1867.

She then moved to Chicago, Illinois and set up shop as a dressmaker, where she did sewing for the wealthy residents of that city. She later stated that the contrast between her clients and 'the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking along the frozen lake front' was painful to her.

Beginnings of Union Activism

In 1871, the great Chicago fire left thousands of people homeless, including Mary Jones, whose shop was destroyed. She, and other refugees of the fire, were given temporary quarters in St Mary's Church at Wabash Avenue and Peck Court. It was during this period that she was exposed to labour activism. The Knights of Labor had its headquarters nearby, and she would spend her evenings listening to the speakers. Ultimately, she decided to join that organisation. She became a full-time organiser in 1880, at the age of 50. She started spending all of her time organising and running educational meetings. It was during this period that other trade unionists, almost all of who were much younger than she, started calling her 'Mother Jones'.


The Socialist newspaper, 'Appeal to Reason,' was launched in 1895, with Mother Jones selling most of the initial subscriptions. When the Social Democratic Party was founded in the United States in 1898, Mother Jones was there. When the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded in 1905, Mother Jones was there.

Organising the Women with the Workers

The coal fields around Arnot, Pennsylvania were the setting for the first of the type of actions for which Mother Jones became famous, or infamous, depending on your perspective. In 1899, United Mine Workers was staging a strike, which had gone on for months. The strikers were becoming discouraged and talking about going back to work. Mother Jones was called in. She told the men to 'stay home with the children for a change and let the women attend to the scabs (strikebreakers)'.

Armed with brooms, mops, pails and tin pans, Mother Jones' army of women met the strikebreakers and their mules on their way to the mines. They made so much noise that the mules panicked, turned around and started running back to their barns, causing pandemonium within the ranks of the strikebreakers, whom the women then chased away, waving their brooms and mops.

Ultimately, the mining company put out a notice that all of the union's demands were conceded.

Mother Jones continued her organising activities with miners throughout the United States in the following years, gaining so much love and respect among them that mineworkers came to consider it an honour to be fired and evicted from company-owned housing for offering her food and shelter. Many of the strikes during this period were met with violence. She nursed any number of beaten mineworkers back to health and attended several funerals.

The First Arrest and Trial

She was arrested for the first time in 1902, at age 72, while holding a meeting with bituminous miners in Clarksburg, West Virginia. When told that she was under arrest and that the United States marshal had an injunction against her speaking, she looked at the marshal and said 'I will be right with you. Wait till I run down'. She then finished her speech, after which she turned herself over to the marshal.

At one point during her trial, she was instructed to call the judge 'your honor.' Her response?

Are you referring to the old chap behind the justice counter? Well, I can't call him 'your honor' until I know how honorable he is. You know I took an oath to tell the truth when I took the witness stand.

She was released without receiving any sentence.

Child Labour

In 1903, Mother Jones took on the fight against child labour in textile mills. She lead a march of children who had worked in the mills, many with crushed hands or missing fingers, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Washington DC, with the intention of taking them to President Roosevelt to ask that he get a law passed against child labour. This little old lady and her group of children drew attention to the child labour question with their dramatic march.

While in New York City, they were invited to the Coney Island amusement park, by the owner of the wild animal show. The children, who were used to working ten to 12 hours per day, had the time of their lives. After the exhibition of trained animals, Mother spoke to the audience.

We want President Roosevelt to hear the wail of the children who never have a chance to go to school but work 11 and 12 hours a day in the textile mills of Pennsylvania; who weave the carpets that he and you walk upon; and the lace curtains in your windows, and the clothes of the people. 50 years ago there was a cry against slavery and men gave up their lives to stop the selling of black children on the block. Today the white child is sold for two dollars a week to the manufacturers. 50 years ago the black babies were sold COD4. Today the white baby is sold on the installment plan.
In Georgia where children work day and night in the cotton mills they have just passed a bill to protect song birds. What about the little children from whom all song is gone?
I shall ask the President in the name of the aching hearts of these little ones that he emancipate them from slavery. I will tell the president that the prosperity he boasts of is the prosperity of the rich wrung from the poor and helpless.'

In the end, the president refused to see Mother Jones and the children. She considered her true mission, the drawing of the American public's attention to child labour, to have been accomplished even without the presidential visit.


Mother Jones continued organising mineworkers and crusading against child labour, frequently going to the scenes of the most violent labour/management confrontations. In 1913, she was involved in a mine strike in Paint Creek, West Virginia, during which a number of strikers were killed by gunfire as they slept in the tent city they had established. When, a few days later, a mine guard was killed in a fight, Mother Jones and other union organisers were arrested for murder. Mother Jones was convicted and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. As a result of a letter that she smuggled out by way of a sympathetic guard, the US Senate ordered a committee to investigate conditions in the West Virginia coal fields. Mother Jones was set free by the Governor of West Virginia.

Later Life

Mother Jones continued actively organising in the coal fields as late as 1923, when she was 93 years old. The fact that she was repeatedly arrested for her activities did not slow her efforts.

Death and Burial

On 30 November, 1930, at the age of 100, Mother Jones died. After her funeral, which was attended by over 20,000 people, she was buried in the United Mine Workers Union Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, as she had requested. Her headstone reads:

She gave her life to the world of labor, her blessed soul to heaven. God's finger touches her, and now she sleeps.

Some Quotations from Mother Jones

Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.
I'm not afraid of the press or the Militia. I would fight God Almighty Himself if He didn't play square with me.
I'm not a humanitarian. I'm a hell-raiser.
'I have never had a vote, and I have raised hell all over this country! You don't need a vote to raise hell! You need convictions and a voice!
1Some historians question the accuracy of Mother Jones' stated birth date, placing her birth in 1837, or even 1844. This article is based on the assumption that the 1 May, 1830 date is correct.2In the United States and Canada, 'public school' is understood to mean a taxpayer supported school.3A Normal school is a teaching academy.4Cash on Delivery.

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