Mary Harris Jones

Mary Harris Jones

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“Pray for the dead, but fight like Hell for the living.” This quote from Mary Harris “Mother” Jones is the perfect description of her determination and work for labor rights in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. As the most famous female labor leader at the time, Mother Jones fought tremendously for all men, women, and child workers by organizing unions and advocating the labor cause throughout the United States. Despite great tragedy in her personal life, and spending several nights imprisoned for the cause, Jones worked to benefit the lives of other people for more than fifty years. Her focus and influence would eventually make its way to the Knights of Labor, United Mine Workers Union, and the Industrial Workers of the World until her death in 1930.

Born in Cork, Ireland, Mary Harris recounted in her autobiography how she came from a poor family who had lost several members in the fight for Ireland’s freedom. It is still uncertain when exactly Mary was born, and although she insists on 1830, historians believe it could be as late as 1844. When she was about five years old, her father, Richard Harris, moved to the United States. Only after Richard received his American citizenship did the rest of the family join him, and later moved to Toronto, Canada, where he had gotten a job working as a railroad laborer. Several years later, Mary became a schoolteacher and eventually opened up a dress shop in Memphis, Tennessee.

It was in Memphis where Mary met and married George Jones, a member and organizer of the National Union of Iron Moulders. Mary and George Jones had four children together. After growing tired of teaching, she opened a dress shop the day before the start of the Civil War. Unfortunately, her husband and their four children were killed in a yellow fever epidemic that swept through Memphis in 1867.  She later moved back to Chicago to open another dressmaking shop, but shortly after tragedy struck once again. Mary lost her shop and home in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

At this point in her life, Mary was at a crossroads. Instead of continuing to make dresses, she followed in her husband’s steps in the direction of union-work. In Mary’s autobiography, she recalled her observations of how the rich interacted with the poor, which spurred her to seek justice for the poor:

Often while sewing for the lords and barons who lived in magnificent houses on the Lake Shore Drive, 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 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. 

Jones’ desire to achieve equality for the working class would eventually drive her to become one of the most noteworthy women in the history of both Irish-Americans and the Labor movement.    

Her mind made up, Mary joined the Knights of Labor, America’s first large labor union. The Knights of Labor fought for humane conditions in the workforce, including the end of child labor and the enforcement of an 8-hour workday. Mary Harris quickly became part of the KOL body, organizing meetings, recruiting new members, and inspiring strikers through her speeches. Jones also participated in a number of protests including the 1877 railroad strike in Pittsburgh and worked with the Irish-American Dennis Kearney in California. She was also involved in the notable Haymarket riot, where workers went on strike for an eight-hour day. The strike began peacefully, but devolved into violence when a bomb went off and police shot into the crowd of mostly immigrant strikers. Several deaths resulted and a number of anarchist leaders were convicted.

Mary Harris Jones parted ways with the Knights of labor and began to travel the country, eventually setting her sights on the work conditions of coal miners. She became affiliated with the United Mine Workers Association as an organizer in 1890, which was established to organize workers to negotiate fair wages, combat discrimination, and fight for their rights. Mary Harris “led strikers in picketing collieries and exhorted men to stay on strike when mine owners brought in Pinkerton agents and strikebreakers." It is thought that here Mary Harris was given the name “Mother Jones” by the miners due to her tireless dedication to their cause.

In 1891 Jones organized her first coal mine strike, which ended poorly and resulted in her arrest. She stayed persistent and eventually met Eugene Debs, the founder of the American Railway, who asked for her help in organizing a speech in Birmingham, Alabama. This too ended in failure for Mother Jones and the miners due to police resistance. Her work with Debs did not go unappreciated, however, and she was later offered a salary job as an organizer for the United Mine Workers. Mother Jones’s luck began to turn when she won her first notable victory: she increased Pennsylvania’s union membership from 8,000 to 100,000 and earned the workers a ten percent increase in wages. Her victories followed her to West Virginia, although she constantly faced opposition from the police and she was arrested many times.

One of Mother Jones’s most notable achievements would be her part in abolishing child labor. There were over a million children working in dangerous factory conditions in the 1900s. Considered to be useful for factory work, children could be paid significantly less, were easier to control, and could fit into tight spaces that adults could not. Even though there was a push to restrict child labor, many impoverished families needed their children’s income order to survive. Mary Harris sought to draw attention to the sheer number of child laborers, as well as their working conditions and low wages, in the hopes of passing legislation to protect the children along with their parents.

In a rally at City Hall in Philadelphia, Mary Harris brought up children with crushed hands and fingers to show, “Philadelphia's mansions were built on the broken bones, the quivering hearts and drooping heads of [the] children." This public display brought a great deal of attention to the issue and led to the “March of the Mill Children” in 1903. Here Jones organized hundreds of child workers and their parents from factories and textile mills to march from Philadelphia to New York to bring attention to the cause.  Ultimately, this march advanced efforts to get rid of child labor.  

Age never slowed down Mother Jones. Even in her eighties, she was still participating in labor activism, organizing workers and making speeches. At 81 years old, she was arrested while speaking for a steelworkers union. She also gave a speech in Mexico in 1921 for the Pan American Federation of Labor. Her last strike in Chicago of 1924 saw Mother Jones come full circle, as it was in support of striking dressmakers.

Mary Harris Jones passed away on November 30, 1930. She was buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, beside miners who were killed in the mine riot of 1898 known as the Battle of Virden. As Mother Jones referred to miners as “her boys”, it is fitting that she was buried alongside them. Thousands of mineworkers and friends alike attended Mary’s funeral to mourn her passing.

Mother Jones will forever be remembered for what she has done for the working class of America. Many laborers were Irish immigrants like her, and Mary’s life-long, relentless efforts benefitted the entire community. She worked to protect the underdogs—blacks, women, children, and the poor. While many would honor her as a humanitarian, Mother Jones once replied: “Get it straight. I'm not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser!." As the author named Marilyn Jurich sums up, Mother Jones will always be remembered for “a facile tongue, an acute intelligence, and a courage undaunted by obvious and present danger." Her legacy lives on through the nonprofit news outlet Mother Jones, specializing in political and social justice reporting.



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Ebest, Sally Barr. "Irish American Women: Forgotten First-Wave Feminists." Journal of Feminist Scholarship 3.2012 (2012): 61.

Gorn, Elliott J. Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. Print.

Jurich, Marilyn, 1932-. "The Female Trickster—Known As Trickstar—As Exemplified By Two American Legendary Women, “Billy” Tipton And Mother Jones." Journal Of American Culture (01911813) 22.1 (n.d.): 69-75. Biography Index Past and Present (H.W. Wilson). Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Smith, Russell E. “The March of the Mill Children”. Social Service Review 41.3 (1967): 298–303. Web