Mary Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones, was one of the co-founders of the International Workers of the World and one of the most famous labor and community organizers in American history. She made notable contributions to labor movements throughout the latter half of the 19th century, during one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of industrial labor.
Early life and beginning of labor work
Mary Harris Jones was born in Cork, Ireland to a tenant farmer and his wife. She emigrated to Canada with her family when she was approximately 15 and she lived in Toronto for several years before her family moved to the United States. She became a teacher, living and working at a convent in Monroe, Michigan. Eventually she became tired of her job, moving first to Chicago and then to Memphis where she married George E. Jones. Her husband was a member and organizer for the National Union of Iron Moulders.
She opened a dress shop in Memphis at the outset of the Civil War where she encountered the first of two great tragedies which would define her later life. The first tragedy was the death of George and their four children when there was an outbreak of yellow fever. This caused her to move back to Chicago where she continued pursuing dressmaking, opening a shop which was then tragically burned during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
After the fire Jones turned to the growing labor movement as a place to devote her time and energy. She joined the Knights of Labor, which eventually disintegrated in the aftermath of the Haymarket Riots of 1886. With the demise of the Knights of Labor, Jones became most prominently involved with United Mine Workers’ struggles, frequently leading strikes and picket lines.
The Children’s Crusade
In the rapid industrialization of the United States, children were some of the most vulnerable. There were few laws regarding child labor and many children were working in appalling conditions throughout the country, in mines, on farms or in factories. The conditions for adult workers were no better and many of the labor conflicts of the early 20th century had to do with these issues.
Already in 1897 Mary Jones was being referred to as ‘Mother Jones’. She would wear outdated black dresses and refer to the men on the picket lines as ‘her boys’, adding to her matronly appeal. When she was invited by president of the UMWA to join a strike of silk workers in northern Pennsylvania, she began to be more aware of the plight of child labor.
Initially she had been brought in to create unity in the area but she quickly discovered that many of the people demanding higher wages were young women. They were being paid far less than adults, leading to even greater economic disparity. Jones worked tirelessly to encourage the strikers, even going to investigate silk factories in New Jersey where she reported labor laws and treatment were far better than those in Pennsylvania. This experience set her on a course to work for better child labor laws for the rest of her life.
In 1903, she organized the Children’s Crusade, which was a march on then president Theodore Roosevelt’s home. She got children working in mills and mines from Pennsylvania to Long Island to begin this action, marching to union headquarters. When she demanded the industrial abuses be publicized, magazines and newspapers refused because many were owned by the mines or mills.
Theodore Roosevelt refused to meet with Jones, and even after she wrote letters to him there was only silence. However, despite the lack of coverage and the snub by the president, the crusade was a success leading to increased awareness of child labor abuses.
Mine Strikes and arrest
In 1912, Jones was involved with Paint Creek-Cabin Strike in West Virginia. She arrived to organize and speak out even as a shooting war between UMW workers and a private army hired by the mine owners. Martial law was declared twice and Jones was arrested and brought before a military court. After refusing to recognize the court’s legitimacy, she was sentenced to 20 years in jail. Half a year later Senator John Worth Kern began an investigation into the mine conditions and Jones was released.
Several months later she was back on the road, organizing and speaking at another mine strike in Colorado. She was arrested several times and was escorted out of the state just prior to the Ludlow massacre. She later confronted John D. Rockefeller who began an investigation about the working conditions in his mines.
Politics and style
Jones was in opposition to many other female activists at the time because she did not support women’s suffrage. She believed that women could do far more good getting out and agitating than voting. She also stated that voting and politics would take away from a woman’s central role as mother.
Jones was noted as a public speaker, and she was very effective at maintaining the crowd’s attention during her speeches. Sometimes she would employ props to keep people interested, and she was known to be a wonderful storyteller, mingling folk tales and real life. She was unafraid of including profanity in her rhetorical repertoire and she was known for her wit and humor as well.
- Mother Jones Magazine, national publication named in honor of Mother Jones.
- AFL-CIO biography of Mother Jones
- Illinois Labor History
- Bibliography of Sources from the Mother Jones Museum
- U.S. Labor History Timeline