The life of Mother Jones is a faded memory, a half-forgotten story. A black-and-white image of an old woman or perhaps the words "Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living" are all that most people know of her. Yet during the early twentieth century, Mother Jones was one of the most famous women in America. Passionate speeches and dramatic street theater kept this fiery agitator in the news. For over a quarter century she held center stage, exposing disturbing truths about child labor, the poverty of working families, and the destruction of American freedoms. Her admirers called her labor's Joan of Arc and the miners' angel; enemies labeled her a dangerous radical indeed, the most dangerous woman in America.
Picture her, grandmotherly, sweet-faced, white-haired, swaying throngs of working-class people with her resonant oratory. Legend tells how she faced down gun-toting thugs and how she endured frequent imprisonment without fear. She cherished her image as a fighter. When introduced to a crowd as a great humanitarian once, she snapped, "Get it straight, I'm not a humanitarian, I'm a hell-raiser." She articulated for working men and women the belief that they had created the world with their own hands and that by right it belonged to them. She was a militant matriarch uniting the family of labor through her words and her raw physical courage.
Although Mother Jones was most vividly associated with bitter mine wars, she also worked with railroad trolley-car, textile, brewery, garment, and steel workers. In an age of outrageous exploitation, her fight was wherever people organized for humane hours and decent pay. She was the Johnny Appleseed of American activists, giving speeches and organizing across the continent, sleeping in workers' cabins, boardinghouses, or the homes of friends. Asked to state her residence to a congressional committee, she declared, "I live in the United States, but I do not know exactly in what place, because I am always in the fight against oppression and wherever a fight is going on I have to jump there . . . so that really I have no particular residence." She added, "My address is like my shoes; it travels with me wherever I go."
Her contemporaries marveled at her. "She is a wonder," the poet Carl Sandburg wrote of Mother Jones during World War I. "Close to 88 years old and her voice a singing voice; nobody else could give me a thrill just by saying in that slow, solemn, orotund way, 'The kaisers of this country are next, I tell ye.'" Clarence Darrow, America's greatest trial lawyer of the early twentieth century, wrote that "her deep convictions and fearless soul always drew her to seek the spot where the fight was hottest and the danger greatest." The feminist author Meridel Le Sueur was only fourteen years old when she first heard Mother Jones speak, but she never forgot it: "I felt engendered by the true mother, not the private mother of one family, but the emboldened and blazing defender of all her sons and daughters."
At first glance, Mother Jones was not a likely candidate for such renown. An Irish immigrant who had survived famine, fire, plague, hard labor, and unspeakable loss, she was nearly as dispossessed as an American could be. She had ambition and talent, certainly, but those were no guarantee of success. How did she come to prominence?
Her fame began when, toward the end of the nineteenth century, she transformed herself from Mary Jones into Mother Jones. Her new persona was a complex one, infused with overtones of Christian martyrdom and with the suffering of Mother Mary. Perhaps it is best to think of Mother Jones as a character performed by Mary Jones. She exaggerated her age, wore old-fashioned black dresses, and alluded often to her impending demise. By 1900, she had stopped referring to herself as Mary altogether and signed all of her letters "Mother." Soon laborers, union officials, even Presidents of the United States addressed her that way, and they became her "boys."
The persona of Mother Jones freed Mary Jones. Most American women in the early twentieth century were expected to lead quiet, homebound lives for their families; few women found their way onto the public stage. Ironically, by making herself into the symbolic mother of the downtrodden, Mary Jones was able to go where she pleased and speak out on any issue that moved her. She defied social conventions and shattered the limits that confined her by embracing the very role that restricted most women.
Her fame did not last. Eugene Debs, labor leader and Socialist Party candidate for President, recalled of his old friend, "She has won her way into the hearts of the nation's toilers, and her name is revered at the altars of their humble firesides and will be lovingly remembered by their children and their children's children forever." Debs was wrong; few grandchildren ever heard of her exploits. Mother Jones fell victim to what the English historian E. P. Thompson has called "the enormous condescension of posterity."
My purpose in writing this book is to resist such amnesia. The early decades of the twentieth century were filled with dissent and conflict; radicals helped foster a creative dialogue in American society. During the years of her greatest visibility, from the turn of the century through the early 1920s, Mother Jones had one of the most unique and powerful voices in that dialogue.
One hundred years after she first appeared in the news, almost a fifth of America's children live in poverty. They are the children of Mother Jones. Working families struggling for decent lives are her heirs, too. Indeed, all who raise their voices against social injustice and resist the easy complacency of our times are the sons and daughters of Mother Jones.
Copyright © 2001 Elliot J. Gorn