America Needs More Dangerous Women

The life of Mary "Mother" Jones (1837-1930) was as tumultuous as the times in which she lived and worked. The human problems of industrialization were the theme of progressive politics in her time, and she spent her life trying to help poor and desperate people. Elliott J. Gorn, history professor at Purdue, has written her biography, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America [Hill and Wang, 2001, $27].

Gorn is conscious of the faults of this remarkable woman, such as her tendency to embellish, to exaggerate, and sometimes to speak almost too plainly. One time when she was addressing a group, she was introduced as a great humanitarian. Mother Jones replied very sternly, "I'm not a humanitarian. I'm a hell-raiser."

Her metamorphosis from Mary Harris-Jones to Mother Jones was related directly to the tragedy of her early adult life. In the late 1860s her husband was working in the Union Iron Works in Memphis, Tenn. Gorn tells the painful story of an epidemic of yellow fever, one of many in the South in those days, that swept Memphis and killed her husband and all four of their small children. Such an experience surely caused deep changes in this young woman only 30 years old. So somehow she became a mother to all, even though she talked rough and acted the same way. At the height of her fame as a union organizer and advocate for the poor, she was even compared to the mother of Jesus and to Joan of Arc.

The anti-child labor crusade was a main public issue about 1900. The author quotes the Census of that year which showed that in the United States 1 out of 6 children under the age of 16 was working for wages, often for as long as 12 or 14-hours a day. Girl laborers commonly worked in clothing factories. Boys might work in coal mines as "trap boys," their job being to open and close doors deep under ground for the mules which were hauling out the coal.

We sometimes think of President Teddy Roosevelt as being sympathetic to reforms, but he refused to talk with Mother Jones about this issue of child labor despite the fact that she organized child workers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to march on Washington, D.C. Incredibly, it was not until 1938 as part of the New Deal that we had a national law regulating child labor.

Mother Jones was an organizer for the United Mine Workers. She was an active socialist for awhile and between 1905 and 1912 she earned her living as a traveling speaker for the Socialist Party. And she really got around the country. She worked with New York City garment workers, with Milwaukee brewers, with Chicago telegraph workers. She was one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World, but later she found that group to be ineffective, and they sometimes used violence, which she opposed. She played an important role in the West Virginia and Colorado labor struggles against the bad labor policies of the coal companies and was active in the struggle at Ludlow, north of Trinidad, Colo., in 1914.

She emphasized economic issues in her work with women and did not push for the vote. She thought it would be of marginal value. As for workers in general she advised them to avoid going out drinking and gambling but instead to stay at home and "study the questions!"

Mother Jones maintained a lifelong friendship with Eugene V. Debs, and we hear lots about the other famous progressive populists of that time like Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and Helen Keller. We even get glimpses of the publishing work of people active in the movement, like Appeal to Reason, a widely-read publication of that time, coming out of Girard, Kan.

A worthwhile and instructive book.

Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater OK 74074 or email

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