Book gives Mother Jones her due

Mother Jones: Revolutionary Leader of Labor and Social Reform, By Dorothy L. Wake

In the words of an IWW poet known as “The Paint Creek Miner”: “How they fear her, how they hate her, hate her kind and timeworn face. How they rush armed mobs to meet her when she moves from place to place.”

Labor leaders came and went throughout the half-century of Mary Harris Jones’ (Mother Jones) career. She became an institution among the masses of miners and other working people for whom she fought. Her struggles documented the treatment of workers by their exploiters. She teaches us about the cold-blooded killing of strikers by hired guns and the U.S. Militia, the stark day-to-day realities of slave labor, the lengths to which capitalism will go to maintain unlimited profits and power, and what we must do to end that power.

Born in Ireland in 1830, she saw British soldiers marching through the streets with the heads of Irishmen impaled on their bayonets. With her father’s life in danger, the family moved to Toronto, where she grew up. She was first a teacher, then a dressmaker and seamstress in Chicago. Later, she married George E. Jones, an iron molder.

After six years of marriage and the birth of four children, a yellow fever epidemic claimed her entire family in the course of one week. She saw that the victims of the epidemic were mainly workers and the poor; the rich and well-to-do had fled the city.

Mary had become aware of labor issues through her husband’s union activities, and her own membership in the Knights of Labor when she returned to Chicago. Her devotion to working-class struggles grew as she fought for coal miners, child laborers, steelworkers and many others.

Dorothy L. Wake has two main concerns in her biography of Mother Jones. Wake’s first concern is to counteract the demeaning and superficial treatment of Mother Jones in much of our labor history – in some cases, no mention at all. Wake’s second concern is to correct the impression that Mother Jones was opposed to women’s suffrage.

Although Jones was never a member of either the Syndicalist or Socialist parties, their views of the importance of working-class action (versus depending on the vote) appealed to her. Mary often urged women to go to the polls, but also cautioned them against viewing the right to vote as a cure-all for bettering their lives. She also called for a woman president.

As labor historian Phillip Foner stated, “Mother Jones deserves a place on any list of the greatest women of all time.”

The author can be reached at ncalview@igc.org