Im not a woman, Im a hell-raiser

A leader, according to one woman, is a hell-raiser. By that definition, the poor Irish woman born Mary Harris, who became the childless widow Mary Jones, then self-transformed into the organizer Mother Jones, was just that – a leader.

Her whole life was spent sharing in, fighting against and protesting the hardships of the class that makes up a majority of this world. By her life’s work she earned the title of Mother to all who are poor, laboring or suffering in this country and throughout the world. Mother Jones began her life as Mary Harris, eldest daughter in a poor family in Cork, Ireland. To say she was poor is a given, considering the fact that she was a Catholic born, probably, in the late 1830s. Toward the end of her life, she claimed to be born on May 1, 1830, exactly, but academics doubt the truth of this repeatedly made declaration.

As the second oldest child with three other younger siblings, she was undoubtedly accustomed to caring for others early in life. Although she was raised in a small town, she knew country life well. According to her own stories of her ancestry, she had much to be proud of, including a grandfather who died fighting for Ireland’s freedom.

However, like most self-proclaimed and perhaps true patriots, little proof of their deeds remains to support those claims. But it is certain that the Ireland of the time of her family history was a very tense and traumatic land. Not only were labor disputes brewing in England but Ireland was also replete with riots and secret societies to fight the English lords and the resulting poverty.

Even before the Great Potato Famine began in 1845, times were not easy for the Harris family. But when the worst potato blight of all time struck Cork, it took only two years before Mary’s father and older brother were forced to leave for the New World in search of work and food.

In the years that followed, before the rest of the family could make the great voyage to reunite the family, it was Mary and her mother who had to keep the family alive during some of the worst years of the famine. All in all, the great hunger would take 12 percent of Ireland’s population.

Mary’s father managed to become an American citizen and, like many immigrants, found steady work as a laborer on the railways. Eventually, when her father and brother settled in Toronto, Canada, they were able to save enough money to send for the rest of the family. Mary, her mother, and her younger siblings joined them in the early 1850s.

It was in Toronto that Mary and her younger brother and sisters received some education. Mary was especially fortunate to not only be trained as a dressmaker, but also, after finishing secondary school, to be able enter a teacher training college. Though she never graduated, the added education served her well.

Life in Toronto afforded the entire family some success. The family moved into a small house, and an 1869 census reported that Mary’s father was now a milkman, owning cows and pigs. However, life was not all honey and roses for most Irish Catholics in Canada. Rising prices, discontented labor and the growing Irish exile movement all provided a culture of uncertainty, into which Mary became an adult.

Mary left Toronto to take a teaching job at a parochial school in Monroe, though she did not stay very long. On recounting her move to Chicago, she said that she “prefer[ed] sewing to bossing little children.” However, she did return to teaching again as she moved south to Tennessee. It was then, in 1861, that she met and married her husband, an iron moulder and staunch union loyalist.

In Memphis life was relatively good for a few years. Mary had four children and, because her husband made a good livelihood, she could tend to their home and hearth. After the Civil War, the booming economic times did not last, and many iron factories went out of business. The resulting poverty, and a yellow fever epidemic in 1867, spelled disaster for the Jones family.

As a result of the epidemic, Mary Jones became a childless widow, losing her husband and four children. As she would later recount, she was grief stricken, spending days waiting for someone to come and help her, but no one ever did. The Iron Moulders Union held a grand funeral for her husband.

Mary then returned to Chicago, where she opened a dressmaking shop with a partner. While a dressmaker, she had close contact with the higher end of society, seeing their habits, luxuries and extravagances. In her autobiography, she juxtaposes the lives of her rich patrons with the lives of the poor who she could see begging just outside her store windows.

Her shop was successful until the Great Chicago Fire took all she had in 1871. Chicago before the fire was in a desperate and tense state – labor disputes filled the air and conspiracy theories filled the papers – but after the fire everything became even worse. Amidst these horrible times the modern labor movement was born and from the ashes of her own home, shop and livelihood, Mother Jones was reborn.

For many years after the Great Chicago Fire, one might say that Mother Jones was still a youth in the process of being educated. She spent much time just listening to the speeches of agitators, anarchists, communists, socialists and laborites – all preachers of a sort. It wasn’t until the 1880s that she became fully converted and engrossed in the fight for those who work.

In 1894 she was a volunteer in “Coxey’s Army,” a march of thousands of unemployed men to Washington D.C. Although the group of 200 never made it all the way to Washington, the experience of organizing, fundraising, speaking and traveling seemed to resonate with her.

From then on her home became wherever her shoes took her. By 1900, she was named an “International Organizer” by the United Mine Workers, allowing her free rein to organize, speak, write and inspire anywhere she was needed.

Early on in her career, Mother Jones realized that educating workers to their own interest was paramount. She was the first to circulate a paper devoted to the interest of labor in general. In her autobiography she recalls the planning for the paper, Appeal to Reason. The paper went on to become a leading advocate and instrument of the progress of labor.

While thoroughly practical, Mother Jones was also highly aware of theoretical necessities. She remarked that the paper, like all things, must have its youth, adulthood and death. She said, “Appeal to Reason had its youth of vigor, its later day of profound wisdom and then its passing away. Disrupting influences, quarrels, divergent points of view, theories, finally caused it to go out of business.”

Mother Jones was quick to use any tool to her advantage, whether to gain sympathy or support, or to encourage others. Her ability to lead, organize, speak and motivate was distinctly matriarchal. Whether ordering people about, even when they had guns, or sweetly getting the unknowing to help out, her womanhood served her well.

From the many accounts that exist of her speeches, her voice and manners where aided by both her age and gender. The most prevalent adjectives that describe her speaking style are loud, strong, demanding, hopeful and persistent. It was said that her voice just got louder and deeper the more excited she was.

Slipping past soldiers, lecturing governors and judges, or comforting the sick, she used any advantage that she had. In her autobiography she tells of a time when she was threatened by gunmen hired by the Paint Creek Coal Company, whose workers she was organizing. Traveling all night, only to be confronted, she walked right up to the meanest gunman of the bunch and put her hand up to the ready and pointing muzzle, and dared the man to shoot an old unarmed woman if he didn’t want her group to pass.

She bore the hardships that she was working to prevent – cold, hunger, sleeplessness, extreme physical strains, just to name a few. Her speeches always filled her audience with visions of better times to come and the victories of the past. She told of the great spirits, deeds and sacrifices of laborers like those who, during a 1913 strike, stopped a fire, started by the bosses negligence but resulting in the loss of two workers’ lives.

Because of her agitation, she was barred from several states, and more than once was in prison for extended periods of time. At times she was held in military camps for months on end, and once was held in a rat-filled cellar for 26 days. But she continued to preach her gospel, even to the young men who were ordered to lock her up. In each instance she not only never gave up, but usually won the day, even if that day took weeks to come.

Although her name is most often associated with the coal and steel unions, she was also on the forefront on the crusade to lessen the exploitation of children in the textile mills and coal mills and to bring education to those young souls. She organized marches of children who had lost limbs due to their dangerous work.

Her tactics set her apart from other organizers. She recruited the wives’ of laborers to help organize the men for the sake of their families. She also used women when men were barred from the work sites, organizing them into what came to be called “mop and bucket brigades.” The women would morally, and sometimes physically, implore strike breakers to join the cause and strike. Her methods, morals and character helped her stop much of the violence that plagued most strikes.

Mother Jones fought any battle that called her name. Once there, she not only committed herself, no matter the danger, but made herself useful in all manners, whether it was giving her small salary, her loving care or her loud voice. Never was she sidetracked into union infighting and partisanships. Nor was she ever distracted from the greater aims and true goals. She led from instinct and knew from experience that a better life for all could be had if people would unite and raise hell until they had it.

The author can be reached at brandikishner@yahoo.com

Quotes are from the Autobiography of Mother Jones.