Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous
Woman in America
By Elliott J. Gorn
Hill and Wang
408 pages, $27
In 1903, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, then 66 years old, led a march
of 100 boys and girls from Philadelphia to New York to protest child
labor. Once in New York, Mother Jones accepted an invitation from
an animal show owner on Coney Island to come visit, where she used
his stage to give an address. Jones spoke in front of a huge portrait
of Roman emperors (with their thumbs pointed down), while chained
lions punctuated her speech with roars. She theatrically indicted
capitalism and compared it to the brutality of Roman gladiator shows.
On the stage stood several animal cages, with children from the
mills of Philadelphia locked inside them. They symbolized, Mother
Jones declared, the attitudes of American employers toward the children
who worked for them.
She then declared that she and the marchers would visit President
to convince him to end the enslavement of children. Further, she noted,
"I will tell the president that I saw men in Madison Square last night
sleeping on the benches and that the country can have no greatness
while one unfortunate lies out at night without a bed to sleep on."
This astonishing political spectacle suggests the powers of one of
America's most creative agitators at the peak of her abilities. Here
lay Mother Jones' great strength--an ability to connect with and move
great masses of people through words, skillful use of the legend she
had become, and, in this case, a heavy dose of visual stimulation.
We all know about Mother Jones, but over the years our sense of her
has become one-dimensional.
Did she know best?
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Elliott Gorn's new biography, Mother
Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, restores some
of her complexity, and this is the great achievement of his fascinating
book. "Perhaps it is best to think of Mother Jones as a character
performed by Mary Jones," he notes insightfully. "She exaggerated
her age, wore old-fashioned black dresses, and alluded often to
her impending demise."
As Gorn takes us through her long history, he explores some of
the most dramatic moments in American labor history, from the anthracite
strikes of the 1890s, to child-labor campaigns in the early 20th
century, to the violent mining wars in West Virginia and Colorado
during the 1910s.
Born in Ireland, Mary Harris lived through the terrors of the potato
famine, fled to Canada and then the United States, worked as a teacher
and as a dressmaker, moved to Memphis and married George Jones,
an iron molder and union man. Soon after that, in 1867, she watched
powerlessly as her entire family (four children and her husband)
fell victim to yellow fever and died. Between this tragedy and her
emergence in the 1890s as "Mother Jones" we know even less about
her. She moved to Chicago and returned to her trade as a dressmaker.
She seems to have grown active in the labor movement during the
1880s, joining the Knights of Labor; yet we have no clear understanding
of how or why she became radicalized.
With so little evidence to go on, Gorn nimbly analyzes the larger
contexts of Irish and American history to shed light on his subject.
In one of the most interesting--and probably controversial--sections
of the book, he explores rumors that Jones spent some of her time
during these decades working as a prostitute or running a brothel.
Historians routinely have rejected the charges as false, because
they came from an anti-labor newspaper. But Gorn, while agreeing
such historians are probably right, believes the charges worth investigating
He notes that none of Mother Jones' prominent friends would publically
refute the charges when the paper made them in 1904. Furthermore,
as Gorn describes it, Jones "once hinted obliquely that there might
be something" to the charges when, in a discussion about them with
United Mine Workers organizer Duncan MacDonald, she commented, "Don't
you think whatever my past might have been that I have more than
made up for it?" Macdonald believed this to be a confession. Throughout
her life, Jones' enemies repeatedly rehashed these charges to try
to undermine her. From today's perspective, however, it is intriguing
to think that some of Jones' radicalism may have been fueled by
her participation in the world and the problems faced by working
But by the early 20th century, Mother Jones' past had become carefully
buried. She emerged as a great legend of American labor activism.
And although she believed deeply in the socialist cause, Mother
Jones was not one for formal political ties; after brief flirtations
with both the Socialist Party and the Wobblies, she remained distant
from both. Her longest organizational affiliation was with the United
Mine Workers, but even there she seemed to develop more enemies
than friends among the leadership. The rank-and-file workers mattered
to her, not their leaders or institutions.
With an energy that seems remarkable for someone her age, she crisscrossed
the country. She organized to raise funds for Big Bill Haywood and
Charles Moyer when they sat in prison, accused of murder; she worked
energetically to support the Mexican revolution; and, of course,
she joined the struggles that pushed her to the peak of her fame:
the mining battles in West Virginia and Colorado. Here she became
known not only for spellbinding speeches, but also for dynamic organizing
tactics. She hiked through streams when the mining corporations
banned travel through their property; she faced down court injunctions
and suffered the indignity of jail, time and again, always knowing
that such ruggedness would rally the troops and generate national
publicity like nothing else. Through it all, she played up the contradictions
of her position and the drama embedded in them. An older woman dressed
in respectable clothes, she gave furious speeches, swearing and
shouting at the injustices working men and women faced. Emphasizing
her identity as the mother of all the workers, with all the loving
and nurturing qualities that suggested, she could castigate not
only enemies but even her beloved workers, demanding that they live
up to their manhood and stop behaving like weaklings.
While it is difficult to quantify the impact of an agitator like
Mother Jones, Gorn makes it clear that she helped workers win national
publicity, inspired rank-and-file workers to greater and more persistent
militancy. And, Gorn seems to suggest, she often helped move strikes
away from issues of food and wages and toward "much larger issues
of freedom, dignity, and the rights of citizens."
Yet Mother Jones also possessed important weaknesses. Particularly
as she grew older, she sometimes placed too much faith in her ability
to convert her enemies. She met with John D. Rockefeller Jr., labor's
top villain in the Colorado coal wars (which culminated in the Ludlow
Massacre), and then, accepting his claims of non-involvement, publically
proclaimed, "I don't hold the boy responsible." Congressional investigation
would soon prove just how involved Rockefeller had been. In one
of her final battles, in West Virginia during the early 1920s, while
in her mid-eighties, Mother Jones grew friendly with the state's
governor and faced charges that their close relationship led her
to betray the workers' cause when she urged them to end a strike.
She never fully recovered from this incident, and her final decade
was marked by gradually failing health and efforts to establish
her place in history by writing an autobiography.
Perhaps her greatest weakness, however, came from the same domestic
ideal she exploited so well in creating her motherly persona. Gorn
argues effectively that domesticity, the notion of the loving and
asexual mother, dominated Mother Jones' image and helped her achieve
a moving effect by masking her fiery radicalism. Unfortunately,
it also trapped her into supporting conservative notions of a woman's
place: "She thundered her message of labor solidarity from a thousand
rostrums, then told women that their most important tasks were being
good wives and mothers." Similarly, her emphasis on family authority
and her devotion to traditional patriarchal structures meant that
she remained dependent on powerful men like John Mitchell or Terence
Powderly, through whom she exercised much of her power.