Thursday, May 1, 2014

Happy birthday, Mother Jones

It is the birthday of labor organizer Mother Jones (1837), an Irish-American dressmaker who helped found the Industrial Workers of the World, the revolutionary international labor union that became known as the Wobblies.

After losing her husband and her four children to a yellow fever epidemic and her dress workshop to the Great Chicago Fire, Mary Harris Jones turned to organizing mine workers and their families.

She became a forceful speaker and catalyst for organizing labor in coal mines and silk mills, even once leading children on a march from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, New York, to call attention to child labor conditions. She became increasingly well known in labor circles and sometime in the 1890s she acquired the nickname Mother Jones. In 1902, she was hauled into court in West Virginia for her organizing activities among mine workers, where a district attorney labeled her “the most dangerous woman in America.”

She differed with fellow women activists of the time on a couple of points, though. She opposed abortion and women’s suffrage. “You don’t need the vote to raise hell,” she said. She told the story of her life in The Autobiography of Mother Jones (1925)

Mother Jones Magazine, founded in 1970, is named for her. Poet Carl Sandburg suggested in The American Songbag (1927) that the song “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” refers to Mother Jones.

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