You know how every so often you hear a story about someone’s grandma being pulled over by airport security or police or something, and strip-searched, and everyone’s like “but she’s just a harmless little old lady, how dangerous could knitting needles possibly be?” I have a theory about that. It’s not just that they’re trying to balance out their numbers against accusations that they only search young men of color, though that’s totally a part of it. It is my belief that deep down, in the twisted, dried-out heart-like object of every uniformed protector of the rich and powerful, lies the primal fear that every sweet little old lady they see might just be Mother Jones. Her ability to, well into her 70s and 80s, walk into a mining town or factory and have an angry, determined union just kind of magically appear around her has successfully instilled in every cop, security guard, and neo-Pinkerton, a terrible dread of white hair, old-fashioned dresses, and motherly vibes.
Mother Jones is a weird person to write and to read about, because in many ways she’s basically a fictional character. As one of the most famous labor organizers of all time, she did amazing things, and she claimed to have done further amazing things, and people talked about her as though she had done yet more amazing things, but those false claims were all part of her self-mythologizing that helped her to do the stuff that she actually did.
What is definitely true is that she worked as a paid union organizer for a lot of her later years, and she was absurdly right for the job. Her rhetorical style was her biggest advantage there; she had this great all-us-working-class-guys-together-are-going-to-kick-privilege-in-the-face-do-it-for-your-CHILDREN! thing going on. And when that didn’t work, she would fall back on insulting the manhood of her listeners. That worked in pretty much half the cases; when she was mobilizing women, of course she would take a slightly different approach, but she always got the job done. (All without speech writers OR teleprompters, I might add, and in fact just did.) What really made her leadership great was that she didn’t so much get people to do the things she wanted them to do as she did help people who had previously been powerless take power for themselves. Note: this is a thing that people who wield unjust power over other people just HATE.
So how’d she get to be so awesome? Did she just spring fully formed from a coal mine, aged 65, ready to fuck shit up like a working class Athena? Well, no. Mother Jones was born Mary Harris, at a date she constantly lied about, but probably 1837, in Cork, Ireland. She would later claim to have been born on May Day, for obvious symbolic reasons. She totally wasn’t, but hey, who am I to try and stop a woman’s self-mythologizing? Let’s say May Day. We don’t know all that much about her early life, because she really didn’t start getting involved in organizing until much later, and that’s where the historical record, and her own autobiography, start to pay attention to her.
We do know that she married a man named George Jones after having immigrated to America, and with him had four children, thus becoming an actual mother. It wasn’t until after her husband and all four of her children died in a yellow fever epidemic, and after she lost her home and her dress shop in the Great Chicago Fire, because all superheroes need a tragic origin story, goddamnit, that she started working in the labor movement. Though she would later drastically exaggerate her early work with organizing, she actually began by getting involved with the Knights of Labor, a group that was huge at the time, but that started to lose some serious popularity after Haymarket. The riots happened during their strikes for an eight hour day, and they ended up being generally tied to the violence that ensued. She seems to have blamed the Haymarket Massacre partially on the police (which makes sense) but also a bit on the anarchists, with whom she had a pretty mixed relationship. Mother Jones considered herself a socialist (she worked closely with famous socialist badass Eugene Debs on more than one occasion), and also often called herself a Bolshevik after that, you know, became a thing you could be, but though she says that she attended anarchist meetings she never identified as an anarchist. She viewed them mainly as troublemakers.
Which is funny, really, because that’s exactly how her opponents saw her. Mother Jones was super into, in her words “raising hell,” a wonderfully evocative phrase that meant pointing out injustice and mobilizing the victims of it to forcefully bring about change. So, what she called “raising hell” I think other people might call “shit-stirring” or, you know “activism.” In the minds of her capitalist opponents, she was a destructive force that could walk into, say, a coal mining town, which prior to her arrival had been full of happy coal miners, happily mining coal, happily singing songs that were not about how awful and hazardous coal mining was, happily sending their children to work in mines and factories, happily being paid in company scrip that was not real legal money and could only be used at the price-inflated, company-owned stores and saloons, happily spending that scrip until they ended up happily in debt to the company, and happily dying of black lung or any of the myriad horrible mining-related diseases and disasters, and somehow, somehow, through sheer rabble-rousing, Mother Jones would make these happy folk discontented with their lot and cause them to go on strike. Because she was a troublemaker!
It wasn’t just miners that Mother Jones empowered when she came to communities and helped to organize them. It was their wives too; women who usually did not work in the mines but who were in many ways just as exploited by them as their husbands and kids. Mother Jones became famous for organizing women into “mop and broom armies,” which would “clean out” the scabs during strikes. Yes, that was exactly as awesome as it sounds. They would show up carrying brooms and mops, and they would block, shame, chase away, and in some cases straight-up attack men sent in as replacement workers. “An army of strong mining women,” Mother Jones herself wrote, “makes a wonderfully spectacular picture.” By “spectacular” I believe she meant “terrifying to scabs,” a definition I am entirely fine with.
Which kind of brings us neatly to Mother Jones’ feminism, or lack thereof. As the above image makes pretty clear, Mother Jones was as much a fan of female domesticity as she was of female empowerment. She didn’t see much point to the whole women’s suffrage thing, believing that, for one thing “you don’t need a vote to raise hell,” as she said more than once. Which was demonstrably true in her case. She also didn’t think women would be any better at voting than men, whom she rightly believed sucked at voting. She also thought that suffrage, like the other big “women’s cause” of the day, Prohibition, distracted women from the real struggle, which was of course, the class struggle. She was pretty much right about that one too. (Prohibition, man. Can you believe anyone thought that was a good idea? Anyone who didn’t own a distillery and a bunch of really fast ships in Canada?) But she definitely, definitely believed that the proper role for women was in the home, raising children; she would talk about how a man had to be able to earn enough to keep his wife from having to work. Still, she would also have agreed with that familiar t-shirt/bumpersticker slogan “A woman’s place is in the revolution.” The times she berated women for valuing frivolous things over involvement in unions and politics make that clear. Once, she told a group of fashionably dressed women “you wear high collars to support your jaw and keep your befuddled brain from oozing out of your mouths,” which is just such an insane and awesome thing to say that I don’t even really care what it was supposed to mean. So anyway, I’m going to give her a pass on her imperfect feminism.
As long as we’re talking about things Mother Jones could’ve done better, we might as well address that time when she apparently supported policies designed to keep Chinese people from immigrating to the United States. This, I think we can all agree, was an unequivocally shitty, racist thing to do. Though she would later make a big thing of the necessity of all working people sticking together, regardless of race, she never actually renounced her earlier support for the anti-Chinese policy. So that sucks. Then there’s the fact that she was actually super excited about militarism and authority, in ways most radicals on the left would probably find kinda skin-crawly.
Now, her critics during her lifetime also accused her of having at one time been a prostitute and a madam, a charge “uncovered,” a word I suspect they may have been using in the sense of “made right up out of thin air,” by those serial assholes at the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, but I think that’s something her modern critics would be way less inclined to judge her for, than her weird nationalism and eagerness for the US to get into the First World War I. How weirdly nationalistic she was can, I think, best be illustrated with an anecdote from this one time when some Canadians got all up in her face. (Yes. There was a time in history when a Canadian got all up in someone’s face. It wasn’t even hockey season. I’m as surprised as you are. I dunno, maybe it started as like, a really enthusiastic apology and it just got out of hand.)
She was trying to get into Canada, to help with a strike. When asked where she was going by the border guard, she was like “uh, totally not to a strike. You have stuff in Canada that’s not a strike I might go to help with right? Some…waterfalls or something? Moose? Moose that are not on strike?” and they were like “bullshit, you are clearly Mother Jones.” She was like “whatever, you’ll be sorry you messed with me when my uncle comes along….my UNCLE SAM!” Yeah, she really said that. Badass, yes, I guess, but at the same time showing a kind of goofy level of nationalism.
But anyway, I think that’s enough about Mother Jones’ flaws. Let’s get back to why she was awesome.
One of Mother Jone’s other big causes was ending child labor. She disapproved of systems that saw kids as young as ten losing fingers, limbs, or their lives to the machinery in textile mills. For some reason. Many of these children had single mothers, often because their fathers had been killed or rendered unable to work in the mines or factories, leaving the family no choice but to send the kids off to work. So it was a cycle of death, destruction and exploitation. You know, kinda like capitalism.
In 1903, she was in Kensington, Pennsylvania, where a huge number of children were working in the mills, and where seventy-five thousand workers, ten thousand of them children, were on strike. After meeting with a lot of stunted, mutilated mill children, Mother Jones asked why the papers didn’t publicized the issue of child labor. She was told that the millowners had stock in the newspapers. “Well,” Mother Jones replied, “I’ve got stock in these little children, and I’ll arrange a little publicity.”
And then she wrote a strongly-worded letter!
Just kidding, then she organized an army of child workers that went on a multi-state march and made President Teddy Roosevelt run and hide in the woods. No really, you know, Teddy Roosevelt, the guy who manifested his destiny all over the place, spat out assassins’ bullets, and arm-wrestled grizzly bears to death for fun, literally ran away and hid in the woods when he heard Mother Jones and a bunch of small kids were coming to talk to him.
You are probably waiting for me to take back part of that, or like, tell it in a way that makes it clear I was totally exaggerating, but for real, that is a thing that happened. She got a bunch of kids from the factories, and, with the permission of their parents, got them and a few adult chaperones marching, complete with banners, and a freaking fife and drum, to Philadelphia, where they held a demonstration against child labor, and then headed out to Long Island, to where Roosevelt was hanging out at his vacation home in Oyster Bay. Along the way camped out, slept in the homes of whoever would let them, and on one occasion, slept in a barn on Grover Cleveland’s estate while the family was away. All along the way, Mother Jones would speak, and show the audience just what factory work did to the children’s bodies; from their malnourished, stunted frames to their missing fingers. She described the work that these children did, and together they not only informed the public about child labor, but raised money for the strikers back home in Kensington.
When they got to Oyster Bay, a lot of people expected them to be stopped from entering. Which would’ve been fun to watch. Actually, Mother Jones was able to get to Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s vacation spot, only to learn that the president had run off into the woods with two of his sons and some nephews for a camping trip. The irony of a president taking his kids off for a nice camping trip from their fancy vacation mansion so as to avoid meeting with the victims of child labor was, hopefully, lost on exactly no one.
So, less than successful at meeting with the President, but the march did bring a lot of public attention to the issue of child labor, as only a rabble-rouser with an army of instrument-wielding children can. But it was in 1912 that Mother Jones entered into what was probably the most badass of her actions. That year, there was what amounted to an all-out war between striking miners and the mining company in Cabin Creek and Paint Creek, West Virginia. Mother Jones showed up and basically badassed all over the conflict. Example: confronting an armed guard who was pointing a gun at a group of strikers, Mother Jones put her hand on his gun, and when ordered to take her hand away, responded “Sir, my class goes into the mines. They bring out the metal that makes this gun. This is my gun!” An argument that sounds great on paper, but it a special kind of person to deliver in real life, to a person who is actually holding said gun. And by a “special kind of person” I mean “someone who is either bullet-proof, or Mother Jones.”
She held meetings while deadly battles took place every day, and at one point was asked to travel to a camp called Wineberg, accessible only by roads belonging to the coal company. Well, accessible only by road belonging to the coal company, or by being a total badass. Told she’d be arrested if she traveled by the roads, Mother Jones walked first along railroad tracks, until she was told that they too, were private property, and finally said fuck it, roads, pathways and all that shit were for people who lacked her epicness. She took off her shoes, and traveled the rest of the way wading through a creek. She describes the creek as “icy” in her autobiography, but since it was West Virginia in June she may have been indulging her dramatic side a tad. Still, that’s fairly hardcore; let’s not forget she was well into her seventies at the time, an age at which a lot of people rarely do anything more strenuous than yell at kids to get off their lawn. When she got to Wineberg, she was of course prohibited from entering the town, so the miners simply took off their shoes and joined her in the creek. Which is all a really nice baptismal image that she, as a Catholic, must have appreciated.
Note: I say she was a Catholic. She also once said “I long ago quite praying and took to swearing. If I pray I will have to wait until I am dead to get anything; but when I swear I get things.” So yeah. She was that kind of Catholic. (The awesome, sweary kind. Like the Boondock Saints, but for labor unions.)
Anyway, West Virginia. People were getting killed on both sides, and arrested on one side (guess which one), and Mother Jones was organizing workers left right and fucking center. All of a sudden, she was arrested, which at this point in her life was like, feh, must be Tuesday. Except that she was tried in a military court, for fucking murder, and sentenced to twenty years. Fortunately, Mother Jone’s faith in the authorities worked out this time, and she was released after not too long in jail, so that she could head to Colorado to help out with another strike, and get arrested again. Circle of life, yo.
Mother Jones continued to badass her way through life, working with many different unions, particularly the United Mine Workers, as well as with the Socialist Party of America, though she had a serious, serious hate-on for the petty politics that tends to go on in organizations like that, which is completely understandable. When she realized she was getting problematically old, she decided to have a centennial birthday party, though she was probably not quite that old actually, on May Day, though that was probably not her birthday, because, as may have been made previously clear, Mother Jones does what the fuck Mother Jones wants, and if she wanted a 100th birthday party when she was like 92 on not-her-birthday, she fucking had one. It was the last major event of her life.
Even her death was kind of epic and legendary. People kept stopping by to say goodbye to her on what was presumed to be her deathbed, starting in October of 1930, based on the news that she was no longer able to eat food (generally not a good sign). She stuck around until the last day of November, because she retained her stubbornness long after she lost the ability to chew or digest. And of course, her legend had been established long before. Like I said before, Mother Jones was as much a fictional character as she was a real person. Which means there’s no reason she shouldn’t keep kicking ass, just because she’s dead.
“Pray for the dead,” runs Mother Jones’s most famous quote, “and fight like hell for the living.” But we already know she found swearing more effective than praying, so I guess the real lesson here is swear, fight, and lie as much as you see fit.