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The most dangerous woman in America

May 2012

Readers may have noticed a progressive monthly magazine called Mother Jones, on newsstands since 1970.

Mother Jones was a real person, feisty and historically important.

She was born as Mary Harris in Cork, Ireland, in 1837. This was not a good time, potato famine and all. Her family immigrated to Toronto.

In the 1840s, they moved to the U.S. and Mary became a teacher in a convent in Monroe, Michigan, and later in Memphis, Tennessee.

She married George Jones, a union iron molder, and gave birth to four children. George and all the children died in a yellow fever epidemic.

She moved to Chicago and, at the age of 30, established a dress-making business for wealthy matrons, but lost her home, shop and belongings in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Mary Jones, also known as Mother Jones, told others to “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living. Photo: Library of Congress

She then joined the Knights of Labor and campaigned for decent wages and working conditions. A dynamite speaker, she used stories, drama and jokes to involve audience participation.

Just five feet tall, she had a commanding presence, with a shock of white hair and dressed in all black. She claimed to be seven years older than she was to gain more respect and was dubbed Mother Jones. She participated in hundreds of strikes across the country and, nearing 60, was hired as an organizer by the United Mine Workers in West Virginia, where she organized wives to use brooms and mops against scab workers.

She was among the founders of the Social Democratic Party and the Industrial Workers of the World. In 1905, she organized a children’s textile workers’ march on President Teddy Roosevelt’s home (pre-dating Saul Alinsky’s tactic by 60 years).

The Establishment struck back. She was labeled “the most dangerous woman in America.” She was falsely accused of murder during a 1913 mine strike and sentenced to 20 years in prison, but a nationwide protest led to a commutation of the sentence.

She admonished others to “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

She died in 1930 at age 93, though she claimed to be 100.

This gutsy mother, who tragically lost four kids, evolved into a sort of spiritual mother of many latter-day long-lived activist women campaigning for social justice, such as Canadians Léa Roback (died in 2000 at 96), Madeleine Parent (died in March at 93) and Naomi Klein (going strong at 42).



At June 7, 2012 at 12:23 PM , Anonymous Jane Gilchrist said...

Worthwhile to read about someone who fought against the worst instincts in all of us--greed, snobbery, materialism,
I receive Mother Jones the newspaper on my computer. Now, when I bring it up, I will think of Mother Jones the Social
Democrat and try to borrow at least a little of her spirit.
--Jane Gilchrist


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