Mother Jones

Mother Jones

Labor activist Mary Harris Jones, known as Mother Jones, is remembered for her efforts to push for worker’s rights well into the later years of her 93-year life. 

But Jones’s matronly persona and moniker were no accident. It was intentionally crafted by Jones in an effort to push her message and garner media attention. 

“She didn’t stumble into becoming a vocal labor leader,” said Aimee Loiselle, a postdoctoral fellow at Smith College. 

Loiselle said Jones crafted a persona of “Mother Jones” as she entered her 60s, including using the nickname, wearing matronly black clothing and even lying about her age to make herself older. She would often use items while on stage, including bloody shirts meant to represent the ones worn by workers, though Loiselle said it’s up for debate as to whether they were the actual shirts or ones created for props. 

“These were conscious choices that she realized would get media attention in addition to being effective with the workers,” Loiselle said. “It’s right around the time when newspapers are becoming more popular, literacy is increasing and photography is becoming a part of regular newspaper coverage, and she’s very aware of that when she’s talking.” 

Jones was born in 1837 in Ireland and immigrated to Canada with her family at age 5. She first worked as a teacher at a Michigan Catholic school, then as a seamstress in Chicago, before moving to Memphis for another teaching job and marrying George Jones, a member of the Iron Molders’ Union in 1861. They had four children in six years, and in 1867 her entire family died in a yellow fever epidemic, according to the Women’s National History Museum. 

After her family died, she returned to Chicago and resumed sewing before losing everything she owned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. She then attended Knights of Labor meetings and in 1877 took up the cause of working people, according to the museum. 

Jones is often associated with helping organize male coal miners in 1913-1914. By that time, she was a visible activist after having used the Mother Jones persona for more than a decade, but Jones did quite a bit of her earlier work fighting and organizing alongside female workers, Loiselle said. 

Jones helped organize a strike in 1901 of Pennsylvania silk mill workers, mostly teenage girls and young women. Loiselle said it’s an example of Jones’s savvy nature around organizing. 

“She understood if we get photographs of these young teenage-to-early-20s women striking for better wages [and] marching, that’s going to be an appeal that the company cannot just brush off as, ‘These trouble making workers,’ ” Loiselle said. 

Jones was not a supporter of women’s suffrage. According to the National Women’s History Museum, she argued “you don’t need a vote to raise hell” and pointed out that the women of Colorado had the vote and failed to use it to prevent appalling conditions. 

Loiselle said Jones was not so much anti-suffrage as focused on class battles, at one point stating, “I’m not an anti- to anything which brings freedom to my class.”

Loiselle said Mother Jones “used her gender in a radical way, even if she didn’t necessarily challenge the idea of gender norms.”

“She knew a woman standing on stage waving a bloody shirt was going to hit people more powerfully than a man doing it.”

— Rebecca Klar

photo: Library of Congress/Bertha Howell