A fiction writer would be hard pressed to invent a character whose life was more tragic and sorrowful, yet more inspiring and socially relevant than that of Mary Harris Jones, better known as “Mother Jones.”
Born in 1837, in Cork, Ireland, the teenage Mary Harris and her family emigrated first to Toronto, Canada, then to the U.S., with stops in Monroe, Michigan and Chicago, before settling in Memphis, Tennessee, where Mary met and married George E. Jones, an ironworker and organizer for the National Union of Iron Moulders.
Mary opened a dressmaking shop in Memphis, in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, fulfilling her dream of becoming a wife, mother and businesswoman. Then tragedy struck. Mary’s husband and four children (all of whom were under the age of five), died during a virulent yellow fever epidemic that swept through Memphis, leaving her a childless widow.
Following their deaths, and looking for a fresh start in a friendly environment, Mary returned to Chicago, where she set up another dressmaking business. Then, incredibly, four years later, disaster struck again. Mary’s dress shop, her home and her personal possessions were all lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
It was in the wake of these personal tragedies that Mary Harris Jones became heavily involved in the labor movement, initially as an organizer for the Knights of Labor, and then, with the Knights of Labor’s dissolution, as an organizer and spokeswoman for the United Mine Workers (UMW). In truth, she was considerably more than a UMW organizer; she became the coal miners’ patron saint.
By all accounts Mary was a brilliant, charismatic speaker, and a fearless, dedicated champion of social justice. The authorities (politicians, mine owners, business groups) were terrified of her. In 1897, at the age of 60, she began using the name “Mother Jones,” and in 1902, a West Virginia District Attorney with the improbable name of Reese Blizzard, famously referred to her as “the most dangerous woman in America,” sealing her reputation.
One of Mary’s chief concerns was child welfare. Not only was she an early and outspoken opponent of child labor, she took the maternal view that men’s wages should be generous enough to allow their wives to stay home and raise their children. A brave and independent thinker—and unquestionably affected by the deaths of her four young ones—Mary shied away from many of the feminist issues of the day, including women’s suffrage, believing that a mother raising her children trumped everything else.
Although the word “iconic” tends to be overused these days, the term certainly applied to Mother Jones. For roughly 60 years she was the working man’s spiritual leader and benefactor—part Madonna, part mediator, part rabble-rouser—a labor icon in every sense of the word. This brief summary of her career doesn’t do her justice. Suffice to say that in an era of colorful, larger-than-life male figures, Mother Jones more than held her own. She died in 1930, at the age of ninety-three.
A couple of labor activists and historians, Steve Fesenmaier (in West Virginia) and Sanford Berman (in Minnesota), have spearheaded a drive to have Mother Jones honored by a commemorative stamp. I’ve spoken with both men by telephone and was impressed not only with their staggering knowledge of labor history, but with their perseverance. They’ve been committed to this project for seven years.
What does it take for the USPS (United States Postal Service) to put you on a commemorative stamp? Several things, actually. You don’t have to be an American, and you don’t have to be an intellectual or moralist (Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne and Elvis have been on stamps), but you do have to be dead for a minimum of five years (although exceptions can be made for ex-presidents).
Commemorative stamps have been around since 1893. Interestingly, you can’t get on a stamp if you’re a religious figure. The USPS has a policy of not issuing stamps for people who were known primarily for their religious beliefs, which means Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are not eligible.
When atheists protested Mother Teresa getting her stamp, in 2010, the USPS was able to sidestep that potentially incendiary issue by claiming that the second-most famous Roman Catholic in the world (behind the Pope) was being honored for humanitarian rather than religious reasons.
The point that Messrs. Fesenmaier and Berman wish to emphasize is that the public can influence these selections. There’s a group called the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee, composed of approximately 15 people, that makes recommendations to the USPS. People can write to this committee and suggest candidates. If Duke Wayne and Elvis can get stamps, why not labor’s legendary benefactor, Mother Jones?
The mailing address:
Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee: Stamp Development
U.S. Postal Service
1735 North Lynn Street (Room 5013)
Arlington, VA 22209-6432
DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at email@example.com