The Radical Life of Mother Jones

Mother Jones with the children of miners. Library of Congress.

For decades and decades this elderly lady was loved by American miners from Pennsylvania to Colorado. For them she was “Mother Jones”! And the affection was mutual. Those were her “boys” – whom she fought for and cheered on till the end of her very long life.

For the coal-mine bosses, however, above all during a strike, or if one threatened, she was a total nightmare, pure poison! That was because she organized the working men – and very definitely the women – to fight! She had to be kept away at all costs!

She wrote a wonderful autobiography, and its recollections are better than what anyone else can write, so I will quote lots of it – like this description of a telephone call in a mining district.

The local sheriff had been talking to me without knowing who I was.

“Oh Lord,” he said, “that Mother Jones is sure a dangerous woman.”

“Why don’t you arrest her?!” I asked him.

“Oh Lord, I couldn’t. I’d have that mob of women with their mops and brooms after me and the jail ain’t big enough to hold them all. They’d mop the life out of a fellow!”

And yet this dangerous agitator looked so completely harmless! An elderly lady, with a flowered bonnet, an old-fashioned dark jacket, a little lace at her throat and a long, wide skirt, worn even after this fashion had lost its dominance.  But when well-armed company goons blocked all roads to strike-bound mine pits this old lady did not hesitate to lift her wide skirt high enough to wade through icy mountain brooks and suddenly appear on the strike scenes at places the goons and their bosses had considered fully out of reach.

Mary Jones’ early years had ended tragically. Born in Ireland, where her family had always fought against the English occupiers, she arrived as a child first in Canada, then in the USA. She became a teacher, then a seamstress. “I preferred sewing to commanding little children around!”, she wrote. She married George Jones, an iron caster and a man active in the labor unions just being formed in those years. But in 1867 a terrible yellow fever epidemic, hitting working-class areas the worst, took all her four children, one after the other, and then her husband as well.

She tried to get along by sewing dresses and other apparel in a small shop in Chicago. Looking out the big windows of wealthy customers who lived in unbelievable luxury, she saw hungry, jobless families passing by outside and began to draw conclusions. Then, in 1871, Chicago burned down in one of the biggest catastrophes in US history.  Mary Jones, like so many, lost all she owned.

The city recuperated quickly. Before long it had become America’s major industrial center, its growth based largely on two industries. One was meatpacking; processing and canning meat from herds of cattle freighted in from western prairie ranches. The other was the manufacture of big harvester machines; by 1864 the McCormick monopoly was selling 250,000 of them annually and had branched out to England, Germany and elsewhere.  But in both industries the working conditions were worse than miserable and Mary, in protest, joined the biggest labor organization of those years, the Knights of Labor.

In 1877 a giant railroad workers’ strike cut across the nation, with militant workers rejecting new cuts in what were already hunger wages. There were bloody attacks against the strikers and when they fought back there was enraged media denunciation – demanding that troops, hitherto engaged in massacring Indians, now start shooting at all those blood-thirsty anarchists, terrorists and communards, a term derived from the Paris Commune in 1871. And that is what the troops did!

In 1886 a campaign to reduce the average work day from ten or even twelve to eight hours climaxed on May 1st with a nation-wide strike, with 300,000 to 500,000 workers taking part. In Chicago alone, the center of the movement, an estimated 90,000 joined the giant, peaceful march. But then the police killed six of the strikers at the giant McCormick factory. During the protest rally that followed at Haymarket Square a mysterious bomb exploded, killing both policemen and participants. The identity of the bomb-thrower is unknown to this day but eight strike leaders, left-wing socialists or anarchists, none of them with even the slightest connection to the bomb, were arrested, framed in a caricature of a trial, and sentenced to death. One committed suicide in his cell, three were paroled after some years, but four men were hanged. The goal was achieved; labor leaders in the whole country were intimidated. But there was also one very different result; in Paris, where the Second International was founded in 1890, the anniversary of the strike was proclaimed as “May Day”, to mark international workers’ solidarity. It is now a holiday in almost all countries except for the U.S.A.

Such events were factors in turning Mary Jones into a fighter, especially in the basic industry of the day, coal mining. Before long she was moving from one mining area to another, joining in the struggle against the miserable and dangerous conditions and soon widely known by her new byname. In her book she tells of its reception:

It was about 1891 when I was down in Virginia. There was a strike in the Dietz mines and the boys had sent for me. When I got off the train at Norton a fellow walked up to me and asked me if I were Mother Jones.

“Yes, I am Mother Jones.”

He looked terribly frightened. “The superintendent told me that if you came down here he would blow out your brains. He said he didn’t want to see you ’round these parts.”

“You tell the superintendent that I am not coming to see him anyway. I am coming to see the miners.”

While trying to help rescue a weakening strike in Pennsylvania she was put up for the night by a poverty-stricken miner’s family. Again, her own description is worth quoting:

He insisted on my sleeping in the only bed, with his wife. He slept with his head on his arms on the kitchen table. Early in the morning his wife rose to keep the children quiet, so that I might sleep a little later as I was very tired.

At eight o’clock she came into my room, crying.

“Mother, are you awake!”

“Yes, I am awake.”

“Well, you must get up. The sheriff is here to put us out for keeping you. This house belongs to the Company.”

The family gathered up all their earthly belongings, which weren’t much, took down all the holy pictures, and put them in a wagon, and they with all their neighbors went to the meeting. The sight of that wagon with the sticks of furniture and the holy pictures and the children, with the father and mother and myself walking along through the streets, turned the tide. It made the men so angry that they decided not to go back that morning to the mines. Instead they came to the meeting where they determined not to give up the strike until they had won a victory.

Then the company tried to bring in scabs. I told the men to stay home with the children for a change and let the women attend to the scabs. I organized an army of women housekeepers. On a given day they were to bring their mops and brooms and “the army” would charge the scabs up at the mines. The general manager, the sheriff and the corporation hirelings heard of our plans and were on hand. The day came and the women came with the mops and brooms and pails of water.

I decided not to go up to the Drip Mouth myself, for I knew they would arrest me and that might rout the army. I selected as leader an Irish woman who had a most picturesque appearance. She had slept late and her husband had told her to hurry up and get into the army. She had grabbed a red petticoat and slipped it over a thick cotton night gown. She wore a black stocking and a white one. She had tied a little red fringed shawl over her wild red hair. Her face was red and her eyes were mad. I looked at her and felt that she could raise a rumpus.

I said, “You lead the army up to the Drip Mouth. Take that tin dishpan you have with you and your hammer, and when the scabs and the mules come up, begin to hammer and howl. Then all of you hammer and howl and be ready to chase the scabs with your mops and brooms. Don’t be afraid of anyone.”

Up the mountain side, yelling and hollering, she led the women, and when the mules came up with the scabs and the coal, she began beating on the dishpan and hollering and all the army joined in with her. The sheriff tapped her on the shoulder.

“My dear lady,” said he, “remember the mules. Don’t frighten them.”

She took the old tin pan and she hit him with it and she hollered, “To hell with you and the mules!”

He fell over and dropped into the creek. Then the mules began to rebel against scabbing. They bucked and kicked the scab drivers and started off for the barn. The scabs started running downhill, followed by the army of women with their mops and pails and brooms.”

Whenever the fight was about the hunger conditions of the miners, Mother Jones was always tough, she pulled no punches. One of her many anecdotes is about a judge who was disturbed by the word “hell” and other curse words used by one of the miners then on trial. In those days words like ”hell” and ”damned” were absolutely taboo in polite conversation.

“He swears every other word,” said the judge.

“Judge,” said I, “that is the way we ignorant working people pray.”

“Do you pray that way!”

“Yes, judge, when I want an answer quick.”

But tough as she was, when it came to the victims she could be extremely tender and moving:

In the spring of 1903 I went to Kensington, Pennsylvania, where seventy-five thousand textile workers were on strike. Of this number at least ten thousand were little children… Every day little children came into union headquarters, some with their hands off, some with the thumb missing, some with their fingers off at the knuckle. They were stooped things, round shouldered and skinny. Many of them were not over ten years of age, the state law prohibited their working before they were twelve years of age.

The law was poorly enforced and the mothers of these children often swore falsely as to their children’s age. In a single block in Kensington, fourteen women, mothers of twenty-two children all under twelve, explained it was a question of starvation or perjury. That the fathers had been killed or maimed at the mines.

I asked the newspaper men why they didn’t publish the facts about child labor in Pennsylvania. They said they couldn’t because the mill owners had stock in the papers.

“Well, I’ve got stock in these little children,” said I,” and I’ll arrange a little publicity.”

Mother Jones kept hammering away on this issue, but it was not easy going. Then she had a new idea. In many cities people were crowding around to see the original Liberty Bell from 1776, crack and all, which was being taken on tour. Why not try something somewhat similar – but with live children – who were being deprived of liberty and the pursuit of happiness – as well as health and hope – in mines and mills around the country. In Pennsylvania there was a major strike in the textile mills. Why not give at least a group of kids a holiday – and step up pressure for some radical changes?

She asked parents for permission to take their children on the tour, promising to return them safe and sound, and got a few men and women to help in caring for them. So off they went, on foot, about two hundred kids, starting with a big rally in Philadelphia and hoping to end with a mass meeting in New York.

The children carried knapsacks on their backs which contained a knife and fork, a tin cup and plate. We took along a wash boiler in which to cook the food on the road. One little fellow had a drum and another had a fife. That was our band. We carried banners that said, “We want more schools and less hospitals.” “We want time to play.”

The children were very happy, having plenty to eat, taking baths in the brooks and rivers every day. I thought when the strike is over and they go back to the mills, they will never have another holiday like this. All along the line of march the farmers drove out to meet us with wagon loads of fruit and vegetables. Their wives brought the children clothes and money. The interurban trainmen would stop their trains and give us free rides.  .. From time to time we had to send some of the children back to their homes. They were too weak to stand the march.

One of their many stops was in Princeton, where Mother Jones persuaded the mayor to let them hold a meeting “on higher education” across from the entrance to the university.

A great crowd gathered, professors and students and the people; and I told them that the rich robbed these little children of any education of the lowest order that they might send their sons and daughters to places of higher education. That they used the hands and feet of little children that they might buy automobiles for their wives and police dogs for their daughters to talk French to… And I showed those professors children in our army who could scarcely read or write because they were working ten hours a day in the silk mills of Pennsylvania.

“Here’s a text book on economics,” I said pointing to a little chap, James Ashworth, who was ten years old and who was stooped over like an old man from carrying bundles of yarn that weighed seventy-five pounds. “He gets three dollars a week and his sister who is fourteen gets six dollars. They work in a carpet factory ten hours a day while the children of the rich are getting their higher education.”

When they arrived in Hoboken, across from New York City, Mother Jones asked for permission to march up Fourth Avenue to a big meeting on Herald Square. The Police Chief refused. So she went to the mayor, who tried to pass the buck back to the Police Chief. The difficulty, he explained, was that none of them were citizens of New York. Mother Jones, who rarely took no for an answer, was ready for that. As she told it:

“Oh, I think we will clear that up, Mr. Mayor,” I said. “Permit me to call your attention to an incident which took place in this nation just a year ago. A piece of rotten royalty came over here from Germany, called Prince Henry. The Congress of the United States voted $45,000 to fill that fellow’s stomach three weeks and to entertain him. His highness was getting $4,000,000 dividends out of the blood of the workers in this country. Was he a citizen of New York!”

“No, Mother,” said the mayor, “he was not.”…

“Well, Mr. Mayor, these are the little citizens of the nation and they also produce its wealth. Aren’t we entitled to enter your city!”

“Just wait,” says he, and he called the commissioner of police over to his office. Well, finally they decided to let the army come in… (not to Madison Square, because of the traffic, but to Twentieth Street).

I told an immense crowd of the horrors of child labor in the mills around the anthracite region and I showed them some of the children. I showed them Eddie Dunphy, a little fellow of twelve, whose job it was to sit all day on a high stool, handing in the right thread to another worker. Eleven hours a day he sat on the high stool with dangerous machinery all about him. All day long, winter and summer, spring and fall, for three dollars a week.

And then I showed them Gussie Rangnew, a little girl from whom all the childhood had gone. Her face was like an old woman’s. Gussie packed stockings in a factory, eleven hours a day for a few cents a day.

We raised a lot of money for the strikers and hundreds of friends offered their homes to the little ones while we were in the city. The next day we went to Coney Island … The children had a wonderful day such as they never had in all their lives.

They had less luck when it came to meeting the Senator from New York, who ducked out of his appointment with them (but Mother Jones ordered a big breakfast for the kids at the hotel where they were to meet and charged it to him). And President Theodore Roosevelt, who owned a big estate on nearby Long Island, absolutely refused to meet them. As she summarized:

The trouble is that no-one in Washington cares. I saw our legislators in one hour pass three bills for the relief of the railways but when labor cries for aid for the children they will not listen…

I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator.

Despite the refusal of Theodor Roosevelt, the march drew national attention to the crime of child labor. Although the textile workers’ strike was lost and the children driven back to work, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law prohibiting the employment of children in mills and factories before they turned fourteen.

Later in 1903, in the Southwest, there was a strike of miners, mostly of Mexican or newly-arrived Italian background and mercilessly exploited. Their only chance to win out was if they were joined in their strike by the coal miners in Colorado to the north. They, too, suffered under bad conditions but were wavering; their top union leaders, all too friendly with the conservative governor of the state and his mine-owner backers, were willing to accept some improvements in exchange for ending their strike in the north and abandoning those in the south. Racism was also clearly involved. But then Mother Jones learned of the situation:

I went immediately to Colorado, first to the office of The Western Federation of Miners where I heard the story of the industrial conflict. I then got myself an old calico dress, a sunbonnet, some pins and needles, elastic and tape and such sundries, and went down to the southern coal fields of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.

As a peddler, I went through the various coal camps, eating in the homes of the miners, staying all night with their families. I found the conditions under which they lived deplorable.

Then she got word of a sudden convention called by the top union leaders who wanted to undercut militancy – which in this case meant solidarity. She rushed down to see what could be saved:

In the afternoon the miners called on me to address the convention.

“Brothers,” I said, “You English speaking miners of the northern fields promised your southern brothers, seventy per cent of whom do not speak English, that you would support them to the end. Now you are asked to betray them, to make a separate settlement. You have a common enemy and it is your duty to fight to a finish. The enemy seeks to conquer by dividing your ranks, by making distinctions between North and South, between American and foreign. You are all miners, fighting a common cause, a common master. The iron heel feels the same to all flesh. Hunger and suffering and the cause of your children bind more closely than a common tongue…

I know no East or West, North nor South when it comes to my class fighting the battle for justice. If it is my fortune to live to see the industrial chain broken from every workingman’s child in America, and if then there is one black child in Africa in bondage, there shall I go.”

The delegates rose en masse to cheer. The vote was taken. The majority decided to stand by the southern miners, refusing to obey the national president.

In 1919 Mother Jones, nearing 90, took active part in a giant strike of 300,000 workers in the steel industry. Ever since a big strike in 1892 had been broken, wages and conditions for steel workers, often foreign-born, had remained abysmal, with 12-hour shifts; every two weeks shift changes could mean an unbroken 24 hours of heavy toil. The economic masters wanted to keep and tighten their total control after World War One. Here is part of her story, showing that not all labor leaders were corrupt:

During the strike I was frequently arrested. So were all the leaders. We expected that… I never knew whether I would find John Fitzpatrick and William (Z.) Foster at headquarters when I went up to Pittsburgh. Hundreds of threatening letters came to them. Gunmen followed them. Their lives were in constant danger. … Never had a strike been led by more devoted, able, unselfish men. Never a thought for themselves. Only for the men on strike, men striking to bring back America to America…

The workers were divided from one another. Spies working among the Ohio workers told of the break in the strike in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, they told of the break in Ohio. With meetings forbidden, with mail censored, with no means of communication allowed, the strikers could not know of the progress of their strike. Then fear would clutch their throats….

Organizers would come in with bandages on their heads. … Foreigners were forever rushing in with tales of violence. They did not understand. Wasn’t this America? Hadn’t they come to America to be free?

We could not get the story of the struggle of these slaves over to the public. The press groveled at the feet of the steel Gods. The local pulpits dared not speak. Intimidation stalked the churches, the schools, the theaters. The rule of steel was absolute.

Although the strike was sponsored by the American Federation of Labor, under instructions from the Steel Trust, the public were fed stories daily about revolution and Bolshevism and Russian gold supporting the strike.

This huge conflict, just after World War One, was broken, tragically broken. The men took an awful beating, conditions were further worsened, and the union movement was set back for years. It was not until 1934 and the years thereafter that it re-emerged in great strength, was able to force through New Deal achievements with President Franklin Roosevelt, and to change U.S. history. Unfortunately, Mother Jones did not live to see those huge successes, which were largely possible because so many new unions – leftist led – were based on unity of skilled and unskilled, native and foreign-born and, above all, black and white – exactly the principles which she always fought for.

She had strong opinions on a whole range of issues. She opposed Prohibition from the start. After over a century of effort, and especially the pressure of women’s organizations, the prohibition of alcohol sales was achieved with the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. After a whole giant crime network of illegal import and sales had developed it was repealed in 1933, to the relief of almost everyone. It was during those thirsty years that she noted scornfully:

“Prohibition came,” said I, “through a combination of business men who wanted to get more out of their workers, together with a lot of preachers and a group of damn cats who threw fits when they saw a workingman buy a bottle of beer but saw no reason to bristle when they and their women and little children suffered under the curse of low wages and crushing hours of toil.

“Prohibition…has taken away the workingman’s beer, has closed the saloon which was his only club. The rich guzzle as they ever did. Prohibition is not for them. They have their clubs which are sacred and immune from interference. The only club the workingman has is the policeman’s. He has that when he strikes.”

She swam even more against the stream of women’s organizations when it came to women’s right to vote, which many had fought hard for and regarded as the necessary answer to all their troubles. She shocked more than one meeting with words like these:

“I have never had a vote – and I have raised hell all over this country! You don’t need a vote to raise hell! You need convictions and a voice!” …  I told the women I did not believe in women’s rights nor in men’s rights but in human rights.

“No matter what your fight,” I said, “don’t be ladylike! God Almighty made women and the Rockefeller gang of thieves made them into ladies. I have just fought through sixteen months of bitter warfare in Colorado. I have been up against armed mercenaries. But this old woman, without a vote, and with nothing but a hatpin, has scared them.”

In 1921 she broadened this message at a convention in Mexico City which aimed at promoting understanding between workers in the U.S.A., Mexico and Central America. Her words inspired many there but quite probably shocked or angered some of the U.S. notables present:

I told them that a convention such as this Pan-American Convention of labor was the beginning of a new day, a day when the workers of the world would know no other boundaries other than those between the exploiter and the exploited. Soviet Russia, I said, had dared to challenge the old order, had handed the earth over to those who toiled upon it, and the capitalists of the world were quaking in their scab-made shoes

Once, in 1910, she was summoned by a committee of the U.S. Congress as a witness on events in Mexico, then in the midst of a successful revolution, which she always supported against its tyrannical ruler.  When it was her turn to speak, one Congressman asked her where she lived.

“I live in the United States,” said I, “but I do not know exactly where. My address is wherever there is a fight against oppression. Sometimes I am in Washington, then in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Texas, Minnesota, Colorado. My address is like my shoes: it travels with me.”

“No abiding place?” said the chairman.

“I abide where there is a fight against wrong.”

Here is one more example of this, a long quotation, but one which I could not possibly omit:

The miners in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, went on strike for more wages. Their pay was pitifully low…

One day a group of angry women were standing in front of the mine, hooting at the scabs that were taking the bread from their children’s mouths. The sheriff came and arrested all the women “for disturbing the peace.” Of course, he should have arrested the scabs, for they were the ones who really disturbed it.

I told them to take their babies and tiny children along with them when their case came up in court. They did this and while the judge was sentencing them to pay thirty dollars or serve thirty days in jail, the babies set up a terrible wail so that you could hardly hear the old judge. He scowled and asked the women if they had someone to leave the children with.

I whispered to the women to tell the judge that miners’ wives didn’t keep nurse girls; that God gave the children to their mothers and He held them responsible for their care.

Two mounted police were called to take the women to the jail, some ten miles away. They were put on an interurban car with two police men to keep them from running away. The car stopped and took on some scabs. As soon as the car started the women began cleaning up the scabs. The two policemen were too nervous to do anything. The scabs, who were pretty much scratched up, begged the motorman to stop and let them off but the motorman said it was against the law to stop except at the station. That gave the women a little more time to trim the fellows. When they got to the station, those scabs looked as if they had been sleeping in the tiger cat’s cage at the zoo.

When they got to Greensburg, the women sang as the car went through the town. A great crowd followed the car, singing with them. As the women, carrying their babies, got off the car before the jail the crowd cheered and cheered them. The police officers handed the prisoners over to the sheriff and both of them looked relieved.

The sheriff said to me, “Mother, I wou1d rather you brought me a hundred men than those women. Women are fierce!”

“I didn’t bring them to you, sheriff,” said I, ” ’twas the mining company’s judge sent them to you for a present.”

The sheriff took them upstairs, put them all in a room and let me stay with them for a long while. I told the women:

“You sing the whole night long. You can spell one another if you get tired and hoarse. Sleep all day and sing all night and don’t stop for anyone. Say you’re singing to the babies. I will bring the little ones milk and fruit. Just you all sing and sing.”

The sheriff’s wife was an irritable little cat. She used to go up and try to stop them because she couldn’t sleep. Then the sheriff sent for me and asked me to stop them.

“I can’t stop them,” said I. “They are singing to their little ones. You telephone to the judge to order them loose.”

Complaints came in by the dozens: from hotels and lodging houses and private homes.

“Those women howl like cats,” said a hotel keeper to me.

“That’s no way to speak of women who are singing patriotic songs and lullabies to their little ones,” said I.

Finally, after five days in which everyone in town had been kept awake, the judge ordered their release. He was a narrow-minded, irritable, savage-looking old animal and hated to do it but no one could muzzle those women!

In many of her countless struggles, Mother Jones had all too often found how easy corruption slipped in with those leaders cleverly corrupted by the bosses. Summing up, at the end of her life, she again pulled no punches.

Many of our modern leaders of labor have wandered far from the thorny path of these early crusaders. Never in the early days of the labor struggle would you find leaders willing and dining with the aristocracy; nor did their wives strut about like diamond-bedecked peacocks; nor were they attended by humiliated, cringing colored servants.

The wives of these early leaders took in washing to make ends meet. Their children picked and sold berries. The women shared the heroism, the privation of their husbands.

In those days labor’s representatives did not sit on velvet chairs in conference with labor’s oppressors; they did not dine in fashionable hotels with the representatives of the top capitalists … They did not ride in Pullmans nor make trips to Europe.

The rank and file have let their servants become their masters and dictators. The workers have now to fight not alone their exploiters but likewise their own leaders, who often betray them, who sell them out, who put their own advancement ahead of that of the working masses, who make of the rank and file political pawns…


Her actual age when she died is not so certain. She claimed that she was born in 1830. Since she died in 1930 that means she lived almost a full hundred years, but some biographers believe she may have made herself several years older than she really was. But who cares?  Twenty thousand attended her funeral ceremonies, and she is still honored by some to this day (In fact there is a magazine named Mother Jones). Her autobiography ends with the words:

In spite of oppressors, in spite of false leaders, in spite of labor’s own lack of understanding of its needs, the cause of the worker continues onward. Slowly his hours are shortened, giving him leisure to read and to think. Slowly his standard of living rises to include some of the good and beautiful things of the world. Slowly the cause of his children becomes the cause of all. His boy is taken from the breaker, his girl from the mill. Slowly those who create the wealth of the world are permitted to share it. The future is in labor’s strong, rough hands.

This is excerpted from Victor Grossman’s book Rebel Girls, 34 sketches of the lives of American women. The book was published in German and is translated by the author.

Victor Grossman writes the Berlin Bulletin, which you can subscribe to for free by sending an email to: