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Mother Jones: The Most

At the turn of the last century, American workers confronted a violent and harrowing world. They earned subsistence wages, and their families lived in squalor. And when they demanded higher pay and better working conditions, they encountered a system that eagerly fought back: Companies hired armed thugs for intimidation; federal soldiers and national guardsmen gunned down strikers; and politicians, judges, and newspaper editors looked away.

Paradoxically, this was also the labor movement’s most courageous moment. These workers lost more skirmishes than they won. But their organizing drives, strikes, and, yes, even violence laid the foundation for the eight-hour workday, the right to bargain collectively, and the nation’s first minimum-wage laws—all of which helped place employees on more even footing with their employers. And leading them into these battles was Mary Harris Jones, aka Mother Jones.

Today, most Americans associate the name Mother Jones with the political magazine, or perhaps know the person only as a saintly left-wing icon, like Che Guevara. Yet she was much more than that. Described as labor’s Joan of Arc or a “John Brown in petticoats,” Mother Jones was perhaps America’s most prominent labor organizer, rabble-rouser, and radical in the early 1900s. As the workers’ metaphorical mother, she inspired her “boys” during times of industrial warfare. She denounced the Rockefellers and Morgans of Wall Street, who, she argued, cared more about their profits than their employees. She took on the politicians who sided with capitalists, calling one West Virginia governor “a goddamned dirty coward.” She even spent time in prison for her inflammatory (and coarse) rhetoric, which opponents said incited violence.

In Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, Elliot J. Gorn writes a compelling, well-researched, and evenhanded account of this larger-than-life American hell-raiser. The book is first-rate history: Gorn smashes all the myths about Jones, exposes her flaws, fills in the historical gaps, and, above all, tries to make sense of this extraordinary woman.

Mary Harris was born Aug. 1, 1837, in Cork, Ireland. Like many other Irish of the day, she and her family fled to North America to escape the potato famine. She eventually settled in Memphis, Tenn., where she married George Jones in 1860. George was a skilled iron molder and a member of the Iron Molders Union, and he and Mary had four children. But tragedy soon struck. In 1867, a deadly case of yellow fever spread throughout the city, killing George and all the children. Mary suddenly was alone. She moved to Chicago, where she toiled as a dressmaker and survived the Great Fire of 1871.

However, that’s all we know about the life of this woman until she reached national prominence, well into her 60s; even in her nearly 250-page autobiography, she devoted only six pages to these early years. Indeed, Mother Jones seems to have come out of nowhere—much like a cheating marathon runner—to become one of America’s great labor figures. Confronted with a dearth of information and evidence, Gorn turns to the tools of social history to explain how this unassuming widow became America’s foremost insurrectionist. And, despite some stretches in logic, he succeeds. He explains how Mary Harris must have been exposed to the rhetoric of freeing Ireland from its English oppressors in her youth, to her husband’s unionism as a young bride, and to class differences during her stint as a dressmaker for wealthy patrons. Perhaps more than anything else, Gorn reasons, the personal tragedy she suffered must have helped transform her into a radical.

She finally stepped onto the stage of this nation’s class war in 1894, when she volunteered to assist a band of unemployed Americans—known as Coxey’s Army—that was marching to Washington to demand jobs. She gave speeches, raised money, and boosted morale. The Kansas City Star called her “the mother of the commonwealers.” The persona of Mother Jones was thus born. Later, in the early 1900s, she traveled to some of history’s most confrontational and violent labor battles, rallying strikers and hurling verbal stones at their opponents. “Our Kaisers,” she told a crowd of steelworkers, “sit up and smoke seventy-five cent cigars and have lackeys with knee pants bring them champagne while you starve, while you grow old at forty, stoking their furnaces.” Jones kept on fighting until she died in 1930, at the age of 93.

During the vicious Colorado coal mine strike of 1913-1914, Mother Jones eagerly defied the Colorado National Guard, which the governor had unleashed to maintain order in this already violent strike. Gen. John Chase issued an edict banning her from the strike zone, fearing that her speeches would inflame the strikers. Of course, she disobeyed. Chase, she screamed, “had better go back to his mother and get a nursing bottle. He’ll be better there than making war on an 82-year-old woman…” She was placed under house arrest—a move of dubious legality—and was finally released after two months, with the warning that she would be re-arrested if she came back.

But come back she did—and consequently spent nearly a month in prison. Although the strike turned out to be a disaster for the strikers, Gorn explains that Mother Jones’ actions gave them excellent publicity and the moral high ground. Hence, not only was she “the most dangerous woman in America,” as one of her capitalist-sympathizing foes once labeled her, Mother Jones may have also been the most PR-savvy woman of her time.

If Jones was dangerous to her enemies, Gorn explains, she was also sometimes an irritant to her allies. She frequently bickered with other organizers and members of the Socialist Party, particularly those who came from the middle class; Jones didn’t believe that such people could represent workers. In addition, Gorn points out, Jones was quite self-righteous and would often accuse other labor leaders and Socialists of being corrupt or not representing the interests of workers. “Always there was her own virtue and others’ perfidy,” Gorn writes. (In fact, Jones may have had some skeletons in her own closet: Her opponents often accused her of running a brothel before her days as a labor leader—a charge Gorn doesn’t entirely refute.)

Furthermore, Jones was sometimes loose with the truth. In her autobiography, published in 1925, she wrote that she was born on May 1 (May Day), 1830; she was actually born in August 1837. She also said she had participated in the bloody Pittsburgh railroad strike of 1877, although Gorn argues that she probably did not. He explains that this penchant for embellishing her history was a conscious effort by Jones to sustain her own mythology. Moreover, this radical and progressive woman disapproved of Chinese immigrant labor, and she spoke out against the women’s suffragist movement. “Solve the industrial problem [instead],” she said, “and the men will earn enough so that women can remain home.”

But Gorn defends her foibles, exaggerations, and inconsistencies. He writes: “[H]er words…mattered less than her deeds.” He’s right. Jones fought in the trenches for American laborers, inspired them during trying strikes, dodged bullets. In that day and age, it’s hard to think of another woman who was more courageous and determined than Mother Jones. “I have faced the capitalist government of to-day,” she once said. “I have faced the bayonets; I have held your bleeding heads in my lap….My days are not long on this earth, but I shall continue the fight for your children if you are too bigoted or too cowardly to do it yourself.”

Who today is keeping up that fight? Where have all the Mother Joneses gone? This is perhaps the only question that Gorn fails to address. Some names quickly come to mind, but they all seem to fall short. Al Sharpton? No way. Jesse Jackson? Forget about it. Al Gore? Puh-leeze.

And that’s a shame. While many bask in the glory (or erstwhile glory) of the prosperous economy, America’s working poor seem to be living in an entirely different world—one of low wages, food stamps, and little job security. Indeed, a wide gap exists between the rich and poor. And with George W. in the White House, things are only getting worse: Big Business is once again king in Washington, and wealthy Americans are licking their chops for Bush’s fat tax cut.

But imagine if the Mother Jones that Gorn effectively brings to life were standing up to W. and the Republicans. She would grimace, wave her index finger, and shout: “Away with you, scabbing, blood-sucking, high-class hold-up men.” CNN’s Crossfire would sign her in a second. CP