Labor activist Mother Jones speaks in Seattle on May 30, 1914.

  • By David Wilma and Priscilla Long
  • Posted 3/09/2002
  • Essay 3720
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On May 30, 1914, labor activist Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (1837-1930) speaks in Seattle after a "monster memorial parade" to honor those who lost their lives for organized labor. Mother Jones attacks capitalists, particularly Colorado coal capitalists involved in the recent "Ludlow Massacre," criticizes the Industrial Workers of the World, and encourages workers to come together.

To Honor the Dead

The parade, estimated to number 7,000 people, marched from downtown to 3rd Avenue and Blanchard Street. A platoon of police led the procession, followed by Mother Jones and children in an open car. Coal miners occupied a place of honor. Marching bands and three floats in memory of "The Children of Calumet," "The Women and Children of Ludlow," and "All the Heroes of Organized Labor" made up the rest of the parade.

(Mother Jones was at the time immersed in supporting coal miners involved in the Colorado Fuel and Iron strike. An episode of this strike, the "Ludlow Massacre" of April 20, 1914, had hit the front pages of the nation only weeks before, spurring demonstrations from Denver to Chicago to New York. Colorado National Guardsmen formerly employed by the coal operators as mine guards had fired into a strikers' tent colony all day and at dusk, burned it to the ground. Two women and 11 children were among the dead. "The Children of Calumet" referred to 89 children who had died in a Christmas Day fire during the Michigan copper strike of 1913.)

Working men and their wives marched in columns of four. "It was a plain parade of the plain working men and women. They marched in their working clothes and there was no attempt at pomp or show. To show honor to their dead was their purpose and they carried it out" ( The Seattle Daily Times).

Thirty of 101 local unions were represented and carried banners. The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) was considered a duel union (one that raided the jurisdictions of other unions) by most of the rest of organized labor, and was not especially welcome. IWW members were relegated to the end of the parade.

Mother Jones was the featured speaker. She did not spend much time speaking of the labor situation in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. She focused on solidarity of labor, "In blunt terms, some times emphasized by words that preachers would not have approved" (The Seattle Times). She condemned plutocrats such as the Rockefellers whom she called "high class burglars."

That night, Mother Jones spoke in Tacoma. The following day, she addressed a crowd of 1,000 at The Dreamland Pavilion, covering the same subjects as at the Saturday rally. From Seattle, she traveled to Cle Elum, then to British Columbia where miners were striking.

An Organizer's Life

Mother Jones is a unique American figure who gave her life to the cause of organized labor and who came to symbolize working-class protest. To many she was an embodied "spirit of the proletariat" who fought for the rights of child textile workers, brewery workers, and many others. Beginning in the mid-1890s through the early 1920s, she devoted most of her energy to organizing coal miners as a paid organizer for the United Mine Workers of America.

She was a powerful, charismatic speaker with a flamboyant, revivalist organizing style. "Her voice was low and pleasant, with great carrying power," said one coal miner. "She didn't become shrill when she got excited. Instead her voice dropped in pitch and the intensity of it became something you could almost feel physically" (Long, Where the Sun Never Shines, 154).

Mother Jones's rhetoric was fiery, militant, and unladylike according to middle-class critics. "I warn this little governor," she proclaimed before 5,000 coal miners in Charleston, West Virginia, "that unless he rids Paint Creek and Cabin Creek of these goddamned Baldwin Felts mine-guard thugs, there's going to be one hell of a lot of bloodletting in these hills" (Long, Mother Jones: Woman Organizer, 6-7).

Her strategy and high theatrical skill was to create public spectacles for the purpose of dramatizing inhuman working conditions. Once she led a march of child textile laborers, most of them maimed and crippled from work accidents, through the towns of southern Pennsylvania. She waded creeks in West Virginia, sassed and cursed mineguards, and went to jail numerous times.

Gender Wars

Mother Jones was very difficult for coal firms to deal with because coal miners were easily inflamed to her defense and because mineguards held to a manly ethos regarding chivalrous behavior toward women, which made it difficult for them to attack her or to shut her up. Every time she went to jail, the fact made the national press with many denunciations throughout the labor movement about the treatment of a poor helpless old woman. Mother Jones used this to the hilt.

In fact her outlook was very similar to that of coal miners' wives and daughters, who during strikes would go out and curse and taunt the mineguards and throw rocks at them, etc. Given their values regarding "the fair sex," these mineguards, to whom beating up a union miner was in a day's work, could do nothing in the face of these very unladylike miners' wives except stand there and fume. In the coalfields Mother Jones, in her "strong" language and her actions, became an icon of the coal miner's wife, larger than life but within the ideal of womanly behavior as it was conceived in coal mining communities. Coal miners believed her husband had been a miner, though that was not the case.

She was called "Mother" by coal miners and "Old Hag" by coal operators. She came into public view for the first time when she was about 60 years of age, and her own accounts of her early life (given to reporters at various times) contain massive contradictions. Her autobiography, dictated when she was in her 90s, is interesting but unreliable, with some dates being years off. She is an interesting example of a female public figure (when most women did their work in the "private" sphere) who had virtually no private life and who created an evolving mythology to cover her own personal past.

She was an Irish American. She was born in County Cork, Ireland, and baptised on August 1, 1837, at St. Mary's Cathedral in the City of Cork. She was the second of five children (Gorn). She herself changed her birthdate at various times, always making herself older than she actually was. She came to the United States with her father when she was 7 years old, grew up, married an iron molder named George Jones and they had four children. She worked as a seamstress and a school teacher, and then her husband and four children died in the Memphis yellow fever epidemic of 1867.

Then a few years pass when we know absolutely nothing about her. We do know that during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, her seamstress shop was burned to the ground. In the turmoil following the fire, she became involved in the labor organization Knights of Labor, and their anti-Chinese agitations that thoroughly infected the labor movement during the 1880s. In the 1890s she began organizing coal miners.

Politically she moved from Populism to Socialism, and in 1916 became a Wilsonian Democrat. She held strong anti-capitalist views as well as fervently traditional views on women's roles, notwithstanding her own nontraditional lifestyle. She detested upper-class women and opposed woman suffrage. She believed that in the Suffrage Movement "the class struggle is lost sight of entirely." She enjoyed pointing out that women in Colorado had gotten the vote in 1893, and yet "the working men and women are in slavery..." She liked to say "You don't need a vote to raise hell" (Long, Mother Jones: Woman Organizer, 33).

Mother Jones celebrated her 100th birthday on May 1, 1930, with everyone from the Rockefellers on down sending her congratulations. She died on November 30, 1930. She was 93 or 94 years old.


"Thousand Greet Mother Jones On Her Arrival Here," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 30, 1914, p. 16; "Labor Honors Its Dead In Monster Memorial Parade," Ibid., May 31, 1914, p. 9; "Mother Jones Tells Story Of Many Battles," Ibid., June 1, 1914, p. 1, 3; "Stars and Stripes Labor's Only Flag," The Seattle Daily Times, May 31, 1914, p. 15; "I.W.W. Castigated by "Mother" Jones," Ibid., June 1, 1914, p. 15; Priscilla Long, Where the Sun Never Shines: a History of America's Bloody Coal Industry (New York: Paragon House, 1989); Long, Mother Jones, Woman Organizer and Her Relations With Miners' Wives, Working Women, and The Suffrage Movement (Boston: South End Press, 1976); Priscilla Long, "Mother Jones" in Reader's Companion to American History ed. by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991); Priscilla Long, "Mother Jones" in Encyclopedia of the American Left ed. by Mari Jo Buhle et al. (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1990); Elliott J. Gorn, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001).

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