Archived Reading Room

Everyone's mother

Mother Jones by Elliott J. Gorn. Hill and Wang, 2002. 408 pages.

When Mother Jones celebrated her (allegedly) 100th birthday on May 1, 1930, our nation rejoiced with her. Hundreds of telegrams arrived from statesmen, celebrities and politicians, including Eugene Debs, Clarence Darrow, Carl Sandburg and her old enemy, John D. Rockefeller. Many of her well-wishers, only a few years before, had endorsed efforts to silence or imprison her; but now, noting that the woman, who had been called “the walking wrath of God,” was in failing health, her enemies relented and became conciliatory. “Mother” greeted Union officials who arrived with a gigantic cake with one hundred candles. Even the New York Times (one of her most persistent critics), now cooed about her long life of valor and dedication. Yes, it appeared that the fierce old lady, who had once defied machine guns (armed only with a hat pin), had finally been “declawed, defanged and domesticated” — by time.

Author, Elliott Gorn presents the life of Mother Jones as two stories since in his view there are two people in this biography: Mary Jones and Mother Jones. Mary is a young woman who fled poverty and oppression in Ireland only to fall victim of a cholera epidemic in Memphis (1867) in which she lost her husband and children; then came the Chicago fire (1871) in which she lost all her worldly goods. In the grim days following the fire, Mary has her first encounter with a union called the Knights of Labor and she volunteered to help them.

At this point, Mary was 34 years old, but poverty and hardship had aged her. When her fellow workers began to affectionately refer to her as “Mother,” she gradually realized that the term gave her authority. Bit by bit, she began to acquire qualities that drew others to her: maternal, loyal and dependable. She learned to stand in saloons with “the boys,” matching them drink for drink.

She spoke their language and since she came from a similar background, she could speak of her experiences with arrogant land owners and greedy factory managers; when she realized that such stories struck a common chord with unemployed workers, she learned to embellish her tales for effect. And when she saw that her grey hairs gave her power, she added almost a decade to her age.

In time, Mary Jones became Mother Jones, a fearless old lady who possessed both remarkable reserves of energy and a gift for oratory. When desperate workers, literally reduced to starvation, confronted the managers of factories, Mother Jones led the march. When the DuPonts, the Armours and the Morgans rejected their demands for 8-hour work days and the abolishment of child labor, Mother Jones called them “bloodsuckers” and denounced them from hundreds of platforms. When the managers hired an armed militia that fired on unarmed strikers, Mother Jones rallied the workers and returned to confront management again. Eventually, she became the voice of abused workers everywhere and once led a “children’s march to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt where she camped outside his gates. Roosevelt, like a more recent president, refused to see her or respond to her appeal.

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For better than forty years, this incredible woman marched through coalmines, factories and railroad yards, denouncing child labor, company stores, payment by script, and unsafe working conditions in West Virginia coal towns, Colorado mining camps and the railroad slums of Pennsylvania. On these occasions, she lived with the strikers, ate with them and walked with them to their jobs (or strike sites) each day. As time went on, her indifference to personal safety and her willingness to confront armed goons caused her to be labeled “the most dangerous woman in America.” Indeed, at times she seemed half in love with the possibility of martyrdom.

In retrospect Gorn notes that Mother Jones rarely won significant concessions. Time and time again, “her boys” were forced to return to jobs where they endured the same injustices. Gorn’s careful documentation demonstrates that in the early 20th century, the forces of industry had become so powerful, they virtually ran the country. Certainly, they elected presidents, owned the major newspapers, appointed judges and reduced state governors to status of puppets. Yet, there is little doubt that Mother Jones initiated change. Once such issues as child labor and unsafe working conditions were raised, they would not go away.

Gorn concludes that Mary Jones, the seamstress and teacher “invented” Mother Jones, a charismatic figure that spoke for millions. He concludes that she was sometimes fallible and used her position to criticize anything that displeased her, including suffragettes, ministers (“sky pilots”) and the Salvation Army. At times, she gave rants that were filled with egotistical bombast, and she often played fast and loose with “the facts.”

On the advent of her 100th birthday, it is quite likely that Mother Jones was actually a mere 92. Perhaps a woman named Mary Jones was trapped inside “the most dangerous woman in America;” if so, Mary relished every moment of it. In the final analysis, whatever her shortcomings, Mother Jones captured the hearts and improved the lives of millions — workers who called themselves “Mother Jones’ children.”

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