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Mother Jones: Raising Cain and Consciousness 
by Simon Cordery Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press,
2010, 213 pp.

A Review by Jo Freeman

Mary Harris Jones was a late bloomer. Only in her seventh decade did she became the legendary Mother Jones, a paid organizer for the United Mine Workers who was labeled the most dangerous woman in America in 1902.

It would be accurate to call her “mythical” if only because so many of the stories surrounding her and which she told about herself were in fact myths. One of the tasks Cordery takes on in this book is to separate fact from fiction, though he concludes that the actual facts are sometimes less important than the myths.

Mary falsified her birth date, claiming to be born in 1830 rather than 1837. She said she had met twelve Presidents, as if the actual number of four wasn’t enough. She repeatedly claimed to have been at, and even organized, strikes and labor actions which she couldn’t possibly have been anywhere near.

But she was a legend in her own time; a fighter who made fiery speeches which inspired workers and gave them the strength to endure.

If her final decades were heroic, her first decades were tragic. Born in Cork, Ireland in 1837, her youth was spent in the Great Irish Famine. Her father and brother went to Canada when she was ten, but didn’t bring the rest of the family until the last year of the famine, when Mary was about fifteen. Mary managed to get more education than was typical of Irish girls in the public schools of Toronto, but left her birth family for the United States when she was 22.

She ended up in Memphis right before the start of the Civil War, where she married George Jones, iron molder and union member, and bore four children. All died in a yellow fever epidemic in 1867. Mary left the scene of her grief for Chicago, where she found work making dresses “for the aristocrats of Chicago.” She lost her home and business in the Great Fire of November 8, 1871.

Her life for the next 20 years is a bit hazy since her autobiography isn’t factually reliable. She didn’t make the newspapers until 1894, when she volunteered to organize for Coxey’s Army of the unemployed. She was transforming herself from “Mary Jones of Chicago” into the peripatetic Mother Jones who would go anyplace to educate and agitate for “her boys” in the labor movement.

During these years she was particularly affected by the labor strikes of 1877 and the Haymarket massacre of 1886, which she claimed to have participated in even though the available historical evidence says otherwise. Whether she was there or not, these events convinced her to oppose anarchism and support unionism.

By the end of the century Mother Jones was a paid organizer for the United Mine Workers. In this capacity she would be threatened, kidnapped, imprisoned and run out of town. Coal companies were formidable foes. By the time she died in 1930 she had become an international celebrity.

Her fame grew not just because she was a very effective woman in a man’s world but because of her creative use of street theater and of womanhood itself. For example, she organized marches of children and “mop and broom” brigades of women.

Her work made her an ardent opponent of child labor, but not a supporter of woman suffrage, which she saw as a distraction from class struggle. Although she believed women workers should organize, she wanted male workers to get a “family wage” so their wives and children would not have to work.

Her other great cause was socialism. When she wasn’t working for the UMW she was a paid lecturer for the Socialist Party. She also clashed with its leadership, as she sometimes did with that of the mine workers.

In telling the life of Mother Jones, Cordery also gives a grand tour of labor activism in the mining areas of the country. It was a turbulent time. Before oil took over as the primary source of energy, extracting coal from the ground took its toll on the lives of the working class.

If you want to relive that history, both its drama and its misery, Mother Jones is well worth the read.

©2010 Jo Freeman for

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