Mother Mary Jones

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Mother Mary Jones: Hell-raiser Extraordinaire

The Mother Jones Magazine website suggests that perhaps Mother Jones’ “greatest achievement may have been creating the persona of Mother Jones” (Gorn). The image and character of Mary Harris Jones greatly influenced the early labor movement. “Mother” Jones as she became called, presented herself as a stately, older woman wearing only black dresses in public and perhaps even “exaggerated” her date of birth and age to appear older than she was (Gorn). According to Mother Jones, she was born in Cork, Ireland in 1830 (Jones); however some historians believe that she may have been born around 1837 and perhaps as late as 1844 (Musil). Known for her fiery temperament and outspokenness, Mary Jones picked up the mantle of union fighter after her dressmaking business burned during the Great Chicago fire of 1871 (Gorn).

Mary Jones’ strong will and aggressive personality was born out of her own family history. Her grandfather was hung in Ireland for being an Irish freedom fighter (Hawse). Her father, a laborer, moved to the United States to pave a better way for his family (Jones). As a young woman, Mary Jones studied to become a teacher, but also learned her preferred trade of dressmaking (Jones). In 1861, she married a member of the Iron Moulder’s Union (Jones), a hard working laborer like her father. Unfortunately, in 1867 she was displaced as a mother and wife, when yellow fever swept through Memphis, killing her husband and children (Jones). Not knowing what to do in the aftermath of the fever epidemic, she moved to Chicago and opened a dressmaking business (Jones).

Her early life and her experiences as a dress maker for the well-to-do might have ignited Mary Jones’ interest in the labor rights movement (Women). In her autobiography, Mary Jones states “I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking along the frozen lake front. The contrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of the people for whom I sewed was painful to me. My employers seemed neither to notice nor to care. (Jones)”

Mother Mary Jones, while very focused on the rights of male workers, also picked up the cause for child and women laborers. She might have created the first “poster child” of sorts by organizing a march of child laborers on Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1903 (Jones).
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