Why Does This Topic Matter: Thinking About the Big Issues

Issues of continuing relevance

This page describes some of the general ideas that the Mother Jones website can illuminate in the classroom.


Becoming Mother Jones

There is a distinct difference between Mary Harris Jones and “Mother” Jones. It would seem, due to her work throughout the early 20th century and lack of details about her life prior to her work in the labor movement, that Mary Jones was almost completely eliminated from existence and replaced with Mother Jones. It is left to history as to why this total transformation, and even then historians can only speculate since Jones herself leaves no clues. Biographer Elliott Gorn seems to link her metamorphosis to her early involvement in the Knights of Labor and other unions, Populism, Coxey’s Army, and other causes of the American Left. It is not unreasonable, though, to believe that there may have been other events that brought the change. In a span of less than a year, she endured the deaths of her husband and four children, witnessed the crippling effects of yellow fever on the poor, and felt the devastation wrought by the Chicago Fire. She was a witness to the Haymarket Affair, and, she says, observed the excesses of the rich and the deficiencies of the poor. Any or all of those could have contributed to her change.


1. Why might the early tragedies of her life have spurred Mary Jones to adopt the “Mother” Jones persona?

2. What benefit, if any, did Jones, and in turn her life’s work, gain from this change?


The Legend of Mother Jones

The work of Jones, without any embellishment, would be enough to warrant the attention of researchers and those with even a passing interest in the labor movement. Jones, however, often seemed to not be satisfied with simply relating the bare facts. This is not to say that Jones sought to outright fabricate some incidents and events both in her limited comments on her personal life or her work life. It is possible that as she aged, her memory was not as sound as it once was (this may be especially true in relation to her Autobiography). However, these embellishments were not limited to her later work, as she would often use them in speeches and her letters, as seen in her speech to the UMWA District 14 convention in Pittsburg, Kansas, in 1913, when she seemed to indicate that she had been present during the Ludlow, Colorado, Massacre (click for more on this event), though evidence suggests she was not. She also spoke of facing down armed union guards, being part of the Knights of Labor, and appearing at labor events that she most likely did not attend. How much of what she said was true may be open for debate, but that may not have been an issue for her. It was perhaps more important for Jones that her words encouraged her audiences to unionization and to fighting the injustices they perceived in the mine fields.


1. If she did embellish some aspects of her work and background, what reasons might Jones have had for doing such?

2. Would the legend of Mother Jones have lent her more credence with the miners? Why or why not?


The Coal Miners’ Mother

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were prime grounds for labor unrest in the United States, and Jones was determined to get involved. She would become acquainted with the Knights of Labor, support striking railroad workers, and provide assistance to Jacob Coxey’s march to Washington for jobs for the unemployed. However, Jones seemed to finally settle into a niche when she began working with the United Mine Workers of America in the late 1890s, first unofficially and then as a paid organizer in 1900. The UMWA quickly became one of the most powerful and influential unions in the country in the late 1890s, and Jones was in on the ground floor of that expansion. From 1900 until 1905, Jones would work as a paid organizer for the union, separating herself from the organization in 1905 after a disagreement over a strike in Colorado. Jones would find herself back as a paid organizer in 1911, though she had unofficially worked with the UMWA for approximately a year prior to that. She would not relinquish this role until 1922, when UMWA president John L. Lewis failed to reappoint her as an organizer. Jones would serve in other labor struggles, including working with textile workers, fighting child labor laws, and various other smaller causes. However, it was “her boys” in the mines that captured her heart. She faced armed mine guards, long walks along mountainous roads, and jail in order to help improve the lives of men, women, and children whose lives were tied to the mines.


1. Why did the coal mining industry become the focus of Jones’ work?


Relationships and Religion

In the modern world, it is not uncommon for people to be involved in their work to the point that personal relationships become relegated to the background. This is not a new phenomenon. While family in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were important, that importance seemed predicated on providing for them; thus, for the working class, the place of work was almost paramount to relationships. It would seem to be the same for Jones. After the death of her husband and children in the late 1860s, Jones would never remarry, and she had relatively little time to devote to establishing long-term friendships. There were exceptions, of course, as Jones had a 40-year friendship with Terence Powderly and was on friendly terms with UMWA presidents and other labor leaders. However, all of these relationships were established in the framework of the labor movement. Indeed, while Jones’ correspondence with Powderly usually had a few sentences of personal inquiries (how is your family, etc.), the majority of her writings were always of a business nature.

Religion was another matter. Though raised Catholic, it would seem through her writings that traditional religion played no significant role in Jones’ life. Jones rarely missed an opportunity to chastise religious leaders for what she perceived was a lack of desire to assist the working class, scathingly referring to them as “sky pilots” who focused more on the spiritual and not what she considered the practical. This does not mean, however, that Jones completely avoided religion, as she would often use Christian metaphors in her speeches and writings, invoking Jesus’ name and saying that He was more concerned about the physical needs of people. She also encouraged people to rely more on themselves that merely seeking the answer in prayer, and keeping their finances at home to help themselves instead of sending it to missionary groups. Jones’ brand of religion was the religion of the labor movement.


1. What reasons might Jones’ have had for not establishing many lasting relationships with others?

2. Why might have Jones’ brand of religion been more appealing to some members of the working class than traditional forms of religion?



It is sometimes difficult to determine the legacy of a person. Does legacy involve a physical manifestation, such property or money? Is it more of an intangible aspect, such as an idea? Do only the famous (or infamous) leave a legacy behind? Does a legacy only take into account success? These are all pertinent questions when trying to determine the legacy of Mother Jones. While well-known in her time, Jones does not have as much name recognition in the 21st century, though reprints of her speeches and letters, as well as the magazine named in her honor have helped to revive her memory to an extent. Despite this, there is still a Mother Jones legacy. Certainly there are few physical manifestations, her Autobiography and the speeches/letters she gave and wrote being the few. Her work was a legacy, even though it is debatable how much success she achieved. She is not known for any theories or philosophies, unless you consider her mantra of “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” However, Jones did have a strong desire to directly assist the working man. She did not play the politics game as so many others in the unions did at the time; her speeches at UMWA conventions were among the few times she ever involved herself in the leadership aspect of the organization. Instead, Jones was on the front lines, going to the miners in the mines, in their homes, in their meeting houses and churches, speaking with their wives, consoling their children, and encouraging them to fight for just due. She went to jail, faced guns, walked long miles, and gave speeches, all in the middle of the mining operations and not in the halls of government. Perhaps, then, the real legacy of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was her work ethic and concern for those she considered to be victims of injustice.


1. What factors should be considered when determining a legacy for Mother Jones and her work?

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