Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America


The life of turn-of-the-century labor organizer and hell-raiser Mary Harris "Mother" Jones makes for an unusual biography. For one thing, there's almost no documentation on Jones's life until after her sixtieth birthday - an age when many biographies are beginning to wind down, and those on rock stars and Romantic poets have already ended. Jones herself, in her autobiography, devoted only four pages to the first forty years of her life; she continuously sought to downplay the period before she jettisoned her role as a teacher and dressmaker to become "Mother" Jones. For another thing, in the documentation that does exist, fact needs to be teased apart from fiction - and fiction, in turn, must be analyzed to extract the larger metaphorical truth it contains. Mary Jones was a consummate storyteller and a skilled propagandist, and her self-made "Mother Jones" persona was one of her primary tools in her own political campaigns. As Elliott Gorn explains in the introduction to his biography Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, she crafted her public image carefully and completely, often using embellished or fabricated anecdotes to communicate a larger point:

Her fame began when, toward the end of the nineteenth century, she transformed herself from Mary Jones into Mother Jones. Her new persona was a complex one, infused with overtones of Christian martyrdom and with the suffering of Mother Mary. Perhaps it is best to think of Mother Jones as a character performed by Mary Jones. She exaggerated her age, wore old-fashioned black dresses, and alluded often to her impending demise. By 1900, she had stopped referring to herself as Mary altogether and signed all of her letters "Mother." Soon laborers, union officials, even Presidents of the United States addressed her that way, and they became her "boys."

The persona of Mother Jones freed Mary Jones. Most American women in the early twentieth century were expected to lead quiet, homebound lives for their families; few women found their way onto the public stage. Ironically, by making herself into the symbolic mother of the downtrodden, Mary Jones was able to go where she pleased and speak out on any issue that moved her. She defied social conventions and shattered the limits that confined her by embracing the very role that restricted most women.

This is a fantastic biography. Gorn does a thoughtful, thorough job of addressing Jones's doubleness, and analyzing many of the questions she never wanted to address. How was her political work affected by the heart-wrenching death of her husband and four young children from yellow fever in 1867? What were the atmospheres of famine-era Cork and mid-19th-century Toronto like, and what might Jones have observed there to influence her later outlook? What factors may have caused her militantly anti-middle-class stance, or her tendency to pick fights with her colleagues? On top of these, though, Gorn paints a vivid portrait of the character of Mother Jones - the foul-mouthed, white-haired Irish-American matron who braved armed mine guards, Presidents of the United States, jail cells, hundred-mile marches, and decades of nomadic existence in order to help working-class Americans win such innovations as the weekend, the ten-hour day, and the right to negotiate with owners of capital.

Gorn's tone throughout is respectful, even admiring, but he never seeks to make his subject into a saint. He explores Jones's flaws along with her strengths, details her failures as well as her successes, and calls out her bull whenever he sees it. In the process, he gives a fascinating glimpse into an important period of American labor history, in which unionism was becoming steadily more mainstream. Within Mother Jones's lifetime the labor movement moved away from a radical critique of the capitalist system, and toward a model in which the laborers were merely guaranteed a certain piece of the capitalist pie. Jones's herself believed that workers had a moral right to the products of their own hands; she was a revolutionary, which made the country's trajectory frustrating to her, and caused her to become alienated late in life from many of her former allies. But she was also pragmatic. Never one to hold out for the perfect revolutionary outcome, she understood the value of compromises and took them whenever she felt they would improve quality of life for striking workers.

For a revolutionary and a self-described female hell-raiser, Jones also had some surprisingly conservative philosophies. To me, the most fascinating analysis in Gorn's book has to do with her opposition to female suffrage and other feminist causes such as access to birth control and, amazingly, even the right of women to join unions. At first glance contradictory - how could a woman living such an unusual life be for limiting other womens' options? - her stance makes some sense once Gorn has contextualized it. The entire "Mother Jones" persona was heavily invested in the family model; Jones's idea of an equitable society was one in which women didn't have to work, because their husbands would earn enough to support them and enable them to stay home and raise children. While it ignores the "exceptions to the rule" - those women who don't marry, for example, who are widowed like Jones herself, or who find personal satisfaction in joining the workforce but who would prefer to join it on equal terms with men - Jones's position has a certain logic. The vast majority of examples she saw of women and children working for money, were cases of dire financial necessity. Most working-class women in turn-of-the-century US cities, Jones argued, would have preferred to devote themselves to their "natural" role as full-time caregivers, but couldn't afford to do so because of a system that cheated working-class men out of a living wage.

Likewise, the birth control campaigns of people like Margaret Sanger seemed to Jones dangerous machinations of the capitalist class: convincing women that they should have fewer children would take the onus off the employers and put it instead on the shoulders of working-class women, who would in turn be blamed for struggling to feed large families they had "chosen" to have. Women were naturally maternal, according to Jones, and far from being suppressed, this motherliness should be celebrated. Enacting legislation that encouraged women to be "more like men": voting, joining unions, having fewer children, and so on - would undermine the family model that was a strength of the working class and the source of Mother Jones's own moral authority, and ultimately create a justification for lower pay (since a two-income household has twice as much money coming in, and capitalists would use this to argue that each worker should earn less). Jones also felt that voting was largely meaningless, and that female suffrage would pacify the workers without actually improving their lives or according them more agency.

Reading about Jones's take on the early feminist movement really brought home to me my own middle-class origins. Jones wouldn't have liked me, and despite my admiration for her courage, sharp tongue, and organizing genius, I probably wouldn't have liked her much in person either. Her dismissal of women outside the married-with-children mold is hard for me to stomach (especially as spinsters and widows have traditionally been among the most marginalized groups). On the other hand, Gorn enabled me to grasp Jones's perspective in a truly valuable way. In reading about her initial opposition to child-labor restrictions, for example, I was reminded that sending a son or daughter out to work at thirteen or fourteen was widely accepted at the time, and often made the difference between sufficiency and hunger for working-class families. The push for child-labor restrictions began in the middle class, and the arguments for them were often purely sentimental. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Cry of the Children" and other maudlin poems, for example, circulated in drawing rooms and galvanized committee ladies. Although Mother Jones was certainly not above an assault on the heartstrings herself, she was fundamentally a big-picture pragmatist; I can understand how she would find the well-meaning dilettantism of wealthy women offensive. And it's a sobering fact that this divisiveness still plagues the feminist movement today, with the perspectives of working-class women and women of color often getting excluded from the feminist agenda (leading, in turn, to the rise of Womanism and similar movements). As a middle-class white woman, that's something I could stand to be reminded of more often.

There are so many fascinating angles explored in this book; I couldn't begin to touch on all of them. But I do recommend Mother Jones for an excellent foray into turn-of-the-century labor history and a portrait of one flawed but astounding person within that movement.

(Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America was my first book for the Women Unbound Challenge.)


  • I'd love to read this! I'm going to read Emma Goldman's biography later this year (whose attitude toward feminism was significantly different), and am really interested in the 'hellraisers' of this period.

    It's interesting what you bring up about the middle class, though. In some sense, I think that the same antagonism exists today - only in America, everyone is pretty much middle class (well, not everyone but enough of a majority, and it's been shown in polls that most people, even if they're not middle class, THINKS they're middle class). Essentially, we've outsourced our working class and our poor to other countries, conveniently out of our view, and congratulated ourselves on solving the class conflict issue. Alot of what we think of as religious conflict or anti-americanism is really just the same old conflict we've always seen - those who must produce angry with those who get the product of their work. You're seeing this conflict intensify in a lot of ways over the last ten years as globalism and communication have made the world smaller - as these changes become more ubiquitous in poorer countries, I think we'll see the same sort of conflict that we all read about as 'ancient history' in the labor and social novels of the 19th and early 20th century. In fact, interestingly enough I think you even see the same bent toward conservatism that you talk about in Mother Jones - the world's poor are, as a general rule (understanding that their is a lot of diversity in a group that big) fairly socially conservative. I wonder if capitalism just has this effect - it demands that every worker work, to increase productivity, so it disrupts traditional structures and makes anger, particularly in the working class (the rich have no obligation to change, after all).

  • Jason: I think (for what my opinion is worth; I'm far from educated as an economist) what you say about capitalism disrupting traditional structures is really key. For Mary Jones, her traditional life was very starkly disrupted when her husband and four children all died together - which was tied to class issues since they lived in the swampy, fever-infested immigrant neighborhood. Gorn argues that she came to see that as representative of a much larger, more widespread pattern in which working-class people were denied self-determination.

    The whole issue of a middle class in the modern US is an interesting one. I can see your argument that it's the majority of the country and that we've outsourced our working class. And I can also see Aqeela Sherills's argument that there is no middle class ("they're the working poor too," he says), since in a way exactly what Mother Jones predicted has come true: the two-income household is largely expected now, and peoples' lifestyles are so heavily mortgaged that they have no security & could lose everything if they're fired from their current jobs. Thought provoking.

  • Thanks for the mini education on Mother Jones. I know who she is but I've never really bothered to find out more about her. She sounds like a fascinating and complex character.

  • Fascinating stuff here. It's always so interesting to learn about the contexts people were working in and the sources of their seemingly contradictory views. It does seem absurd that Jones would believe so many things that strike us now as anti-feminist, and yet as you say, they do have a certain logic to them. It makes me wonder what people in the future will be saying about us and what will need to be explained through context.

  • I haven't read a fantastic biography in a while, Emily, but I can see how Mother Jones would provide the makings for such a reading experience. And although Gorn's title is cool and all (as is your review), I particularly loved that line of yours about rock stars and Romantic poets! Anyway, looking forward to your other posts for this challenge. Cheers!

  • Like Dorothy W., I was also interested in the contexts which gave rise to a figure like Mother Jones. It is so easy to forget that people in other times--not to mention people in our own times but from different cultures, religions, socioeconomic groups, etc.--deserve our respectful attention to the circumstances and environment that have made them.

    As a reader primarily of fiction I was particularly interested in Mother Jones' remaking of herself, of her casting herself as a character in her own story. My first reaction was "this is delusion," but as you continued with your review it seemed that she succeeded. What I'm wondering is, did she meet with success in her efforts at social change?

  • I never would have guessed how socially conservative Mother Jones was. I'm adding this to my list for future Women Unbound reads...I'm discovering that biographies CAN be interesting.

    Also, it was fun to see Jason mention Emma Goldman...I wrote a paper on her in college. Too bad I've forgotten most of it!

  • Stefanie: Definitely fascinating and complex. I keep remembering more interesting aspects of this book I could have written about, but then my post would have been a novel unto itself!

    Dorothy: I know, it makes me wonder the same thing. And her attitude toward other women was even more multi-layered and complex than I've been able to articulate here...

  • Richard: Haha, thanks! I thought that line was a little pithy, myself. :-) Jones's life definitely makes for a rough & tumble, adventure-story type bio.

    Julia: Yes, the question of her activism's success or failure is really huge and difficult to quantify. If we're talking about individual industrial actions, she lost more than she won, but then most strikes do fail - the operators just have more resources, which is the whole issue to begin with. And on a larger level, she obviously didn't bring about a Socialist revolution in the US, like she wanted to. She did inspire many working-class people to take control of their own lives, though, and she made some crucial differences in the strikes she helped win, including the coal miners in Pennsylvania (which was pretty huge, and enabled the organization of the entire industry outside of West Virginia). Ironically, one of her biggest legacies are the slimy PR departments & whitewashing campaigns touted by modern corporations: her talent for muckraking & negative publicity lead corporations to put a good face on what they were doing...without necessarily making any substantive changes. Not exactly what Mother Jones had in mind. I think her extended legacy is very complex. But there's no doubt that she made a big difference to a lot of working families.

  • Softdrink: Totally! I've been a little slow to discover biographies as well, but now I find a well-written bio to be super-satisfying. That's funny about Emma Goldman - she's another character about whom I'd love to know more.

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