Gorn, Elliott Entries

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.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography