Does She Look Like “The Most Dangerous Woman In America”?

Mother Jones, the magazine, has been around a long time – since 1976.

I only recently learned that the magazine was named after a real person:

Mother Jones.Mother-Jones-cropped

Also known as Mary Harris Jones.

Also known as “the most dangerous woman in America.”

At age 65.

Why was she the “most dangerous”?

This is not a biography about Mother Jones – there’s the 2002 book by Elliott Gorn for that, and Jones’ autobiography from 1925.  Instead, it’s a brief recap of only a few reasons I think she’s so extraordinary.

Mary “Mother” Jones was a survivor.  A doer.  And an energizer.


Mary’s birth date is unknown but she was baptized in 1837, so we’ll use that year.

famineBorn in Ireland, she and her family were victims of the Great Famine, which caused at least a million Irish to emigrate between 1845 and 1849, and another million to die of starvation and disease.

In North America Mary received some schooling, taught for awhile, and in 1861 married George E. Jones, a member and organizer of the National Union of Iron Molders.

In 1867, when they were living in Memphis, George and their four children died during a yellow fever epidemic.  Mary relocated to Chicago, built a dressmaking business, and lost that in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

According to the National Women’s History Museum website, Mary

“…found solace at Knights of Labor meetings, and in 1877, took up the cause of working people.”

Mary had begun her career as a labor organizer.


 In 1897 Mary joined Eugene Debs’ Social Democracy and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) national strike in the Pittsburgh district, the first UMWA victory.  She mother croppedthen joined the UMWA’s organizing drive in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region, and was commissioned a national organizer.

 Beloved by the workers she organized, they began calling her “Mother Jones” as Mary focused on the rising number of working poor during industrialization, especially as wages shrunk, hours increased, and workers had no insurance for unemployment, healthcare or old age.

She took part in and led hundreds of strikes, scorning jail, deportation to other states and threats on her life.  She became the enemy of wealthy business owners, and in 1902 a U.S. attorney called her “the most dangerous woman in America.”

Pretty cool moniker for a 65-year-old.

And she didn’t slow down.


 Mary was sent to survey the West Virginia coalfields in December 1900, reporting back that ‘‘conditions there were worse than those in Czarist Russia.’’

I recently watched a PBS documentary, The Mine Wars, which details a period  when West Virginia coal miners were trying to unionize.  The conflict between miners and battle of blairowners escalated, eventually leading to the Battle of Blair Mountain, largest insurrection in the U.S. since the Civil War.

The film recounts Mary’s impact there, calling Mary the “nation’s most unlikely labor organizer.”  While a newspaper described Mary as “loud, profane, and demanding,” the people she was helping called her the “miners’ angel.”

Of her efforts on behalf of the miners, Mary said, “Six months ago the men were afraid to look at me.  Today they are realizing they are men, and have some right on this Earth.”

Well into her 80s, Mary continued to agitate and actively assist in the struggle to unionize workers, and continued to organize coal miners into her nineties.

She died in 1930, age 93.

Workers_Memorial_Day_poster US Dept of Labor post 2010 I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser.

I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes.  I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator.

Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.

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