Have you ever heard of a woman in history who was referred to as “Mother Jones?”
Mary Harris Jones held that nickname, as she was one of the most prominent female labor activists of the 19th century.
Mary was born in Ireland in 1837 and immigrated with her family to Canada when she was five years old. As she got older, Mary became a teacher and moved to America. She taught at a school in Michigan, then later took on another teaching job in Memphis, Tennessee.
In 1861, she married George Jones, who was a member of the Iron Molders Union. Within six years, they had four children together.
Mary’s life turned upside down when a yellow fever epidemic hit Memphis and killed her entire family. She lost George and all of her children. Before getting married, she had briefly lived in Chicago and worked as a seamstress. So, after losing her family, she moved back and opened a dress shop.
Then, more tragedy struck Mary’s life when the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 happened and burnt up everything she owned. After the fire, she had an urge to help others like herself rebuild the city and their lives. She began attending meetings for the Knights of Labor and, in the late 1870s, began a life of advocating for laborers.
Mary began organizing and participating in strikes and protests, one of her firsts being the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. By the 1880s, she had been involved in hundreds of strikes and eventually became involved with the United Mine Workers. She organized strikes that encouraged workers never to stand down, even when the militia was brought in.
Mary quickly became the strong, opinionated voice representing many American workers and labor unions. By the time the 1900s rolled around, workers referred to her as Mother Jones, and she began working on the East and West coasts.
No one was excluded from Mary’s protests, and she was known for encouraging the women and children of mistreated workers to protest as well. For instance, when many children were forced to work in mills and mines, she organized the “March of the Mill Children” in 1903.