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Mother Jones

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Important Terms, People, and Events

The legendary Mother Jones, once called the "most dangerous woman in America," holds an important position in American history because of her struggle to achieve equality and justice for the country's industrial laborers. On behalf of the workers, Mother Jones spent much time in prison, and faced abuse from the public and from officials. Although Mother Jones preached the doctrine of socialism to the workers and advocated the overthrow of capitalism, she also knew that workers needed short-term improvements in their lives, and fought with them for better working conditions and better wages.

Born as Mary Harris in Ireland in 1837, Mother Jones experienced a difficult early life, surrounded by the poverty of an Ireland devastated by English domination and a famine that ravaged the vital potato crop. In the early 1850s, Harris and her family left to establish a better life in America, finally settling in Toronto. There, Mary Harris attended school and studied to become a teacher. She left the school without completing her degree and took a teaching position in Monroe, Michigan, in 1859, then went to Chicago to try to work as a dressmaker.

Finally, in 1860, Mary Harris moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she married George Jones in 1861 and gave birth to four children. Her happy existence ended with the yellow fever epidemic in 1867, which killed her husband and all four of her children. Mary Harris left Memphis to start a new life as a dressmaker in Chicago, where she became active in the labor movement. By the early 1890s, her reputation as a devoted labor leader was beginning to be established, and she had earned the moniker Mother Jones. Among other activities, Jones was one of the organizers of Coxey's Army, a group of unemployed men who marched on Washington to demand a federal jobs program.

By the late nineteenth- and early twentieth- centuries, Mother Jones's reputation was of a national scale. She led organizing efforts in striking mining communities, and helped J.A. Wayland publish the leading leftist journal of the day, The Appeal to Reason. As a union organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, Mother Jones's work rallying workers and their families was instrumental in the success of the strikes in Pennsylvania's anthracite mines. However, Jones was most drawn to the coalminers in West Virginia and Colorado, who worked and lived in particularly deplorable conditions. She felt that she was most needed there, and she worked in many campaigns, including the infamous Colorado Coal War. Jones spoke on behalf of the workers and raised money for strikes, and explained their cause to those who were not familiar with it. Her last important struggle was for the steel workers in 1919. She worked tirelessly, but the power of Andrew Carnegie's US Steel prevailed.

In addition to working for a period as a speaker for the Socialist Party, Mother Jones spoke at many different strikes and rallied on behalf of all workers, especially those who were imprisoned as a result of their activism. She became a legend in her time, a near-mythical character in the minds of working men, women, and children.

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