Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America

A new biography of the fiery but forgotten labor activist

The story of Mother Jones is one of the most compelling in American history. Born Mary Harris in Cork, Ireland, in 1837, she immigrated to the U.S. as a child, later marrying an ironworker surnamed Jones and settling in Memphis. Following the loss of her husband and three children during a yellow fever epidemic in 1867, she moved to Chicago, where she earned her living as a seamstress. Exactly when and how she became active in the newborn labor movement is a mystery (her highly recommended autobiography devotes only six pages to the first half of her life), but by the 1890s Jones was becoming a real force. Her inexhaustible energy, raw physical courage, and unshakable belief that labor would prevail to usher in a new era of social democracy inspired thousands of followers in an age when unionizing was a blood-and-guts business. She masterminded marches to gain publicity for exploited children, was incarcerated for defying the orders of class-loyal judges, and routinely braved muddy mountain trails and the guns of hired thugs to deliver very unladylike speeches to "her boys." One could say that this larger-than-life figure embodied much of what is best about our national character, and that her relegation to obscurity by a society that never dealt with the vicissitudes of capitalism is damning.

Elliot Gorn has done considerable research and shows admirable restraint in letting the appalling story of labor's early years tell itself, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. He is less judicious with his principal subject. No one can help suspecting that Jones' career as "mother" of the unionists represented some kind of compensation for the loss of her family, but Gorn wastes whole pages wearing out this threadbare notion. He also berates Jones for political incorrectness on certain fronts, notably, her indifference to the suffragists. While the inconsistencies in Jones' views are worth pointing out, the fact is that she wasn't concerned with middle-class women's aspirations and believed, with considerable reason, that they cared naught for those of the working class. One might just as well castigate Gandhi for not being more vocal about gay rights. Mother Jones hadn't the time, literally or figuratively, for the niceties of ideology, but worked from the simple moral conviction that economic exploitation is the evil that fathers all others. Flawed as it is, Gorn's book will hopefully help rekindle the memory of this inspiring woman.

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