Mother Jones, the Conan the Barbarian of Grandmothers

Hello, my sweet blog-readers. I want you to buckle in, hunker down, and pray for daylight, because this is going to be one mother of a post. Literally. I am about to slam you in the face with so much awesome, it will rip your weave out.

So, Mary Harris Jones, otherwise known as Mother Jones.
Looks like a sweet, little old lady who will knit you sweaters and make you soup. Well, she was a mother of four, and a teacher and a seamstress, so she's probably done all those things. She also had an amazing talent for making men like President Hayes and John D. Rockefeller Jr. crap themselves, and was simultaneously known as "The Miners' Angel" and "The Most Dangerous Woman In America". Let's back up to the beginning. All quotations are from Barbara Holland's They Went Whistling.

Her husband was member of the iron-molders' union, so she got her training in unions from him. They had four kids, but he and all the kids died in an outbreak of yellow fever. Never a sentimental woman, she said, "Well, I guess I'll move to Chicago and become a dressmaker." But then the city burned down in the giant Chicago fire, and destroyed her shop and home. She shrugged and went to volunteer at the iron-molders' union office.

She quickly became indispensable there, and whether she was afraid of settling down only to lose everything again, or if she just couldn't be bothered with the hassle, she never again lived in a permanent residence. She'd bounce between all the union workers' families, begging for a meal and a place to sleep. This flexibility was probably the best skill she could have cultivated on her way to being a total badass. "Later, when asked where she lived, she said, 'Well, wherever there is a fight.' Apparently her permanent home was a sturdy satchel repacked every morning with her night things, underwear, maybe an extra neat black dress, and fresh lace cuffs and collars. When you strip a woman down, peeling away first her husband and children and then her house and furniture and business, everything else fits into a satchel. It concentrates the mind wonderfully" (247).

In 1873, the States was going through a depression. Unions were a relatively new thing and members had to keep very quiet about it, or they'd never find work again. If you protested, you got clubbed, jailed, and blacklisted. When "the railroad tycoon Jay Gould was warned of a workers' uprising, he famously answered, 'In that case, I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half'" (247). Tycoons were pretty much total asshats 'round this time, but Mother Jones was in NO MOOD for anyone's asshaberdashery.

It was discovered that she was totally fearless, wily, and an excellent public speaker, which was a serious skill in those days. So the Knights of Labor union started sending her around to strikes where she could recruit or support strikers. She saw horrific violence and stood up to the National Guard sent by President Hayes and nasty, ruthless thugs hired by the tycoons. She saw people starved, beaten, kidnapped and killed, but it never scared her. She was always reported as being in the very thick of it, like some feeble little dowager from HELL. If her life was a movie, this would be the training montage. She was learning why these strikes were broken time and again, and what she'd have to do to lead the next one and make it successful.

By this point, she had become known to the unions nation-wide. Therefore, she "asked the unions for a birthday present, a general strike for the eight-hour day on her fifty-sixth birthday, May 1, 1886. 'It's time,' she said, 'the American worker got a chance to sit in the sun or go fishing.' The establishment considered this a full-strength Communist revolution and the Chicago Tribune declared, 'Anyone favoring the eight-hour day is a scurrilous traitor who deserves a rope around his neck'" (249).

The entire country responded. In Chicago alone, sixty thousand workers went on strike. The tycoons went, ". . . the hell? Who is this woman?"  She answered them: "'I'm not a humanitarian. I'm a hell-raiser.' When the United States Senate denounced her as 'the grandmother of all agitators,' she said she planned to live to be the great-grandmother of all agitators, and she did" (246). Guys, I want to be her when I am . . . now.

Her birthday strike was eventually put down, but it certainly got the tycoons quaking in their boots. She was some unofficial union queen recognized from coast to coast. What's more, she could never seem to be caught or located. It helped that she had such a mild, innocent appearance. It was very, "Just your typical, sweet, little old lady, officer. No need to check me for knuckle-dusters." She was so slippery she made Petyr Baelish's machinations look clumsy. She was EVERYWHERE, popping up almost instantly, then disappearing into the night. She was the Batman of 19th century unions, but without all the emo morality and giant establishment mansion.

In fact, since any miner "who let her into his house would have been fired and evicted, . . . Jones, age seventy, slept in barns and sheds and abandoned mines, a different hideout each night to throw off the company police" (250). This is why she lived to be, like, ten thousand years old. If history has taught me anything, it's this: adventure is surprisingly good for the lifespan.

Things started getting really intense for everyone. A lot of people had been killed and she was persona non grata. Strikers were beginning to resign themselves to the idea that they would never get improved conditions, and maybe it was just better not to associate with Mother Jones. When she failed to rally the men at the Drip Mouth mine, she screamed "'Quitters! A fine bunch you are! A disgrace to Ireland! If you can't win the strike, I'll get your wives, daughters, and sisters to fight your battles!' She told the men to stay home with the children the next day and all the women and girls to show up at the mine mouth with mops and brooms, pots and pans.

"Brandishing a frying pan, she marched them up the hill to the line of company guards. One guard shouted, 'You women go home before someone gets hurt!' A huge, ferocious-looking Irishwoman charged him, yelling, 'Hurt, is it! Hurt! You slimy dog, I'll show you what hurt is!' and knocked him down with a mop. The women swarmed into the fray, cracking heads with rolling pins left and right, and fought their way to the mine entrances where scabs were leading the mules down into the pits. Shrieking and thrashing and banging pots and pans they swooped, and the mules stampeded in horror and the scabs scattered. The women set up a picket line" (250). The men were so shamed, they joined in. They held on until the owners caved. It was her first major victory. This got things back on track for the strikers.

"In the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania she led such a long strike that a national coal shortage loomed and President Teddy Roosevelt [my FAVORITE president] stepped in. He said the owners and miners had to submit to arbitration and settle the thing or he'd seize the mines and run them himself" (251). Guys, don't test Teddy. He'll do it. So they met, and some of the strikers' demands were met, but not all of them, and things quieted down. Jones was really bitter about it, because she felt like the victory had only been partial, and it was thanks to Teddy's efforts, not the actual strikers'.

She felt like her revolution had been set back, so she changed tactics. She gathered up an army of child-workers and paraded around the country with them, showing how poor working conditions made for some really messed up kids. Once again her wheels spun. Her Crusade of the Mill Children failed, and the kids went back to work.

When she learned that John D. Rockefeller basically owned the entire state of Colorado, she thought, "Well, there's a challenge." So she bought a peddler's cart and some wares and drove around Colorado incognito, trying to spark up trouble for the tycoon. She was found out, arrested, put on a train and told to stay out of the state. "She hopped off the train in Denver and sent a note to the governor saying she was right down the street from his office and 'what in Hell are you going to do about it?' He couldn't think what to do" (254). I think her life motto was, "Because eff you, that's why." After raising some more trouble, she was arrested again and "held in solitary confinement for weeks without being told why. Finally she was offered a lawyer and told she'd be tried by a court-martial board. She said she wasn't a soldier and refused to have anything to do with the proceedings . . . she was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to twenty years; her only comment during the trial was that they must feel like idiots, considering she was already eighty" (254-5). Her arrest garnered a lot of negative publicity for the mine owners and she was released. WORST. MISTAKE. EVER. Seriously, have these guys learned nothing?

She tried to rally another strike, and was arrested a third time, almost immediately. When she was finally taken to see the governor, he "said he simply wanted her to promise not to go back to the strike zone. She said, as usual, that she went where she pleased" (255). He said, "Durrrrr, she seems like no trouble" AND LET HER GO. What the what? So she got on a train to go back to the strike, and was arrested AGAIN. Guys, just keep her in jail. Seriously, by this point you're just wasting tax dollars. Lock her up and throw away the key.

The governor shoved her in an absolute crap-hole of a prison cell, freezing cold, wet, and filled with rats. He was hoping that because of her advanced years, she'd catch cold and die. She laughed and laughed about this, essentially being like, "Sonny, do you have any idea some of the places I've slept in my life? This place is a palace!" and she stubbornly refused to die. The unions hired a lawyer and got her out.

She had garnered so much publicity over the years that exposes started to be written and things finally got moving for the unions. She hated that the newspapers got results, instead of her winning directly through violence, because I think she was Genghis Khan in another life. If her life had a secondary motto, it would be: enough talking, more stabbing.

Conditions slowly but surely started improving and she died of old age at 93.

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4 Responses to Mother Jones, the Conan the Barbarian of Grandmothers

  1. Anonymous says:

    Ass haberdashery ? Is that like haberdashery for the ass???


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