The indomitable spirit of Mother Jones

Some time back, Ana the Imp posted a blog on MyT entitled ‘Obama and the Deer Hunters’, contrasting ‘un-American’ ‘liberals and socialists’ with the kind of blue-collar individualists who ‘built America’ and are instinctively hostile to the state … epitomized by the steelworker-soldiers of The Deer Hunter.

In a comment, I said ‘It seems that some people, for ideological reasons, would like to tear out whole chapters of the American story … such as the “deer hunter” class fighting not the state as such, but big business that was backed by the forces of the state.’

Around that time I went to an Andy Irvine concert, and he sang a new song he’d written called ‘The Spirit of Mother Jones’. Mother Jones was an interesting character, and personified the struggle of the ‘little person’ for fair play that was a big part of what made America the greatest country in the world.

Mary Harris Jones was born Mary Harris in Co. Cork in 1837, and emigrated to Canada and then the USA with her family in her teens. In 1867 her husband and four young children all died of yellow fever; she moved from Tennessee to Chicago and set up a dress shop, which was destroyed along with her home and possessions in the Great Fire of 1871. One might safely say that Lady Luck had not smiled on Mary Harris Jones.

She joined the labour movement and became a leader of the United Mine Workers –¬ it seems that she was a great orator. In a particularly violent and turbulent time for US industrial relations, she organized strikers’ wives and children to demonstrate on their behalf, and was called ‘the most dangerous woman in America’. She was twice imprisoned.

Jones, who took on the persona of ‘Mother Jones’ by pretending to be older than she really was and dressing in an old-fashioned style, drew national attention to the scandal of child labour in the Pennsylvania silk mills. She played a major role in the 1898 coalminers’ strike at Virden, Illinois, during which seven miners and six security guards were killed in a gun battle. There is a bronze portrait of Jones atop a monument to the strike in Virden.

After the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, when 21 people, including 12 children and two women, died in an attack on striking miners by the Colorado National Guard, Mother Jones had a meeting with John D. Rockefeller which led to reforms in the Colorado mines.

Jones died at (probably) the age of 93, in 1930 (she claimed to be 100 years old). As well as the Virden plinth and the Irvine song, she is immortalized in songs by Woody Guthrie and others, in books and in the title of a magazine.

An American (and Irish) heroine.

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8 Comments

Filed under Biography, Politics, Uncategorized

8 responses to “The indomitable spirit of Mother Jones

  1. Ike Jakson

    America is not only the big industrial giant, large Ivy League Institutions or Hollywood that are known to the World.

    It is a country rich in their own inimitable history and even more so in traditions, folklore and stories of the working class. Mother Jones is but one of them though a memorable one.

    It remains to this day regardless of “modern politics and the financial debacles” a country of ordinary “regular” folks; they use the word “regular” all the time for anything in the daily spoken language. Even today a rich Texan from the North-East may refer to himself as a “regular ole country bo” from “jest a little ways” down the road from Arkansas as Ross Perot did when he ran for the White House and handed Clinton the Presidency in 1992.

    City dwellers and what “regular folk known as Main Street” will refer to as “Wall Street America” all share a common love for their land even though the land is presently in turmoil as a result of politics. But even in that, it lacks the venom and bitterness of UK Politics.

    You as an Irishman and your music will be heartily welcomed in most of America and you will find that many in America and Ireland have much more in common than many in England would like to admit.

  2. Thanks for that, Ike. Yes, the USA is a more egalitarian and less class-ridden society than, say, the UK. Money talks, but it can be new or old money. There are elites, but in general it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from: as long as you are willing to work hard you will have a chance to make something of yourself. The American Dream, which has been lived by some of my old friends who emigrated there 30 years ago.

    Of course the American Dream is always under threat in one way or another. In Mother Jones’s day it was threatened by rapacious, conscience-free capitalism … which the US exported to Latin America.

  3. Thanks, Brendano. You are right; it does interest me. Politics aside, I always admire courage and determination

  4. Cymbeline

    There is a book review in The Economist (Sept 11th -17th) in which Mother Jones is mentioned. I had never heard of her before, and then suddenly I read of her twice in the same day.

    The book is ‘There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America’ by Philip Dray. Nowadays, American unions may sneer at social democracy and socialism, but apparently this was not always so. According to the reviewer, Dray shows ‘American workers long torn between the socialist vision of Europe’s labour movements and their own country’s ideas of individual freedom, the freedom to compete and to succeed or fail.’

  5. Thank you, Cymbeline … interesting.

  6. Very interesting stuff, fair play.

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