Mary Jones overcame personal adversity and tragedy, she could have disappeared after 1871. She did not!
The memory of her exploits did however almost disappear after a few years following her death, yet her folk memory always lived on in Appalachia and in the communities in which she had operated. Biographer, Elliott Gorn offered a serious explanation, “Mother Jones fell victim to what the English historian E. P. Thompson has called “the enormous condescension of posterity.”” After all, she was just an old woman campaigning in remote areas and raging against the brutal machine of capitalism. (“Moneyed civilization”)
Dale Fetherling in his wide ranging, thoughtful if frustrating efforts to analyse the ideology of Mother Jones mentions that some regarded her politics as those of an “ideological butterfly” and were damning of her ill-defined socialism and her “shallow often contradictory ideology”. And at times in utter despair at the lack of support, she had derided some socialists as squabbling over doctrinal purity while women and children were starving in the mining camps.
Attempts in general to define an individual activists total philosophy in relation to the cohesion of class struggle in the practical complexity of real social and community conflict are at best incomplete. Mother Jones was above all, a doer, a woman of action, she overcame impossible problems to educate and organise men, women and children to agitate in the real life exploitative and explosive world of industrial conflicts where many of the protagonists were armed. She dealt with the nuts and bolts stuff instead of pontificating in ivory towers. Her final recorded wise comments detailed above in section 6.3, before her death are probably very close to the truth.
Not only that, but by utilising fiery oratory, direct language, passion, pathos, humour, theatre and a fearless energy, she simplified the causes of the actual work conflict, she then aroused hope, created wonder by her sheer audacity, raised the lost spirits of worn out people and showed them how to fight back. And she made sure their stories gained a wider and more influential audience, than just those working in the hills and mines and out of the way places.
For a moment, life weary workers rose from their knees, saw the potential for “a higher and grander civilisation”, and were willing to fight and die to attain it. A dream maybe, but millions of workers and their families could embrace it and many still feel it today. That is the real legacy of Mother Jones, she dreamed of visions and beauty and roses and for that she lives on in workers dreams.
“Small art and love and beauty,
Their drudging spirits knew,
Yes, it is bread we fight for
But we fight for roses, too.”A verse from Bread and Roses (James Oppenheim) sung at the Lawrence strike 1912.
She talked of mining men fighting as beasts in the jungle for the privilege of seeing the colour in their children’s eyes, by the light of the sun. In her autobiography, she visualises the sun, “that life may have something of decency, something of beauty – a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window – for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.”
As a woman, Mary was virtually excluded from the inner workings of the Labour Union movement, she had not sought elective office so her achievements as a respected and feared female union leader have to be taken in this context. She organised the workers, female, male, children and every nationality, race and religion rather than taken up with union office politics.
She was an outsider and had to demonstrate her leadership abilities by working on the ground with the workers in the factories, mills and mines across America, she gained their respect by leading through example and action.
Her power came directly from the workers. As a union organiser, she was certainly the most fearless of all the organisers on the ground and went literally, where no man had ever gone before.
The problem was that men controlled the unions, they made the decisions and ran the place. It did not matter that Mother Jones could put her life at risk, face down thuggish gunmen, spend time in jail, build up the membership and power of the union, inspire thousands of men with her earthy oratory yet male union leaderships decided matters often leading to the utter frustration of Mother Jones and “her boys”. Her battles with John Mitchell and John L. Lewis were examples of her inability to bring that leadership to account.
Her loyalty was to the workers and their families, she was a socialist, she was loyal to socialist values and philosophy, she regularly excoriated the robber barons and pirates and the bruising impacts of capitalism on her boys and presciently she warned of its growing malign impact on the world. Her detractors mention her failure to maintain support for political parties, but one suspects that after her time in the Socialist Party, building a political party or narrow ideology became for her a distraction from her practical work on the ground.
Mother Jones was too independent minded to become attached to one political party for very long time and she reserved the right to change her mind. Her no nonsense approach to problems often got her into trouble, yet she could be very reflective and kind. She could be difficult, occasionally economical with the truth, wandering and rambling in her long speeches, yet so real and human.
She regarded the solidarity of trade union activism as being her main goal, and was not willing to give allegiance to a rigid political party, she simply wanted to be where the fight was. The cause of labour would continue on, so that workers will win “leisure to read and to think”. They will have “some of the good and beautiful things of the world”, and “slowly those who create the wealth of the world are permitted to share it. The future is in labor’s strong rough hands.”
A powerful and eloquent orator, she held thousands of tough miners spellbound for hours. Poet and singer, Carl Sandburg once described her voice as “a singing voice”, which should endear Mother Jones and her oratory to the inhabitants of her native Cork city whose local dialect has long been described as a ‘sing song’ accent.
She claimed that she was not a lady, and some commentators argue she was not a feminist in today’s terms as she did not pay much attention to the suffrage movement. Mother Jones questioned giving the right to vote to affluent women at one stage as she said it would change little if they voted like their husbands! Her view was that you don’t need the vote to raise hell! She complained that women might not use their vote to achieve social justice and some were voting against their own best interests.
Today she remains a huge inspiration to many people, not just union members. In spite of personal tragedy and official indifference, she worked on regardless. She appears to almost transcend the world wide trade union movement due to her real emotional appeal to workers everywhere. By carrying on fighting for social justice and labour and human rights, by providing leadership and support when others failed, she earns respect and is entitled to that respect.
Yet after 1936, she was almost forgotten by historians, ignored by most educational institutions, regarded as not relevant to the modern trade union movement and union establishments, even here in her native city of Cork there was no official recognition.
Was she ignored due to the massive misogyny of official history writers or was it an unfortunate failure of academic learning much too occupied with ideological analysis? She did not easily tick the political boxes. The poor rarely write serious memoirs of their lives, they are far too busy with trying to survive unless they become millionaires or attain high office. Mother Jones attained neither of these trappings of life, yet her simple image adorned the walls of her battles grounds in Appalachia and she remained in the hearts of those she fought for, even if their opinions rarely counted where it matters.
A hero to the millions who created the wealth of America by working under the ground and out of sight and ignored by most, except for Mother Jones who worked with these grass roots communities and shouted out the injustices they experienced to a wider world!
Is she still relevant? Former miner, Marat Moore posed this important question at the inaugural Cork Mother Jones festival in 2012
“We live in a time as turbulent as hers. Can we carry on her legacy of resistance to powerful corporations who rob the poor and destroy our earth?”Marat Moore
For years in Irish educational institutions, universities, schools and libraries, the contribution of Mother Jones towards labour justice and human rights was ignored. Indeed the contributions of the wider Irish diaspora who became an essential foundation blocks of the American labour movement and its fine achievements of human solidarity and social justice also remain largely ignored in Ireland.
One could argue that many public institutions in Ireland prefer in a somewhat myopic manner to concentrate on well recognised and famous Irish diaspora, mostly male figures, who were usually politicians, or financially successful in the business world. A strong case can be made that the practical actions of some Irish emigrants, women and men, in organising the trade unions and radical movements which contributed enormously to the well-being, freedom and democratic culture of America merits better attention for what was a far more important achievement of our people.
Irish emigrant women and men who built trade unions and fought for social justice may be Ireland’s greatest gift to America! Should Ireland not analyse and embrace the real working and living experiences of most of those impoverished people who fled the country and discuss the actions of all those who worked to give them a voice, better their lives and improve their conditions at their destinations.
Or is it that Mother Jones and her comrades remain largely ignored in this country because of the Irish establishment’s deeply ingrained embarrassment at the regular large emigration waves from a country, where for many years after we achieved freedom and independence, we still failed to provide work and decent life for many of our sons and daughters in their own place?
Or perhaps it it simply that the memory of the resilience and the passion for social justice of Mother Jones, long after her death, remains even now too dangerous for some to contemplate and encourage?
7. 1 “A Catalyst for Positive Change”
A few days before the 2020 online Spirit of Mother Jones festival in Cork, the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins in a message to its organisers, praised her contribution to the labour movement and described Mother Jones as an “emancipatory figure” and “a catalyst for positive change”.
President Michael D Higgins.
Like many others over the years, in his message the President invoked her cry to Remember the dead, but fight like hell for the living when praising the contribution of Ireland’s front line workers and unions towards the fight against Covid-19 at a conference held in conjunction with the 2020 Spirit of Mother Jones festival by University College Cork Civic Engagement Dept.