Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

MARY HARRIS "MOTHER" JONES
(1830?-1930). "Mother" and messiah to industrial labor

MARI BOOR TONN

Mary Harris Jones, known simply as "Mother" Jones, was among the industrial labor movement's most colorful and charismatic personalities, its most prolific, charismatic, and inventive rhetors, and its most effective agitators. For nearly half a century, this tiny, immigrant widow spoke extemporaneously, sometimes several times a day and in every imaginable circumstance in behalf of her working-class constituency: child laborers, workers in breweries and mills, streetcar and railroad employees, and even Mexican revolutionaries ( Autobiography; Fetherling, 1979; Long, 1976; Steel, Correspondence).

Her closest and most famous alliance, however, was with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which hired her as a paid organizer sometime in the 1890s ( Dix, 1970:7; Fetherling, 1979:28; Foner, 1979:52; Steel, Correspondence, xxiv-xxv), when its locals closed their membership and commonly even meetings to females ( Schofield, 1980). Nonetheless, her success as an agitator before such daunting male audiences was nothing less than legendary. Her ability to arouse impoverished miners to a frenzy, to persuade them to risk starvation, imprisonment, and even death to join the union helped to make organized labor a political force with which to be reckoned. Eugene Debs claimed that no one--man or woman, living or dead--rivaled Harris Jones as a mine organizer ("To the Rescue"), a view often echoed in labor organs. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (see entry in volume 2) termed her "the greatest agitator of our time" (quoted in Foner, 1983:68). Among her legion of admirers were more than a few establishment figures, including politicians, reporters, and socialites who viewed her as among the nation's greatest women ( Fetherling, 1979:152; Mooney, 1967:132). Conversely, coal company owners and operators dubbed her "The Old Hag" and called her the "vulgar old woman" (quoted in Long, 1976:21), and a West Virginia prosecutor considered her "the most dangerous woman in America" (quoted in Michelson, 1913:8). The enemies of labor routinely threatened her and imposed injunctions, deportations, and jail terms in futile attempts to silence the woman whom millions affectionately called "the miners' angel" ( Fetherling, 1979:85-177).

Harris Jones was extraordinarily effective in overcoming the formidable rhetorical barriers she confronted as a female labor union organizer because she had an intensely intimate appeal to workers. This appeal was based largely on the strategic roles or personae she assumed. In the traditional role of mother, she nurtured males in her audiences by tending to their basic psychological and physiological needs. In the charismatic role of prophet, she offered discouraged workers hope and vision. Both roles also provided this female agitator with authority over male audiences and the freedom to speak publicly for labor.

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