Mary Harris Jones (1837-1930) was born in Ireland and raised by poor parents. With the blighted potatoes causing the Great Hunger, she and her father were among the 200,000 people who left Ireland. They settled in Canada, and at age 12 Mary was sent to a convent school. Always an independent spirit, she left after two terms, making her way via Michigan to Memphis, TN, where she married George Jones, an ironworker and union man. They had four children together. Always poor, the Jones’ were unable to leave Memphis when yellow fever swept through. Her husband and all four children succumbed to the disease. Devastated as she was, this experience did not destroy her.
She moved to Chicago, making a living sewing dresses for wealthy woman, but she lost her shop in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Again, she picked herself up, surviving an economic depression. She continued as a seamstress, but developed a strong dislike for the artistocrats who employed her because they ignored the plight of the jobless who wandered the street. Over the next 4+ decades of her life, she channeled this into a tireless and fierce devotion for improving the working conditions through organizing unions throughout the country. Her initial work was in the violent climate of mining, but extended to mills and factories, as she advocated for all workers regardless of gender, race or age. She was not, however, a champion of the 19th Amendment, saying “You don’t need the vote to raise hell.” From Congress to corporate offices around the country, she was feared (denounced in the Senate as the “grandmother of all alligators”, and often called “the most dangerous woman in the world”). To others, she was called the “Angel of Miners” or, more simply, “Mother Jones.”
Today, we take time to honor this remarkable woman. She faced some of the biggest hardships that one can face – death of her children, famine, plagues and fires – and not only survived but changed the world with her words. Among them is this reminder for today: “Reformation, like education, is a journey, not a destination.”