The Most Dangerous Woman in America: Book Review
Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America
New York: Hill and Wang, 2001
ISBN: 0-8090-7093-6 hardcover
ISBN: 0-8090-7094-4 paperback
Reviewed by Jone Johnson Lewis
Mother Jones was born May 1, 1830 -- or was she? Elliott Gorn, author of this new biography of Mother Jones, tells us that she was actually born on August 1, 1837. She moved her birthday to May 1 as a connection to the Haymarket May Day demonstration for the eight hour day, and the year, probably, to add even more to the image of the "white-haired 'Mother' Jones." (57)
And so, with many of the details of Mother Jones' life, Gorn achieves a near-acrobatic feat of biography: he debunks much of the mythology of Mother Jones, including those myths created and promoted by Mother Jones herself, while always communicating a respect and affection for the woman and for her contributions to social justice and labor history.
Gorn's most notable achievement in this biography may be his detailed research into and description of the early life of the woman who was born Mary Harris in Ireland. Sometimes, he's uncovered new or forgotten facts -- for example, her teaching certificate, issued in 1857 in Toronto when she was 20. Other times, he's able, through his research into the context in which she lived, to speculate on her likely experience. For example, he describes the horrors of the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1867, when Mary Harris Jones lost her husband and all four of their children, a few months to five years old.
Central to Gorn's treatment of Mother Jones' life and image is this epidemic. He makes much of how Mary Harris Jones, a widow who lost her children, reconstructed herself as Mother Jones, radical "hell-raiser." As another source of her transformation into another "Mother Mary," he draws out her early Roman Catholic connection -- including bringing to light her relationshp to her estranged brother, Father William Richard Harris, Roman Catholic teacher, writer, pastor, dean of Toronto's diocese of St. Catherine's, "among the best-known clerics in Ontario." (278)
Mary Harris Jones - Mother Jones - began writing her autobiography in 1922 or 1923, when she was in her eighties and after her most active participation in labor activism had ended. Errors in spelling in the autobiography are explained by the fact that she dictated the stories to Mary Field Parton, a reporter who was also a friend and mistress of Clarence Darrow. Darrow wrote the introduction to the first edition of Jones' Autobiography, published in 1925. Gorn shows that many other inaccuracies are the result of Jones' memory of her own involvements as beginning earlier than Gorn can confirm from the historical record. Jones also shades her stories to favor her own partisan positions: for example, John L. Lewis is simply not mentioned, though he played an important part in the mine workers' organizing efforts during her own career.
In Gorn's words, "The Autobiography of Mother Jones is a deeply flawed yet powerful book .... Crudely, imperfectly, but with a strong voice, she told of the excluded, remembered their suffering, and offered hope for their redemption." (286)
Gorn brings vividly to life that which Jones' Autobiography barely mentions: the times through which the young Mary Harris lived -- her short years of marriage to George Jones, member of the Iron Molders Union -- her move to Chicago and her many years as a dressmaker -- her loss of shop, home and belongings to the Chicago Fire -- her growing interest in the Labor movement -- the impact of the Chicago Haymarket Affair on her own life and on the Knights of Labor.
The bulk of the biography covers her active years in the labor movement, beginning in about 1894, when she was in her fifties (64 by her own later accounting). The battles of coal miners -- the imprisonment of the grandmotherly radical Jones -- the Children's Crusade against child labor -- her Socialist Party involvement -- her minor involvement in the IWW -- her opposition to John L. Lewis' leadership -- these stories are told with historical detail, communicating effectively the energy, outrage and commitment Jones continued to bring to her work.
By the early 1920s, her failing health began to seriously slow her activism, at the same time that radical labor movement activism diminished in influence. She wrote her Autobiography, attended fewer and fewer public events and died on November 30, 1930.
Gorn continues the story in his Epilogue, documenting the ways the memory of the Mother Jones persona and person continued to evolve. In the 1930s, labor activists still honored her memory; a young Gene Autry even recorded "The Death of Mother Jones," a song whose origin is obscure. But in the labor movement of the 1940s and 1950s, with its distance from radical politics, her memory faded. Her Autobiography went out of print and copyright was even allowed to lapse.
It was only in about 1970 that her memory began to be revived. The Charles Kerr Company published, at last, a second edition of the Autobiography in 1972, folk singers revived "The Death of Mother Jones," and, in 1976, a magazine promising a return to progressive-era journalistic muck-raking named itself after her.
Gorn's biography itself can be seen as a maturing of this Mother Jones revival. At last, those interested in more than the image of Mother Jones can see her actual contributions to the labor movement in all their complexity. She becomes, in Gorn's book, not a sad or pathetic figure who often exaggerated her contributions and often sacrificed means for ends, but an even stronger, authentic human being, transforming adversity into commitment, mothering the whole of working class America and meeting challenges rare to the experience of white-haired women in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s then or now.
Was Mother Jones a feminist? In the sense that she asserted a role for herself in a field dominated by men, yes. In the sense that she saw woman's role as unique, nurturing and supportive, and therefore ignored or opposed woman's full political, social and economic equality, perhaps not. She was concerned primarily with supporting the rights of male wage earners, but as a woman in a strong and nontraditional role who made a significant contribution to history, she is certainly an important figure in women's history.
Text copyright 1999-2004 © Jone Johnson Lewis.
Book cover and author photograph posted with permission of the publisher.