Mary Harris (Mother) Jones was often jailed, but even when she was held incommunicado in a dank dungeon for months, her influence never waned.
What was her crime? Rabble-rousing, that is, calling meetings and making speeches to aid laborers in their protests against inhumane conditions.
There she stood on every platform from stage to tree stump, inciting people to lay down their tools, silence their machines, speak up for their rights,
and -- if all else failed -- stomp out on strike.
Over the half-century of Mother Jones's labor campaigns, between the 1870s through the 1920s, a multitude of workers and their families heard her
electrifying words and took action. They ranged from streetcar operators in New York and San Francisco, to female bottle washers in Wisconsin, to copper
miners in Arizona, to railroad workers in the Pacific northwest. Of intense concern were the children toiling fourteen hours a day in the textile mills
It was among the coal miners of Colorado in 1913 and 1914 that she was most forceful and most controversial. To the men she called the slaves of the
caves, and to their families, Mother Jones was an angel of mercy. To the Colorado state militia, she was a heartless, troublesome creature, the grandmother
of all agitators. To the owners and overseers of the coal industry, awakening to the protests of organized workers, she was simply dubbed the most dangerous
woman in America.
Journalists described her as a sweet-faced old woman, short and stout. Her black dress with its white lacy bodice fell to swollen ankles and poured over
high top shoes, revealing a slight limp as she tramped along railroad tracks and dusty roads or mountainous paths. Sometimes she wore hip boots to slog
through muddy creeks and ravines. A flowered black bonnet shaded her eyes and sat lightly on her cloud of snowy curls. Steel-rimmed glasses that perched
on her nose highlighted gunmetal-blue eyes that were one moment playful, and the next critically piercing.
She appeared to be a loving grandmother whose lap often welcomed children. But when she spoke, chandeliers in the concert hall swayed. Her high falsetto
voice with an Irish brogue bellowed, even over an audience of thousands.
"I am on the warpath here for the miners," Mother Jones shouted. "...We will all go to glory together, or we will all die and go down together!"
She was called a "fire-eater" when she stirred a crowd into a froth of excitement. The words that came from her sweet, pursed lips were seldom ladylike.
In fact, she warned women, "Whatever the fight, don't be ladies!" Many called her foul-mouthed, but as she herself said with a twinkle of humor,
"That is the way we ignorant working people pray."
The most remarkable thing about Mother Jones is that, while she was a formidable force for change at the height of the woman's suffragist movement,
she was against women voting.
Oh, and one other intriguing thing about her: she had a huge public 100th birthday celebration when she was 93. Truthfulness was not her constant
companion, but fierce determination was.
Read more about this fascinating woman in my new middle-grade non-fiction book, Strike! Mother Jones and the Colorado Coal Field War, published
by Filter Press, 2012. She'll knock your socks off!