Mary Ellen Bernard

The Most Dangerous Woman in America

MOTHER JONES (1837 – 1930)

In an era when women were expected to be seen and not heard, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones refused to keep quiet. The itinerant labor organizer and self-described agitator was a born speechifier. She raised hell mostly in support of coal miners, which earned her the moniker “the miner’s angel.”

Her rhetoric was florid, and she scolded freely. “The laboring man is tired of working to build up millions so that millionaires’ wives may wear diamonds,” she said, remarking on the excesses of the Gilded Age.

In her autobiography (some of which was deemed by historians to be invented), she claimed to have said: “I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there, and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad, he would be a United States Senator.” True or not, it’s the woman at her feistiest: Mother Jones against the capitalist class.

She even criticized the suffragists for “playing parlor politics instead of raising the children of the nation.” Women she maintained, “do not need the vote to raise hell!” Nor should they aspire to a “career,” having been blessed with the higher calling of motherhood. Fittingly, having lost her own children to yellow fever, she adopted the sobriquet “Mother” and referred to the miners as “her boys.”Mother Jones portrait

Mother Jones did not act her age. She began her labor organizing work at sixty (more than a century before it became “the new forty”), and she continued her activism to within a few years of her death at 93.

For nearly thirty years, from the 1880s through the 1920s, Mother Jones showed up wherever there was a labor fight that needed a torchbearer. She took part in coal strikes in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Colorado. She supported the young girls striking in the silk mills of Northeast Pennsylvania. And she crusaded against child labor, leading The Children’s March from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s summer home in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

Despite her traditional views on women’s role in the world, she ignored her own advice by traveling, speaking, organizing, and writing, as well as collaborating – and arguing – with powerful men. And she insisted that “the woman must fight in the labor movement beside [the] man. Every strike that I have ever been in has been won by women.”2 She organized miners’ wives into “mop and broom brigades” to march, gain support for the union, and guard mine entrances to prevent “scabs” from breaking a strike.

Mother Jones was a woman who lived a larger-than-life life. In addition to all of the above, she met with four sitting presidents, fought on behalf of those unjustly imprisoned, was a member of the Socialist Party, then a socialist with a small “s.” And she was imprisoned herself at least twice.

When she was on trial for ignoring a ban on meetings by striking miners in West Virginia, the prosecuting attorney dubbed her “the most dangerous woman in America.” “She … crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out.”3

To that I say, let’s honor Women’s History Month by becoming dangerous women.

Mother Jones is a major character in my musical The Mountains Are Burning. I hope I do her justice.


1 & 2 Mother Jones: Raising Cain and Consciousness by Simon Cordery.

3  Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia by Sandra L. Ballard & Patricia L. Hudson.

Mother Jones color poster: U.S. Department of Labor.

Mother Jones portrait: Library of Congress.