Teach PA History
The Most Dangerous Woman in America? The Mock Trial of Mary Harris "Mother" Jones
Background Information for Teachers

Mary Harris was born in Cork, Ireland in the 1830s or 1840s amidst political strife and famine. Mary Harris' father was first to move to the United States in 1835, and then the rest of the family followed. After becoming citizens of the United States, the Harris family moved to Toronto, Canada. Mary's training to become a teacher landed her a job as an instructor in a convent in Michigan. Tired of "bossing little children," she then became a dressmaker in Chicago, Illinois (Mother Jones, The Autobiography of Mother Jones, Chapter 1). In 1861 she was teaching in Tennessee when she met her husband George Jones - a union man. They had one to four children (a discrepancy noted by some historians), but in 1867, Mary lost everyone to malaria or the yellow fever epidemic. Broken-hearted, Mary moved back to Illinois only to face tragedy again: her newly started dressmaking shop and home were burned in the Chicago fire of 1871.

Able to survive some of the most trying times, Mary dedicated her life to the struggle for labor. She began her work with the Knights of Labor, but her lifetime includes: formation of the Social Democratic Party, a lecturer for the Socialist Party in America, part founder of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and paid employee for the United Miners Workers of America. She earned the nickname "Mother" Jones because she was matronly, but also steadfast in her fight to protect workers. Students and teachers of history should not be fooled by her matronly appearance. Mother Jones was not afraid to speak her mind, and she did not feel bound to any particular person or association. Historian Joy Hakim in her text, History of US "The Age of Extremes" calls Mother Jones "pugnacious." Jones' activism, strong convictions, and wit still inspire today. The following list represents some of her well-known words:

"I am not afraid of the pen, or the scaffold, or the sword. I will tell the truth wherever I please."

"I have never had a vote, and I have raised hell all over this country. You don't need a vote to raise hell! You need convictions and a voice!"

"I'm not a humanitarian; I'm a hell-raiser. Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."

"No matter what the fight, don't be ladylike! God almighty made women and the Rockefeller gang of thieves made the ladies."

Some say Mother Jones lived to be 100 years old. Although she lived a long life, there is a discrepancy in her birth date. She may have changed the date to May 1, 1830, to symbolize the birth of the labor struggle. She died on November 30, 1930; but no matter what her age, she always stood for the demoralized and undervalued working class of the industrial era.

You might consider the background knowledge students already have of industrialization, labor unions, and child labor. It would be helpful for students to understand that business regulations were little to none. Important vocabulary that students need to know include the terms: child labor, unions, and scabs. The first activity in the lesson may help you and your students discuss these concepts.


Mother Jones: America's Most Dangerous Woman

Back to Top