Teach PA History
The Most Dangerous Woman in America? The Mock Trial of Mary Harris "Mother" Jones
What to Know
Teaching Time

2 50-minute sessions

Grade Level
Middle School
  • Civics and Government
  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening
  • History
Historical Period
  • Development of the Industrial Pennsylvania - 1877-1900
  • The Emergence of Modern Pennsylvania - 1901-1928
Mary Harris "Mother" Jones fiercely opposed the abuses of labor in the Industrial era. While she was a small, elderly woman, standing at about five-feet tall, Mother Jones was one of the strongest advocates for men, women, and children working under unfair conditions in mines, factories, and mills. Although she was not a native of Pennsylvania, Mother Jones was present at a number of significant labor struggles within the state. She was present at the railroad strike in Pittsburgh in 1877; she was present at various coal mine strikes in Arnot, Greensburg, and Coaldale; she initiated a 100-mile march from Philadelphia to New York to protest child labor in 1903; and she was arrested in Homestead just before the Great Steel Strike of 1919. While her work in Pennsylvania was important, her activism was national in scope. When asked by Congressman William B. Wilson where she lived, Mother Jones said, "I live in the United States, but I do not know exactly where. My address is wherever there is a fight against oppression. Sometimes I am in Washington, then in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Texas, Minnesota, Colorado. My address is like my shoes: it travels with me." (Mother Jones, The Autobiography of Mother Jones, Chapter 16) Mother Jones fearlessly faced government officials, militia, and capitalist bosses. In 1902 she was arrested because she encouraged miners in West Virginia to strike after an injunction was placed against her. It was after this arrest that she earned the title: "the most dangerous woman in America" (Mother Jones, The Autobiography of Mother Jones, Chapter 7). Mother Jones also faced trial in West Virginia in 1913 for allegedly inciting a riot among miners in the Paint and Cabin Creek fields. But was her far-reaching struggle for labor a threat to the United States? Or was she an angel to the working class? That is for students to decide in this lesson. Using images, newspaper articles, and excerpts from Mother Jones' autobiography, students reconstruct the people, events, and groups who condemned and praised Jones' work. Students conduct a mock trial that summarizes key figures and events of the industrial era. Once students understand the labor struggle, they can analyze the characterization of Mother Jones as "the most dangerous woman in America."


Students will be able to: 1. Explain the struggle for labor rights in the mines and textile mills and the fight for a child labor laws. 2. Construct consistent and coherent arguments for or against the strategies used by labor activists, businesses, and government. 3. Identify and describe historic figures in the struggle for labor rights in Pennsylvania. 4. Study Mother Jones' character from different perspectives. Decide if Mother Jones deserved the label "The Most Dangerous Woman in America." Explain why some considered her dangerous and analyze the accuracy of this statement.

Standards Alignment

  • Civics and Government

    5.2.9. C. Analyze skills used to resolve conflicts in society and government.

  • History

    8.1.9. C. Analyze the fundamentals of historical interpretation.
    8.1.9. D. Analyze and interpret historical research using primary sources.
    8.2.3. A. Understand the political and cultural contributions of individuals and groups to Pennsylvania.
    8.2.3. B. Identify and describe primary documents, material artifacts and historic sites important in Pennsylvania history.
    8.2.6. A. Identifies political and cultural contributions of individuals to Pennsylvania history
    8.2.9. D. Identify and analyze conflict and cooperation among social groups and organizations in Pennsylvania history.

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening

    1.1.8. D. Identify basic facts and ideas in text using specific strategies.
    1.1.8.G. Demonstrate after reading understanding and interpretation of both fiction and nonfiction text, including public documents.
    1.6.8. A. Listen to others.
    1.6.8. C. Speak using skills appropriate to formal speech situations.
    1.6.8. D. Contribute to discussions.
    1.6.8. E. Participate in small and large group discussions and presentations.

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