Born in County Cork in 1837, Mary Harris was just eight years old when her native Ireland was devastated by a potato blight that caused mass starvation, disease, and an enormous exodus. A million people died in seven years, another million left the small country. Passage was dangerous and expensive, and made more difficult by the politics of English control in Ireland. Mary was fifteen before she could make the long journey to meet her father and brother in Canada. By then, she had seen terrible suffering. In his biography of a woman better known as the fiery labor activist "Mother Jones," Simon Cordery writes with feeling about her early history and gives us the background we need to understand the roots of her fierce determination. She knew injustice intimately and early, when English landlords profited while Irish people starved.
Mary Harris Jones wrote her own "unreliable" version of her personal experience, and Cordery, a professor of history, goes to some pains to point out discrepancies. His attention to these inaccuracies sometimes even detracts from the narrative. Cordery's area of expertise is labor history and the transatlantic movement, and his focus is those facts. Sometimes I wished for more of Mary's own voice, or a more personal insight.
Nonetheless, Cordery succinctly provides a great deal of information about the turns and twists in American labor and political currents, as well as in a remarkable woman's life. In Canada, as a young Irish woman, Mary Harris faced enormous social challenges and had few choices. What she did have was courage and ambition. She left her family behind and emigrated to the U.S. in 1859. She taught in Michigan, sewed in Chicago, then settled in Memphis, where she married and had four children. George Jones was an ironworker, and a satisfied member of one of the most powerful unions in the country. Mary saw firsthand the rewards of strong union representation.
They survived the Civil War in that border town, but two years after the war ended, disaster struck. Mary's husband and all four of her children died of yellow fever. Impossibly awful. But she went on, back to Chicago, and built a sewing business, only to see it destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871.
There, at thirty-four, her story goes gray for twenty years or so. There are shady speculations about how she supported herself, and little information about where she went. When she re-emerged in the 1890s, Mary was nearing sixty, speaking her mind as the feisty "Mother" Jones, labor organizer and determined socialist. For the next forty years, this bespectacled and white-haired woman was visible and vocal nationally. She spoke with an Irish brogue and passion on behalf of those who labored, especially miners and children. She pursued the participation of workers and the assistance of presidents. She helped win some battles, notably in the area of child labor. And she never gave up.
Cordery details the complexities of strikes and political movements that were the fuel for her fire, and in doing so reveals her as a tough, intelligent survivor, fully invested in changing the system in favor of those who do its labor. Her struggles are still the struggles of working men and women, and Mother Jones lives on as a symbol of the long battle for economic justice. Though she might enjoy arguing the fine points, she would certainly be honored by Simon Cordery's able recognition of her life's work.
Simon Cordery is associate professor of history at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, with degrees from Northern Illinois University, the University of York, and the University of Texas at Austin. His research fields are modern British social and political history; the transatlantic world after 1830; and American labor history. In addition to Mother Jones, he has published British Friendly Societies 1750-1914, and articles in Biography, the Journal of British Studies, and Labour History Review. See the Monmouth College website for more information.
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