Mary Harris began life near Cork, Ireland, grew up in Ontario, and then came to the United States, where she worked as a dressmaker and a schoolteacher. In 1867, her husband George Jones and their four children all died in a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, so she moved back to Chicago where, four years later, she lost everything in the Great Chicago Fire.
Following these twin shocks, Jones spent the second half of her life involved in the labor movement. From the 1890s though the 1920s she worked tirelessly as a political “hell-raiser,” advancing social and political causes such as the abolition of child labor, and organizing the United Mine Workers. In 1905 she helped found the International Workers of the World (IWW).
Coal miners and their families called her “the miner’s angel” and, after she began referring to the miners as “her boys,” she took on the nickname “Mother” Jones. A charismatic speaker, she was adept at staging public events to get publicity for striking workers, and her physical courage was legendary. Opponents called her “the most dangerous woman in America,” but when she was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate as “the grandmother of all agitators,” she said she hoped to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators.
Mother Jones, honored today by the political magazine that bears her name, lived in a time when women were not allowed to vote. “You don’t need a vote to raise hell,” she said about that. “You need convictions and a voice.” She perhaps is best known for her saying, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”