Mother Jones The Most Dangerous Woman in America

Elliott J. Gorn

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

424 Pages



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Her rallying cry was famous: "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living." Mother Jones (1837-1930) was a celebrated organizer and agitator, the very soul of protest movements in the early twentieth century. At coal strikes, steel strikes, railroad, textile, and brewery strikes, Mother Jones was always there, stirring the workers to action and enraging the powerful.

When Mother Jones began her career as a "hell-raiser," as she put it, she was as obscure as an American could be—poor, female, elderly, Irish, and widowed. She had survived the Irish potato famine, the death of her husband and children of yellow fever, and the great Chicago fire, and was facing the hard life of a seamstress growing old alone. Then she recreated herself as Mother Jones, and became one of the most famous women in America. Men and women, young and old, rallied around Mother Jones, fighting with her for the rights of workers in an age when families lived on a dollar a day and bosses told them to be thankful for it. With flaming speeches and sensational street theater, Mother Jones exposed disturbing truths about child labor, the poverty of working families, and the destruction of American freedoms—and legends of her bravery before gun-toting thugs and frequent imprisonments grew almost overnight.

Here, Elliott Gorn provides the first comprehensive biography of this remarkable American, the woman whom the poet Carl Sandburg called "a wonder." Gorn's energetic prose and dramatic storytelling make clear why, in the words of Eugene V. Debs, Mother Jones "has won her way into the hearts of the nation's toilers, and . . . will be lovingly remembered by their children and their children's children forever."


Praise for Mother Jones

"Elliott Gorn's outstanding and dramatic new biography of Mother Jones reacquaints us with this extraordinary figure [and] serves as an excellent introduction to the early history of the modern American labor movement."—Benjamin L. Alpers, Chicago Tribune

"[A] lively, well-honed biography . . . Gorn eloquently describes how [Mother Jones] worked within the code of conventional womanhood even as she opened new vistas in social reform . . . Admirable."—David S. Reynolds, The New York Times Book Review

"This is an imaginatively conceived and beautifully rendered biography of a woman of mythical proportions. It elegantly melds the legendary persona of Mary Harris Jones with an anguished history of labor struggle. Its poignancy and power lie in Gorn's evocative portrait of a woman who never abandoned her traditional understanding of women as mothers and wives even as she led fathers and husbands into battle against the exploitative power of employers. Bravo!"—Alice Kessler-Harris, Columbia University

"It is no easy task to write the biography of a towering figure whose accounts of her own life were as stirring as those of Mother Jones. Elliott Gorn has surmounted that challenge, producing a full, vivid, and meticulous account of Jones's long life. Surely setting her dramatic activism and incredible endurance in the context of broad changes in industry, politics, and the makeup of the labor force, Gorn shows how Mother Jones could keep hope for a radical transformation of society alive even as she led struggles for immediate and more modest improvements in workers' lives."—David Roediger, University of Illinois

"In Mother Jones, Elliott Gorn has taken a figure who became simultaneously enshrined in American folklore and forgotten by American historians and clothed her in flesh and bones in an imaginatively researched and beautifully written biography that deserves a wide audience."—Lawrence W. Levine, George Mason University

"'Mother' Mary Harris Jones was never an enigma, but was a person so buried beneath her own purposeful exaggerations, the distortions of her enemies, the domestication of her moderate admirers and the hagiography of later-day activists, that the woman beneath 0disappeared. Finally, Elliott J. Gorn has gone about as far as anyone can hope to go in stripping away these layers of myth and showing us the person beneath. Much remains uncertain, but Gorn carefully presents all available evidence to the reader rather than judging for them . . . Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America will long be the standard and definitive biography of Mary Harris Jones and will happily find its way into many classrooms as an excellent introduction to labor history."—Timothy Messer-Kruse, Ohio History

"Well-written . . . A fine book . . . In his careful reconstruction of her Irish heritage, Gorn speculates that Catholicism was secularized and embedded in Mother Jones's persona as a madonna of the working class."—Sharon Hartman Strom, University of Rhode Island, The Journal of American History

"Elliott J. Gorn's new biography lays the table with a feast of facts and wonderful, searching questions . . . His meticulous scholarship highlights her transformation from Mary Harris to Mary Jones to Mother Jones . . . In instances where documentary evidence of her life is scant or missing, he provides well-researched economic, social, and historical contexts to allow us to imagine the world in which Mother Jones lived . . . Though Gorn deflates the Mother Jones myth by sharing historical accounts of her egotism, jealousies, and sometimes mean-spirited treatment of her co-workers, the story of her commitment and dedication remains intact."—Florence Estes, Journal of Appalachian Studies

"As Gorn's book demonstrates with care and art, Mary Jones's life story is a remarkable one . . . [Her] career teaches how economic rights and other civil liberties claims can be intricately tied."—Gene R. Nichol, Dean and Burton Craige Professor of Law, University of North Carolina, Michigan Law Review

"A feisty book that rescues this dimly remembered labor hero from obscurity . . . Gorn does a masterful job of digging up the elusive information. This book will stand for years to come as the definitive biography of this authentic American radical."—Randolph Delehanty, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

"A stimulating biography of the pugnacious labor organizer that sheds light on radical movements while questioning the myth-making machine that surrounds great figures . . . Amid the current concerns over global labor exploitation, this is a timely, unromanticized reminder that human suffering has accompanied industrial change in the past, and that people fought to ameliorate it."—Kirkus Reviews

"A compelling sketch of a figure and a period in American history that deserve to be remembered."—Monika Bauerlein, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

"Imaginatively written and meticulously researched."—Elizabeth Sherman, The Boston Sunday Globe

"A compelling, well-researched, and evenhanded account of this larger-than-life American hell-raiser. The book is first-rate history."—Mark Murray, City Books

"Exploring issues from the complicated role of women in union organizing to the relationship of the Catholic Church to the working class and labor movements, [Gorn] has produced a new and needed addition to contemporary labor and feminist literature."—Publishers Weekly

"This is a welcome adjunct to the study of the labor movement, women's history, and/or Progressivism."—Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, Virginia, School Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Elliott J. Gorn, a professor of history at Purdue University, is the co-author of A Brief History of American Sports and author of The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America.
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  • Elliott J. Gorn

  • Elliott J. Gorn, a professor of history at Purdue University, is the co-author of A Brief History of American Sports and author of The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America.
  • Elliott J. Gorn