Saturday, January 30, 2016

Before Bernie: There was Mother Jones

Reading about Mother Jones, Mary Harris Jones, I am reminded of that Paul Simon line to the effect of when I think of what I was taught in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all.  History was my favorite subject until college, but the "history" we read had not a word about Mother Jones or Jane Addams or the violent strikes in Colorado or the industrial police state in West Virginia coal mines in towns like Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, where coal mine owners kept workers literally under the gun, machine guns of hired private police, and where the workers owed their souls to the company store.

But now, owing to the wonders of the internet, I can read about Mother Jones and fall in love across time and space with a woman impressionable young men should be reading about, by whom they should judge the young ladies in their own lives.

If great conflict brings out great actions and great character then Mother Jones was destined for greatness from the start, in County Cork, Ireland, where the potato famine drove her family from Ireland to Toronto. 

In Toronto, she was sent to free public schools and, in fact was paid a small sum to stay in school, in an enlightened program Bernie Sanders would have to love. She became a teacher, but found her assigned school so depressing, she moved to the United States, where she married a union organizer in Memphis, had four children, only to see them all, husband and children, die from yellow fever. Moving to Chicago to establish a dress shop, she saw that literally go up in flames in the great Chicago fire. 

It was the natural world of disease and fire which devoured her early life, but it was the world created by men which inspired her to greatness. Leading a Children's Crusade against the abuses of American industrial might, pointing out that children were working rather than going to school, she tried to get photographs of children who worked the mills and mines, many of whom were missing fingers or limbs, published in newspapers who refused, for fear of offending their corporate advertisers.

She marched to Teddy Roosevelt's home in Oyster Bay, New York, where the Progressive President refused to see her, but she embarrassed enough Congressmen to motivate stronger child labor laws.

Oddly, while the people's champion, the man elected by "the people" refused to see her, John D. Rockefeller did not refuse and having spoken with her, he decided to investigate her charges about the conditions of his workers.

She had strong convictions about the importance of family:  She insisted men ought to be paid enough so their wives could stay home to raise the children. Women at work meant children unsupervised and that was the source of juvenile delinquency she said.  Today's feminists will not be wearing Mother Jones T shirts, but she also saw the potential of woman power, organizing mine worker's wives to intervene against strike breakers arriving on trains in West Virginia towns. 

The villainy of those coal towns and their corporate masters in southern West Virginia is mind boggling.  At least the Southern slave owner fed and clothed his slaves, but the West Virginian coal mine owners required their workers to live in company shacks, to pay exorbitant rent, to shop for their food, clothes and tools at the company store, at prices which put them into debt to the company and so the coal mine owners deftly managed to enslave the workers, who lived under spotlights from towers above their homes, manned by private police forces, armed with machine guns and rifles.

Into all that, walked Mother Jones, determined to organize the workers. She cultivated the role of "mother," wearing old fashioned clothes, calling the miners her "boys." You can well imagine why.  A woman alone, speaking with men. So she de-sexualized herself and played the role of "mother" and cleverly avoided that line of attack. 

She was jailed, sentenced to twenty years only to be freed and to strike again. 

She reportedly spoke in an enchanting Irish brogue, her voice getting deeper and more moving as she became more emotional through her addresses and she had a magnetism the most ardent Bernie adulators would appreciate, as she insisted the preachers at the churches the coal miners attended had it wrong. The reward was coming in Heaven, the preachers said, but Mother Jones told them their reward should be a bit of Heaven in the here and now on Earth. 

She opposed female suffrage. "You don't need the vote to raise Hell!" she said.  She opposed anything which might draw women away from the home, where she believed the primary role of women belonged.

Can you imagine her running for office today? She's pro labor, fundamentalist family, endorses the woman at home, but urges women to protest and organize, is for free public education. We don't know  where she stood on abortion. But you know who she would stand with on immigration. 

I never learned about Mary Harris Jones in my public school education. I can well imagine why.  Her story is too incendiary. Can you imagine children going home to their Southern Baptist parents in Montgomery County, Maryland telling them about what they learned about the evil capitalist coal miners and the fight against them led by an agnostic woman? Not going to get past the County School Board curriculum committee.

But thanks to Bill Gates and the United States Government we have the Internet and that has made all the difference. 

Mary Harris Jones for the $20 bill!

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