Book Review: Readings

Elliott J. Gorn

Mother Jones

The Most Dangerous Woman in America

by Elliott J. Gorn

Hill & Wang, 352 pp., $27

With the current establishment turning its compassionately conservative cheek to the working class, there's a hole in this country's political fabric and it's shaped like Mother Jones. An Irish immigrant, Jones lost her iron-worker husband and four children in a Yellow Fever epidemic that swept through Memphis in 1867. After struggling through widowhood as a dressmaker (some later accused her of having been a prostitute as well), and witnessing injustice after injustice committed against freed slaves and the working class, she discovered her gift for oratory and adopted the Union as her new family and religion. The Union, she said, is the place "where you learn to know and love each other and learn to work with each other and bear each other's burdens, each other's sorrows, and each other's joys."

Jones traveled all over the country organizing key strikes in various states, painting an image of the Union as a family, herself as its mother. Mary Jones, née Harris, had led a relatively quiet life of dressmaking and marriage, but Mother Jones "declared herself a radical and said anyone who was not one had no business in America," Gorn writes. While she professed a hatred of violence, she was a big fan of drama, and her fans enveloped her in a halo of purple prose. The patron saint of class-consciousness, Jones hated rich people. Speaking about corporation owners, Jones told miners, "Our Kaisers have stomachs of steel and hearts of steel and tears of steel." Fearless and gifted at propaganda, she scared people. At one march in New York, she led approximately 60 marchers; closely watching them were 600 policemen. In 1902, a U.S. District Attorney allegedly called her "the most dangerous woman in America." She was thrown in jail several times, which only helped her cause.

While Gorn does not provide much speculation on Mother Jones' inner life (about which she reveals almost nothing in her autobiography), he manages to bring to life the vibrant political culture of the turn of the century. It was a wild time, he maintains. Radicals were everywhere. The Socialist party was huge. The New York Times came out against Jones' crusade to end child labor. But even as he praises Mother Jones' terrific courage, Gorn does not let Jones off the hook for her several mistakes: She called herself a Bolshevist before she knew what it meant (landing her in trouble later when everyone knew what it meant). She lied all the time, crafting eloquent fictions about her life and conversations with important people for rhetorical purposes.

For all her struggles, and despite a brief resurgence in the Sixties as a radical heroine, today Jones is almost forgotten, except through the magazine named for her. Nevertheless, during her reign as organizer, hundreds of thousands of American workers fought for and received better wages and working conditions. And regardless of all these strides, Jones saw activism as a goal unto itself. It's good, her legacy tells us, to get mad.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Ada Calhoun
Readings
The Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, 1853-1929

March 2, 2001

Readings
Gynomite: Fearless, Feminist Porn

Feb. 9, 2001

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, Elliott J. Gorn

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle