She was a white-haired widow and dressmaker living in Chicago during the late 19th century. At barely five feet tall, her bespeckled face framed with lace, Jones was exactly what you'd expect an aging widow to look like.
Yet she was also known as "the most dangerous woman in America."
Her name was Mary Harris Jones, an Irish-born schoolteacher and seamstress. When Jones was a small child, she and her family immigrated to the United States to escape the Irish Famine. Later in life, yellow fever claimed the lives of Jones' husband and four children, leaving her an aging, poor, widowed Irish immigrant. Penniless and alone, she took up dressmaking. For nearly a quarter of a century, she worked in diligent silence, servicing Chicago's wealthiest ladies as she watched the city's poor beg for scraps outside the window of her humble shop. "I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking alongside the frozen lake front," she once said. "My employers seemed neither to notice nor to care."
Tragedy struck Jones' life again when the great fire of 1871 burnt down her shop, once again leaving Jones penniless. This time, Jones decided that she wanted to do something for the working-class people she'd seen walking by her shop window. She invented a new persona for herself—"Mother Jones—and started traveling the country going wherever striking workers most needed her, be they striking garment workers in Chicago, steelworkers in Pittsburgh, or bottle washers in Milwaukee breweries.
Jones was renowned for her fiery rhetoric, but what made her truly unique was her conviction that working class people of all ages, genders, and races can, through unwavering solidarity and direct action, achieve justice for themselves. Change, she argued, wouldn't come about by voting for this or that politician, but rather through organizing workers (and their families) and striking. Jones also understood the importance of involving African-American workers, women, and children in the movement: they had a voice that needed to be listened to. Wives couldn't strike, but they could arm themselves with mops and brooms to guard against scabs. Children, who often worked long hours with low pay, were often left out of the labor struggle, so Jones helped lead them march on the President's summer home. For all this, Jones was repeatedly accused of slander, libel, and sedition by politicians and capitalists alike. She was imprisoned more often than any other labor activist of her time.
Mother Jones died in July of 1930 at the age of 93, and—since she was poor—was buried in an unmarked grave in the Union Miner's Cemetery in Mt Olive, Illinois. After six years, the miners of Mt Olive saved up enough money to purchase eighty tons of granite and build a proper memorial to honor Mother Jones' tireless commitment to helping working class people. To this day, on October 11th, the miners—and labor activists around the world—gather at Jones' grave to celebrate Mother Jones Day.