Herstory: Ireland's Epic Women is a six-part documentary series on RTÉ exploring the lives of six remarkable Irish women whose work changed the lives of others, and in many cases, the course of history. Below, read the remarkable story of Mother Jones...

Little is known of the early life of the woman whose iconic status as an activist and social justice campaigner endures 170 years after her birth. Mary Harris was baptised in Cork in 1837, and was brought to North America as a small child.

She was educated in Catholic schools and worked as a teacher in Toronto and in Michigan but preferred dressmaking to 'bossing little children'. She suffered great hardship in her personal life, which undoubtedly energised her activism. In 1867, tragedy struck when her husband and four children all died during a yellow fever epidemic.

This terrible loss led her to relocate to boomtown Chicago, where she worked as a seamstress and became active in the Knights of Labour. Chicago was then the fastest-growing city in the USA, and the gap between rich and poor was a gaping chasm. She was visited once more by misfortune, when her shop was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which was accidentally started by another Irishwoman.

Having risen from the ashes, Chicago was struck in the 1870s and 1880s by economic depression. In 1877, 100,000 workers participated in nationwide strikes in a two-week period after a cut in rail workers’ wages. Trade unions grew stronger. The infamous Haymarket incident of 1886 marked a turning-point, both for the American trade union movement, and for Jones herself. From then, she dedicated herself to the cause of labour and began to celebrate her birthday on May Day, as a symbolic rebirth. So emerged the firebrand itinerant trade unionist and activist now remembered as Mother Jones.

In 1901, New York Herald journalist Dorothy Adams accompanied her around the mines of Colorado, publishing carefully crafted reports that emphasised Jones’s virtuous poverty. Contemporary accounts of her life unquestioningly mixed myth and biography, contributing in no small measure to her enduring reputation. Her trademark was peaceful mass action. She directed the 1903 crusade against child labour, leading a 145-kilometre children’s march from Philadelphia to New York City. Child labour was a blight on industrial America – in 1900, at least 1-in-6 children was in paid employment, meaning they were not at school. Jones took a mill job to observe the conditions in which girls worked. She saw 6- and 7-year-old children working from 5.30am to 7pm; she saw them suffer horrific workplace accidents while operating the dangerous machinery. She reported all of this in the International Socialist Review in March 1901.

Jones’s campaign did not end child labour, but was an important early moment in a long process of change. She positioned herself dangerously in relation to the political establishment by campaigning for the release of Mexican revolutionaries from American jails, and by testifying, in 1915, at the congressional hearings against the abuse of corporate power by Rockefeller interests.

She was arrested on several occasions. The first time was in 1902, during the West Virginia miners’ strike, and the last was in 1919, at the age of 82, for defending freedom of speech and the right to union representation during a Pennsylvania steelworkers’ strike. Jones remains controversial. Feminists have debated her commitment to women’s suffrage, mainly because of her off-the-cuff statement, ‘You don’t need the vote to raise hell.’

Jones was a firebrand public speaker who courted publicity by impulsively making outrageous statements. In practical terms, she encouraged the wives of striking workers to become involved in unions, and helped Chicago dressmakers reduce their working week to 50 hours. Writing in support of the women bottle-washers of Milwaukee in 1910, she stated that they had been ‘Deserted by the press […] Had they a vote, however, their case would likely have attracted more attention from all sides.’

by Dr Angela Byrne for the Irish Embassy exhibition Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women, a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Herstory: Ireland's Epic Women, RTÉ One, Mondays at 8.30pm from February 3rd - post-broadcast, all episodes will be available for catch-up on RTÉ Player and RTÉ Culture. 

Read more Herstory biographies here.