Webisode 10. Segment 2
Telling It Like It Is
Most Americans in the Gilded Age were better off than people anywhere ever before. They were buying sewing machines, kitchen appliances, and factory-made furniture and clothing. Some working people were enjoying a luxury that only the rich had enjoyed: leisure time. They were going to ball games, and riding bicycles, and a few were even playing tennis. But others were left out. They worked long hours for little money and had no time for play. Some were children and they worked twelve or fourteen hours a day. A tiny, feisty, white-haired woman named Mary Harris Jones decided she was going to do something about it.
Mrs. Jones had four boys, and they got malaria. In those days before modern medicine there wasn't much anyone could do. All four boys died. Then her husband died. So Mary Jones moved to Chicago and opened a sewing business. But in 1871 Chicago had a great fire, and Mrs. Jones's sewing shop burned along with most of the city. Mary Jones had nothing left. She decided she would start over again and do something important with her life. She would help children who needed help. She introduced little James Ashworth and Gussie Rangnew to a group of prosperous New Yorkers. James's back was bent from carrying heavy loads. "Here's a textbook case in economics," Mary said. "He gets three dollars a week working in a carpet factory ten hours a day. And this is Gussie Rangnew, a little girl from whom all the childhood is gone." Gussie, whose tired face was like an old woman's, packed stockings all day long, day after day, summer, winter, spring, and fall. The prosperous New Yorkers were moved to tears.
Mary Harris was called Mother Jones because of her white hair. But the little lady swore like a trooper and had the energy of a battalion. She said, "I'm not a humanitarian. I'm a hell-raiser!" The police soon called her a public nuisance. They arrested her. When the judge asked who gave her a permit to speak on the streets, she said, "Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams!" Mother Jones was sent to jail again and again. Each time she got out, she went right back to speaking out for workers. She worked in an Alabama cotton mill, and vividly described the plight of the children employed there: "Little girls and boys, barefooted, walked up and down between the endless rows of spindles, reaching thin little hands into the machinery to repair threads. They crawled under machinery to oil it. They replaced spindles all day long; all night through, six-year-olds with faces of sixty did an eight-hour shift for ten cents a day."
Some said this was no different than slavery. Something needed to be done. Laws were needed to make conditions safe for all workers. It was the people who shouted outpeople like Mother Joneswho made those laws happen. "The militant, not the meek, shall inherit the earth," said Mother Jones.
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