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The Women I Love (on Women's Day): Agitators Who Stand Up to Big Coal

"In the US Senate, Mother Jones was once called the 'grandmother of all agitators.' She replied that it was her desire to one day be the 'great-grandmothers of all agitators.'" --Mother Jones

On International Women's Day, let us now praise the muckrakers, the agitators, the coal mining women, the organizers, the fearless ones willing to stand up to Big Coal.

Or, as writer and coal miner organizer Agnes Burns Wieck once responded to the bogus "Ladies Auxiliary" friends of Big Coal: "We are not ladies, we are women."

I love two women agitators, in particular: Mary "Mother" Jones, and Agnes Burns Wieck.

Mother Jones was a diminutive frosty-haired old woman with a flat cap, round glasses, a long black dress that forever dragged in the dust of marches, and a broken Irish grin that placed her resiliency over ruthlessness and defied men--always men--to resist.

Her motto was simple: Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.

Mary "Mother" Jones had prayed for a lot of the dead. At the age of thirty-seven, she lost her four young children and husband to a yellow fever epidemic. Four years later, she lost her entire life belongings to the Great Fire in Chicago in 1871. She took her despair and grief and placed it in the labor movement, living as a seamstress for Chicago's wealthiest families during the day, and a member of the Knights of Labor during the nights.

She once reflected on what she saw between the chasm of the rich and poor, and how it changed her life: "Often while sewing for the lords and barons who lived in magnificent houses on the Lake Shore Drive, I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking alongside the frozen lake front. . . The contrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of the people for whom I sewed was painful to me. My employers seemed neither to notice nor to care."

The barons on Lake Shore Drive included the growing coal dealers and coal operators, like Samuel Insull and Francis Peabody, among others. By 1890, at the age of sixty, Mother Jones turned to a peripatetic life as a labor organizer for coal miners, often on the payroll of the United Mine Workers or more radical unions. She became the "miner's angel," unafraid to confront the most violent hired guns. Over the next twenty-five years, she roamed from the coal-mining battles in Colorado, to the brutal clashes in the company-locked-down West Virginia coalfields. At the age of eighty-three, after leading a coal miners' march in West Virginia, she was convicted for conspiracy of murder and sentenced to twenty years in prison. The sentence was so outrageous that the West Virginia governor commuted the sentence.

Mother Jones died in the fall of 1930, at the reported age of one hundred. Some historians dispute her age, not that it matters. Her body was placed on a train that followed Abraham Lincoln's same journey back to Illinois, where huge crowds lined the tracks to pay their last respects to "the Mother."

At her request, the nation's coal miners buried Mother Jones at Mount Olive in the south-central Illinois coalfields--the burning ground of unionism--at the only Union Miners' Cemetery in the nation. It had been established after the Virden battle, when a Mount Olive church refused to inter the bodies of the seven strikers. A local coal miner raised the money to buy the plots, which soon spread across the fields; an arching gate declared it the terrain of union miners.

"When the last call comes for me to take my final rest," Mother Jones had written, "will the miners see that I get a resting place in the same clay that shelters the miners who gave up their lives on the hills of Virden, Illinois. . . They are responsible for Illinois being the best organized labor state in America. I hope it will be my consolation when I pass away to feel I sleep under the clay with those brave boys."

Those same southern Illinois hills and coalfields gave us another great agitator, another amazing woman who should be a household name like Mother Jones--Agnes Burns Wieck.

A coal miner's daughter from Spillertown in southern Illinois, Wieck was the leader of the Women's Auxiliary of the Progressive Miners of America that barnstormed the state on behalf of their coal miner sons, fathers, and husbands. On the anniversary of the Virden conflict, Wieck spoke at the annual event at the miners' cemetery in Mount Olive, and recalled the battle of Virden as the foundation for the Progressive movement. "The Virden martyrs will forever be in the hearts and minds of Illinois miners. Their bones may be dust, but their deeds will never be forgotten. Let the memory of their courage inspire us. Miners and miners' wives and children may find the courage to carry on, forever if need be, the fight for right and justice."

Months earlier, over 10,000 women had converged on the capitol steps in Springfield, Illinois, and pushed their way into a meeting with the governor. According to one sheriff, the "women are tougher than the men."

The rest of the nation took notice of what was taking place in the coalfields in that long summer of 1933. In an editorial from a Washington correspondent that ran in the Harrisburg Daily Register, Burton Kline wrote:

"Coal is the canned and preserved heat of the sun. Your life depends upon it--your life, your business and everybody else's business. It runs the country. It runs the world. And for 50 years, the mining of coal in the United States has been a chaos and a scandal. We have prided ourselves on scientific management in every other industry. This scientific management has made our nation a marvel among all the others. Other nations have sent delegations here to learn how we did it all. Only coal, the fundamental industry of all, has been backward--half a century behind the rest.

"All the greed that one kind of humanity could be guilty of, all the misery that another kind could suffer, have been the outcome of coal in the past fifty years."

Wieck and her brigades of women pressed on with their striking men.

An East St. Louis newspaper marveled at Wieck's role in galvanizing the spirit of the women to challenge their men and the dilemmas of past mining strikes:

"The women have taken an important role in the actual hostilities. They have picketed and they have marched in demonstrations. They have held meetings in the face of orders forbidding meetings. Where they might have starved singly, they have learned through organization to raise money for food, clothing, and strike expenses."

Hailed as the "great coal field hell-raiser," a modern-day Mother Jones from southern Illinois, Wieck lived to see the Progressive Miners recognized as the elected union at the Peabody and Dering mines in Saline County. Wrecked by internal dissension and the relentless power of Lewis, however, the Progressive Miners failed to ever expand beyond the region, and ultimately dissipated into a secondary role by the 1950s.

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