(WOMENSENEWS)–For 40 years, hers was a conventional working-class woman’s life.

Irish-born Mary Harris immigrated to Canada, became a teacher, moved to America, married an ironworker and union man named Jones and had four children. In 1867, a yellow fever epidemic took her family, leaving her widowed and childless. She moved on to Chicago and set up shop as a dressmaker until, four years later, a catastrophic fire destroyed everything she had. Then she became a legend.

Part of the legend was to declare May 1 her birthday. That date marked an 1886 national strike for an eight-hour workday. In turn-of-the-century America, rife with debate about women’s proper “sphere,” she became “Mother” Jones, a little gray-haired lady sallying forth to protect her “children”–the workers exploited by increasingly powerful industrial interests.

In 1903, she raised an army of children maimed and worn down by 60-hour weeks in textile mills to march on President Theodore Roosevelt. The first child-protection laws were passed. As a union organizer in coalfields from Colorado to West Virginia, she earned her reputation as “the most dangerous woman in America.” Her forte was preventing “scab” labor from entering the mines–by setting a ferociously noisy pots-and-pans brigade of wives and daughters at the strike site.

When she died in 1930, claiming to be 100 years old, Mother Jones left behind not only victories for working people and an inspirational role model for women’s activism, but some pithy observations:

“No matter what the fight, don’t be ladylike! God almighty made women and the Rockefeller gang of thieves made the ladies.”

Louise Bernikow is the author of nine books, including “The American Women’s Almanac.” She takes her women’s history slide show to communities and campuses all over the country.

For more information:

“About Mary Harris Jones”: