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Mary Antin and Mary Jones
A Journey of Extraordinary Women

Senior Essay - 20th Century Social History

Mary Antin and Mary “Mother” Jones were both exceptional women who came from far away, and journeyed into an unknown land to start a new life in America, the land of the free. They shared with other immigrant families the search for a dream of freedom, opportunity, and prosperity. But the lives of these two women, seasoned by their own individual ideals, distinctive beliefs, and family values, led them on a journey that would be remembered in history. Each woman chose a different path which would influence her distinguishing perspective in the new land.

Mary Antin was born in Polotzk; a little area in Russia separated from the rest of the country, and meant to keep the Jews within. For Mary, there was no education, no freedom. In Polotzk there was no free school for Jewish girls – only Jewish boys. All families in the areas designated to the Jews called “the Pale” endured the torture of severe discrimination from the “gentiles.” Many Jewish families dreamed of Israel; Mary’s father dreamed of America. “The boasted freedom of the New World meant to him far more than the right to reside, travel, and work wherever he pleased; it meant the freedom to speak his thoughts, to throw off the shackles of superstition, to test his own fate, unhindered by political or religious tyranny.” (Ed. Morton and Duncan, p.75) His dream, as well as Mary’s, was for education and intellectual challenge. America provided free education and far less religious persecution. Mary delighted in the opportunities, saw her new world with optimism, joy, and pride.

Mary was an exceptional student, absorbing, like a sponge, all the learning she could imagine. She had the tendency to make jokes and play tricks, yet learned all she could and advanced very quickly. Mary was proud to be a citizen of America and felt honor and shame simultaneously to be in a category with the likes of George Washington. She expressed her creative intelligence and pride with a poem about the great man. “Antin composed a poem about George Washington so precocious and patriotic that it was published in a Boston newspaper, making her celebrated in her school and family and beginning her career as a professional writer.”(Morton and Duncan, p.79)

Despite health problems and financial disappointments for her family, Mary continued her education at an elite private school by scholarship. She noticed all the kindness and help she received, and did not seem to notice even the smallest of slights. “Everything helped, you see. My schoolmates helped. Aristocrats though they were, they did not hold themselves aloof from me.” (Morton and Duncan, p.81) She left the elite private school with good thoughts and optimism. “So my companions and I parted on the steps of the school-house, in mutual respect; they guiltless of snobbishness, I innocent of envy. It was a graciously American relation, and I am happy to this day to recall it.” (Morton and Duncan, p.81)

Her patriotism and self confidence carried her on to bigger and better things. Her best known work, The Promised Land, was so popular because of “unflagging praise of American life.”(Morton and Duncan, p.67) Her zealous optimism, family values, focus on intellectual pursuits, and positive experiences influenced this remarkable woman’s love and appreciation for America, and gave her the confidence to face challenges, see the good in people, and live her life proud to be an American.

Mary “Mother” Jones was from Ireland, a country that had been fighting for freedom for generations. This fighting spirit traveled to America with Mother Jones and her family. Her father worked for the railroad in Toronto when the family joined his adventure in the new land. She chose vocational training for both teaching and dressmaking as she completed Normal school and went on to teach in Michigan. Later, Mother Jones moved to Chicago and opened a dressmaking business. She claims to like sewing more than teaching in her autobiography, “I preferred sewing to bossing little children.”(Morton and Duncan, p.84) This statement illustrates Mother’s direct honesty and perhaps a dash of cynicism in her recollection of her arduous life.
Despite her preference, she found herself in Memphis, Tennessee, once again teaching. Maybe it was fate, for this was where she met her husband and had four children. Her husband’s job and beliefs introduced her to unions and to the plight of the working man and his family. “My husband was an iron moulder and a staunch member of the Iron Moulders’ Union.” (Morton and Duncan, p.84) When the 1867 Yellow Fever epidemic hit Memphis, it claimed the lives of Mother’s husband and four children, as well as the lives of many of the poor and working class people in the community. Although she mourned and endured alone in the midst of death and suffering, she found the strength to nurse the sick. Such great loss in one lifetime did not sustain helpless sadness; rather it reinforced Mother’s inspiration to carry on with vigor helping others along the way.

According to her autobiography, she returned to Chicago and to the dressmaking business. Her attitude toward the classes shined through her words “We worked for the aristocrats of Chicago, and I had ample opportunity to observe the luxury and extravagance of their lives. 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 along the frozen lake front. The contrast of their condition …was painful to me.”(Morton and Duncan, p.84) In 1871, only four years after the loss of her family to plague, the dressmaking shop went up in flames, along with many buildings in the area, leaving thousands homeless. Mother Jones faced yet another tragedy and is pushed further along on her path. It is in this time frame that she becomes acquainted with the Knights of Labor and dives into the cause that she will fight for the rest of her life. “From the time of the Chicago fire I became more and more engrossed in the labor struggle and I decided to take an active part in the efforts of the working people to better the conditions under which they worked and lived.” (Morton and Duncan, p.86)

Mother Jones fought for the labor movement as if she were fighting for her life. In many cases she was risking her life; she suffered through riots, discrimination, arrests, death and despair to further the cause. She used all she could at her disposal: her pure innocent grandma looks, child laborers who suffered unspeakable handicaps from the shops in which they worked, and a pure grit determination. She traveled the country, following the labor movement wherever they needed her special touch. She helped the families who suffered, inspired the workers to strike, and organized the wives of the union men to use their own strategies for the cause. Her fighting spirit would not give up, much like the spirit of her homeland, Ireland, fighting for their freedom.

During the time that Mary Antin and Mother Jones traveled and came of age in the new land, many immigrants from many countries came to America with pie in the sky ideas. All over the world rumors floated that in America the roads were paved with gold and opportunity came knocking on your door. When they arrived in America by the thousands, they found the truth. Life was tough. Some found prosperity, but many went home. Some found freedom from religious persecution, but many felt imprisoned in a life of poverty. Some found friends and community, but many were killed by disease and starvation. Some accepted the fate of the poor, some fought for human rights and ideals. Some felt a continued undying optimism and freedom, but many faced disillusionment. Most immigrants worked their whole lives with little to look forward to. Before 1920, 60% of the industrial workers were immigrants. Many young women, wives and children worked as well as young men and husbands in order to survive, many of whom were subjected to unspeakable conditions and accidents that damaged their physical body and stole their spirit.
Unlike the masses of downtrodden immigrants, two women came alive in a new land and worked to inspire others. Neither Mary Antin, nor Mother Jones was typical immigrants. They were both extraordinary women, full of courage and conviction. Although their perspectives, ideals and journey through life were much different, they also had much in common. They both faced life with confidence, using their lives to work toward their goals with remarkable determination.

Mary Antin’s family felt so much persecution and confinement in Russia, despite its weaknesses, America offered freedom and so much more to them. The family was dedicated to pursuits of the mind, and Mary led the life of an intellectual – excelling in school, and gaining recognition even as a young girl. She saw the good in people and her experiences, the eminence of America, the courage of its heroes, and felt patriotism and pride in her heart.

Mother Jones, on the other hand, viewed America like her warring homeland, as a battleground, fighting for equality and the rights of the working class. She suffered many losses, and survived by pure determination and resilience. Mother personally felt the inequities that existed in America and was motivated to help the underdog. She believed that people had to fight for their rights, fight to survive, fight to have fair wages, and carry the burden of an unfair world.

Morton, M.J. & Duncan, R. (Ed.). (1991). First Person Past: American Autobigraphies, Volume II. St. James, New York: Brandywine Press.