Rebellious Daughters: Mother Jones & Bhikaiji Rustom Cama

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In the second of our monthly series we celebrate the lives of union organiser Mother Jones and India independence leader Bhikaiji Rustom Cama

Mary "Mother" Jones (1837-1933) was born Mary Harris in 1837 in County Cork, Ireland. Her father Robert fled to Canada after taking part in a revolt against the landowners.

Mary became a schoolteacher but was barred from most schools because she was a Catholic. She later moved to Chicago and worked as a dressmaker.

She met George Jones, an iron worker and union organiser, in 1861 and they married and had four children. Sadly George and the four children died in a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in Autumn 1867.

Mary moved back to Chicago and to dressmaking, but in 1871 she lost her home, shop, and belongings in the Great Chicago Fire. She then became a fulltime organiser for the Knights of Labor, but in the 1880s Mary left the Knights to become a strike organiser.

In 1901, Mary was involved in a strike in Pennsylvania’s silk mills. Many strikers were teenage women demanding adult wages. Mary encouraged the families of the workers to beat on tin pans, and shout ‘join the union!’

In 1902, Mary was on trial for ignoring an injunction banning meetings by striking miners. “There sits the most dangerous woman in America”, announced the district attorney. “She comes into a state where peace and
prosperity reign... crooks her finger [and] twenty thousand contented men lay down their tools and walk out.”

In 1903, Jones organised children from the mills and mines to join a ‘Children’s Crusade — a march from Kensington, Philadelphia to the hometown of the president Theodore Roosevelt with banners demanding “We want to go to school and not the mines!”

Mary, who was now in her 50s, became known as Mother Jones when, in 1905, she was among the founders of
the Industrial Workers of the World (the ‘Wobblies’). She was also a founder of the Social Democratic Party in 1898.

During the 1912 Paint Creek–Cabin Creek strike of 1912 in West Virginia, Mary organised workers despite a shooting war between members of the United Mine Workers and the mine owners’ private army.

Martial law was declared and Jones was arrested on 13 February 1913 and brought before a military court.

Accused of conspiring to commit murder, she refused to recognise the court’s legitimacy.

She was sentenced to 20 years in the state penitentiary but was moved to house arrest and released due to ill health. She helped organise coal miners during the 1913-1914 United Mine Workers of America strike against the Rockefeller owned Colorado Fuel & Iron company, in what became known as the Colorado Coalfield War.

Again she was arrested, serving time in prison. Jones was a union organiser for the United Mineworkers Union into the 1920s and continued to give fiery speeches.

One of her last public appearances was at her birthday celebration on 1 May, 1930. She died a few months later and was buried at the Miners Cemetery at Mount Olive, Illinois; the only cemetery owned by a union.

Bhikaiji Rustom Cama (1861-1936) was born Bhikaiji Cama in Bombay (now Mumbai) into an affluent and influential Parsi family. In 1885, she married Rustom Cama, a wealthy, proBritish lawyer. In October 1896,
Mumbai was hit by bubonic plague. Cama volunteered to provide care for the afflicted. She contracted the plague but survived and was sent to Britain for medical care in 1902.

In London, Cama met a circle of radical opponents of British rule in India. She helped to set up the Indian Home Rule Society in 1905. She could not return to India unless she signed a statement promising not to participate in nationalist activities. She refused. Cama moved to Paris where she co-founded the Paris Indian Society. She wrote, published and distributed revolutionary literature and sheltered many world revolutionaries, including Vladimir Lenin.

On 22 August 1907, Cama attended the second Socialist Congress at Stuttgart. Other delegates included Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin. Cama gave a fiery speech, denouncing the effects of the British Raj and demanding equal rights and independence from Britain. She stunned the audience by unfurling an Indian flag: “Behold, the flag of independent India is born! It has been made sacred by the blood of young Indians who sacrificed their lives in its honour.”

Cama’s flag, which she co-designed, would become one of the templates for the current national flag of India. In 1909, Cama was involved in aiding the escape of a nationalist being deported to India to stand trial. When the
French government refused the British request for Cama’s extradition, the British seized Cama’s inheritance.

Cama actively supported the suffrage movement and was vehement in her support for gender equality. Speaking in Cairo in 1910, she declared, “I see here the representatives of only half the population of Egypt. May I ask where is the other half?”

In 1914, France and Britain became allies, so Cama and other activists agitated among Indian troops. In 1915 she was sent to Vichy, where she was interned. In bad health, she was released in 1917 and after the war, Cama returned to her home in Paris.

Cama remained exiled in Europe until 1935, when, gravely ill, she petitioned the British to be allowed to return
home. She finally agreed to renounce seditionist activities. She died in Mumbai aged 74 on 13 August 1936.