Friday, March 23, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Mother Jones Speaks Before Striking West Virginia Miners

(Editor's note: During Women's History Month, we're focusing on famous historic speeches by women. Here, writer Becky Ham tackles the inimitable Mother Jones. I love that the only reason we have a transcript of this speech is because the mine owners hired a stenographer, hoping to charge Jones with inciting dangerous behavior.) Taking charge of your own introduction is one way to get a speech off to a good start, so I'll let Mary Harris "Mother" Jones offer her own intro here. Once welcomed as a "great humanitarian" before a crowd gathered to hear her speak, Jones was quick to correct: "Get it straight. I'm not a humanitarian, I'm a hell-raiser!"

It was her speeches that made Mother Jones "the most dangerous woman in America"--dubbed so by a West Virginia attorney. For nearly 50 years, the labor activist traveled the country to be the voice of child mill workers, deported Mexican workers, steelworkers and most famously coal miners. After her husband and all four of her children died from yellow fever in 1867, she took up the cause of labor after she and many others lost everything in Chicago's Great Fire of 1871.

She took charge of more than her introductions. Historians believe she crafted her "Mother" persona right down her old fashioned, lace-trimmed black dresses and spectacles. She claimed to be much older than she really was, and she called her audiences "my boys," alternately hectoring them and sweet-talking them into fighting for better working conditions. The grandmotherly pose did much to free her from the era's expectations for women--particularly the expectation that they should not speak in public, and certainly not in the inflammatory tone that Jones used to rouse a crowd.

Her speeches can come across as rambling and bombastic today, but they worked well in an age without microphones or recordings, when the connection between speaker and audience was intimate. Contemporaries said the intensity of her voice almost could be felt physically. And Jones spoke with one goal in mind--to call her audience to immediate action. She used aggressive and coarse language to incite, rather than to reason. And she was not above name-calling and humor to draw a sharp line between her boys and the company men.

One of her most famous speeches took place in 1912 at a public meeting in Charleston, West Virginia, as Kanawha County coal companies clashed with unionized miners over a new contract. Her words survive because the mine operators had hired a stenographer to take down her public remarks, with the hopes that they could be used to portray her as a violent agitator.

What can you learn from this historic speech?
  • Find a way to connect. Jones repeatedly used the words "we" and "us" as she called attention to the shared experiences she had with the miners, going to jail on their behalf, riding the rails to visit their camps, sitting with their families in times of grief. It's a tactic that establishes her right to speak in front of them and on their behalf.
  • Let your listeners guide you. Jones didn't speak from a script, but instead let a natural call-and-response develop as she moved through the speech. Watch for the places where this flow gives her the chance to get in a few extra shots against the governor and others, and where it helps her emphasize that patience and protection of property will be important weapons in the strike.
  • Add to a speech with a story. How many characters can you spot in this speech? There's the doomed Johnston boys with their meager lunch bucket, the clueless Senator Dick and the mine owner's wife with the pampered dog, to name a few. Each of their stories adds detail and emotion to the call to action.
  • Make room for a prop. Props were one of Jones' favorite speaking tools. On another occasion, she reportedly tore up a mine guard's bloody coat and tossed the pieces into the crowd. This time, it's the hat she passes to collect beer money "for the miners who came up here broke." The hat serves both as a reminder of the mine owners' stinginess and as a symbol of the miners' solidarity.
Although probably not filmed during her 100th birthday (she likely lived to only 93), we'll let this video give Jones the last words as well.

Looking for famous speeches by women? Check out The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's Speeches, with a wide variety of women speakers, types of speeches and topics to inspire your next speech. Each one comes with lessons for speakers, plus video or audio and a transcript, where available.

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