MOTHERS by malj


                       KENNETH W. PHIFER
                           MAY 13, 2007
                   20189 NORTH DIXIE HIGHWAY
                 BOWLING GREEN, OHIO 43402-9253

Being a mother is full-time, complex, dangerous, creative, stunningly difficult and
enormously important work. It begins for the biological mother or the adoptive mother
with a long period of gestation and preparation leading to birth or adoption. Neither is

These processes are just the first and shortest step in being a mother. Mothers spend long
years nurturing and caring for their brood, one or ten or hundreds or thousands. The grey
hair and the weariness come from this longer-term stretch of labor.

Mothers are of many different kinds, three of which I shall briefly discuss this morning.
The order of the discussion is chronological, the one first born to the one born last.

Mother Jones was born Mary Harris in County Cork, Ireland in July, 1837. At the age of
14 or 15, she and her desperately poor mother and siblings joined her father in Toronto.
Raised a Roman Catholic, she was surrounded in her church by images and talk of Mary,
the Virgin Mother, a symbol of motherhood. The Mary of these immigrant Catholics was
meek, humble, and pious, but for all that a woman who would approach even God on
behalf of her children.

Mary Harris became a teacher, first in Canada and then in Monroe, Michigan. Then she
became a dressmaker in Chicago. From there she moved on to Memphis, Tennessee,
where again she worked as a teacher. She met and married George Jones. Jones was a
member of a fledgling union, the International Iron Molders Union, and Mary got first
hand acquaintance through him of the importance of unions. It would become one of the
major themes of her life.

In her autobiography, Mother Jones wrote that in 1867, “a yellow fever epidemic swept
Memphis…One by one, my four little children sickened and died. I washed their little
bodies and got them ready for burial. My husband caught the fever and died. I sat alone
through nights of grief. No one came to me. No one could. Other homes were as stricken
as mine.”

It would be 30 years before she would be called mother again, and then in a very different
context. She left Memphis with the burden of her grief, but also with an awareness of the
misery caused by greed and the knowledge of what could be done for that misery,
namely, organize, unite, work together as a collective. She was on her way to becoming a
champion of union men and their families.

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It is not known for sure how she became radicalized or how she came to see herself as an
active force in the movement to unionize labor. Her autobiography is untrustworthy on
this matter. We know that she was part of Coxey‟s Army in 1894, that celebrated march
to Washington, D.C. to urge the government to create jobs for the unemployed. She
marched ahead of them, raising money and provisions. She was 57, beginning a life on
the road she was to live for the next three decades. Dressed in black, matronly clothes,
she carried the banner of justice for the sons and daughters of labor, who were now her

She was first called Mother Jones by a newspaper in 1897 during a miner‟s strike in
which she became involved. It was a title she then claimed for herself for the rest of her
life. She worked for the Socialist Party, the United Mine Workers, and on her own trying
to make the economic situation of Americans more equitable. She believed that workers
could and must collaborate with each other, educate themselves, and lay claim to the
great democratic traditions of this country. She saw the rich as greedy and immoral
obstacles in the way of achieving that goal.

In 1897, she became part of the coal miners‟ strike in Pennsylvania. As would be typical
of her, she gave speeches, organized food from local farmers, and staged rallies to lift the
spirits of the miners. This strike was won and the pay cut that brought it about cancelled.
She took a simple lesson from this experience: only worker power confronting greedy
owners could bring about the changes needed.

Later she would be involved in coal mining strikes in West Virginia and Colorado, and in
labor agitation of all kinds for unionization and socialism. She was an utterly fearless
woman engaged in work that was highly dangerous. Owners sent in scabs. They also sent
in private thugs who often assaulted those on strike, blew up miners‟ houses, even
kidnapped children to depress the spirits of the strikers. Mother Jones just kept coming,
well into her 80‟s.

In a sense, it could be said that the union—mainly the United Mine Workers for which
she worked for a small salary off and on for many years, but also any union for which she
happened to be laboring—that the union replaced her lost family and that she felt her
motherhood of these “boys”, as she called the miners, most passionately.

They in turn thought of her as “the star of hope,” or, in Eugene Debs‟s phrase, as “a
modern Joan of Arc.” One observer wrote of her after a successful strike of coal miners
in Pennsylvania, “How does she do it? By the greatest of all powers, the power of love.
She loves her „boys‟—be they Polish or Bohemian or Irish or American—and she teaches
them to love her.”

She had a remarkable ability to influence women as well as men. She was very much
committed to the traditional American and European ideal of the woman who takes care
of her family, who cooks and cleans and nurses and stays out of the workaday world. She
saw workers‟ wives as needing to support their men in the strikes and protests and union
activities in which they engaged in order to provide for their families.

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Once she said that “in no sense of the word am I in sympathy with woman‟s suffrage. In
a long life of study of these questions I have learned that women are out of place in
political work. There already is a great responsibility upon women‟s shoulders—that of
rearing rising generations.”

She had been the mother of four children. The terrible loss of those children had burned
itself into her soul. She wanted every child to be well cared for, and she felt that only
mothers in the home could do that.

Yet she was a radical feminist who believed in socialist ideals of equality. She spent the
last half of her life doing “man‟s” work in her own way. She was very good at it. She had
a mesmerizing speaking voice and a commanding presence, no small part of the reason
she was described by one opponent as “the most dangerous woman in America.” More
than once she was able to demand and to receive a presidential audience. She had private
conversations with wealthy and influential men like the Rockefellers senior and junior.

In 1902, she led a children‟s crusade to get children out of the factories and into schools.
Because she felt that mothers belonged at home, she labored like a man to rid the
factories of women and children by getting the owners to pay sufficient wages to the man
so that the whole family did not have to work in these tedious and often perilous jobs.

Like a mother, she poured courage into her children. Here are some of her words in the
Colorado Coal Strike of the second decade of the 20th century: “You have allowed a few
men to boss you, to starve you, to abuse your women and children, to deny you
education, to make peons of you, lower and less free than the Negroes before the Civil
War. What is the matter with you? Are you afraid? Do you fear your pitiful little
bosses?...I can‟t believe it. I can‟t believe you are so cowardly…”

Her statements about the owners of the mines made clear she was not afraid. She
described John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as an “insulting rat,” and his father as “the greatest
murderer this nation had ever produced. “ She thundered at the owners of the steel mills
after the First World War that “the war…has made the steel lords richer than the
emperors of Rome.”

Her biographer, Elliott J. Gorn, wrote of her, “The way Mother Jones lived her life was
breathtaking. She tailored her appearance to match every sentimental notion about
mothers. Then she subverted the very idea of genteel womanhood on which such
stereotypes were based with her vituperative, profane, electric speeches. Women—
especially old women—were not supposed to have opinions about politics and
economics; they were not supposed to travel alone; they were too delicate for
controversy. Yet there she was, haranguing workers, berating politicians, attacking the
„pirates‟, and telling women to take to the streets, all under the cover of sacred

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She was certainly not a lady by conventional standards then or now, but she was one hell
of a woman and, in her own way, one hell of a mother!

So was Jane Addams.

Addams was born in a small Illinois town in 1860, her father a successful businessman
and state legislator known for his moral uprightness. Her mother died in her third year,
leaving young Jennie to cling closer to her father. She learned from him a deep sense of
anguish at life as it is.

She recalled his overwhelming grief at the death of his friend, Abraham Lincoln, when
she was not yet five. She learned early about what she called “the riddle of life and death
pressed hard: once to be young, to grow old and to die, everything came to that, and then
a mysterious journey out into the Unknown.”

Later she was to recall a family of her acquaintance who had lost four sons in the Civil
War and then the fifth died in a hunting accident a few months after returning alive from
that conflict. She wrote of that tragedy that “our young hearts swelled in first rebellion
against that which Walter Pater calls „the inexplicable shortcomings or misadventure on
the part of life itself‟; we were overwhelmed by that grief at things as they are, so much
more mysterious and intolerable than those griefs which we think dimly to trace to man‟s
own wrongdoing.”

If this compassionate young woman could not change the universe—“things as they
are”—she could work to change things traceable to human mistakes and wickedness.
That is precisely what she spent most of her life doing.

She attended Rockford Female Seminary, where she met Ellen Gates Starr, with whom
she would found and run Hull House. In the same year that she graduated, her father died,
and whatever illusions she might still have harbored about the fairness of life vanished.

She spent eight more years wandering and wondering, searching for her mission. This
included two extended trips to Europe and a mostly comfortable life. What she learned,
as her biographer, Jean Bethke Eshtain observes, is that “you cannot be universal
anywhere but in your own backyard…She arrived at an ethic that „can better be enacted
than formalized,‟ an ethic that stressed „not the attractiveness of extreme risk or the
darkest teachings of violence and domination‟ but instead „a celebration of the everyday,
prosaic world, with its undramatic practices and values…‟”

Beginning in 1889 when she was 29 years of age, the center of her life became Hull
House. She had decided that marriage was fine, but not for her.

She had further decided with her friend Ellen Starr that they would move to one of the
poorest areas of Chicago, buy a home and live in it, and make that home a center of
culture and education and reform. It was a beautiful place, with exquisite décor and
furnishings, designed to uplift the mind and the heart.

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Its location on Halstead Street placed it in an area with nine churches and 250 saloons,
populated almost exclusively by immigrants, by Addams‟ count from some 18 different
national groups. Hull House sponsored classes, lectures, dietetic instructions, athletics,
and clubs for men, women, girls, and boys. It had a kindergarten, a nursery, a playground,
a day-care center, a drama group, a choral group, a Shakespeare Club, and a Plato Club.

Hull House was a place of beauty midst immense poverty, not a beauty that mocked the
traditions of the people she served, but a beauty that respected their traditions and their
aesthetic sense. Hard as it was for her, for example, Addams came in time to see alcohol
as a means of expressing hospitality.

She also came to understand, especially under the influence of Florence Kelley when she
came to live at Hull House in 1891, the importance of listening to the immigrants for
ways of solving their problems. Addams came to have a high regard for bottom-up
solutions, grounding this belief in democracy of the most fundamental and direct kind.

Perhaps most central to her active life was an understanding of the female body as
mother. For her, the female was the symbol of generativity and of fecundity. To Addams,
by choice never a biological mother, this image of motherhood extended far beyond the
biological to include how one lives in society. Mothers, she felt, had a primary role to
play in nurturing neighborhoods and cities as well as in nurturing families. Eventually,
she broadened that maternal role to include nations.

Addams believed the primary role of woman was as a mother. That role began in the
home, but soon after the founding of Hull House, she recognized the need for social
action and called on women to reach out beyond the home in order to protect the home.

She practiced what she preached. In 1894, appalled at the poor garbage removal in her
neighborhood, she maneuvered herself into the position of Sanitary Inspector of the 19th
Ward. To perform this task, she and another Hull House resident walked behind the
garbage collectors to be sure they were doing their job. So poorly did they do it that
Addams purchased the contract for garbage removal herself.

Elshtain describes what happened: “…she and Amanda Johnson dutifully followed the
garbage wagons, and insisted that the number of wagons be increased to get the job done.
They were indefatigable. Landlords were taken to court for not providing proper garbage
receptacles. Addams and Johnson arranged for the removal of dead animals whose rotting
carcasses had befouled the streets and alleys.”

Addams took on racial issues, describing race as “the gravest situation” in American life.
She fought on many fronts for equality for all people at a time when most white
Americans thought it perfectly proper to discriminate against all people of color.

Addams understood the importance to old people of telling their stories. Not least among
those she had in mind were the elderly immigrants, often without English, whose spirits

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sank as they contemplated their lives cut off from their roots in the Old Country. She
made it possible for these people to tell their tales. She listened to them. She even
arranged for many of these tales to be published. She mothered those too old to make
their way fully in the strange society of America to which fate had brought them.

Addams was a pacifist, a believer that antagonism was unnecessary. She viewed the
Pullman Strike of 1894 in this light, and the Civil War as well. She saw humanity as a
kind of family in which eruptions could from time to time arise, but in which the bonds of
kinship were what mattered most.

John Dewey told of hearing from Ellen Starr about the early days of Hull House when the
whole enterprise was still viewed with suspicion by the people who lived around
Halstead Street. Starr recounted how one time while she was talking about Hull House, a
man came up and spit in Addams‟ face. She simply wiped off the spittle and went on
talking, not paying any attention to the insult.

It was that equanimity that earned her the respect of the people and enabled Hull House
to do its work.

When war came to the United States, or as she believed we went out and pursued war,
Addams stood by her long held views that war is wrong. She had published a book about
those convictions in 1907, NEWER IDEALS OF PEACE. The coming of war did not
change her ideas about the nature of patriotism. To Addams, the only honorable
patriotism is grounded in compassion for the citizens of the land, not in the violent
disturbance of armed conflict.

She was a founder of the Women‟s Peace Party in 1915, an organization that became the
Women‟s International League for Peace and Freedom. In the middle of the war, she and
more than 1300 women from 12 countries met at the Hague in Holland and called for
arbitration to begin immediately and for the violence to end. The women at the meeting
issued a call for many noble objectives later to be implemented or at least attempted: the
fruits of conquest should not be ratified, a permanent international court to mediate
disputes should be established, no territorial transfers without the consent of the people,
no secret treaties, free trade, freedom of the seas, universal disarmament, and the
extension of the suffrage to women.

Addams and those who shared her views were acting in the spirit of the first Mother‟s
Day Proclamation by Julia Ward Howe. That Proclamation said among other things that
“the sword of murder is not the balance of justice! Blood does not wipe out dishonor not
violence indicate possession.”

Jane Addams was a lady, but like Mother Jones, she was a very powerful and very good
woman. She was a tender, loving, smart, capable, tough mother to so many in society
who either had no mother or whose mother was simply not able to carry the burdens of

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Then there was Tutu, Evelyn Emily Josephs Phifer, my mother, born on June 11, 1908,
the day her future husband‟s parents were married. When her first grandchild, Michael,
was born some 17 years ago, mother was asked how she would like to be called. She had
already thought it out. “Tutu,” she said, “The Hawaiian word for grandmother.” Tutu it
was from that day forward.

Mother was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, the daughter of immigrants
from Baalbek, Lebanon. She had a very traditional southern upbringing of the early 20th
century, which meant that she was taught to defer to men, to train to be a housewife and
mother, and to practice a certain decorum and formality consistent with constantly being
on display. This served her well when she married a minister, for until the last couple of
decades it was universally true that clergy wives were scrutinized for the least social flaw
or untoward behaviour. Nothing of that kind ever crossed my mother‟s mind, I am sure.

She and dad were married 77 years ago this past Tuesday, May 8, and enjoyed—really
enjoyed!—71 years and nine months together. Mother‟s first loyalty was to dad, a bond
we children tried constantly to break and were never able to do. She understood that if
parents are held together by love, the children will prosper, even if in the moment they do
not understand that.

There were three of us children, all boys, born in 1932, 1938—my birth year—and 1947.
Although because of age discrepancies there were some differences in how we were
parented, mostly dad and mother were the same throughout all the nearly 40 years of
active parenting in which they were engaged.

Second only to her role as dad‟s wife and his constant helper in the social whirl that was a
large part of his Presbyterian ministry was her role as our mother. She made no pretense
about being fair and objective about her sons. We were unquestionably the three finest
boys who had ever lived. Brother Bill, writing about her after her death, said, “I always
told her that she was my unprejudiced mother; if I fell on my face, I would have fallen
better than anyone ever had.” She called my brother Bob “my precious boy.” High school
classmates recall to this day my mother‟s distinct southern-accented voice—she remained
a North Carolinian in speech to her dying day—ringing out at football games when I
would do anything—score a touchdown, fumble the ball, be taken out of the game or put
back in—“That‟s my boy! That‟s my boy!”

I did not always want to be her boy. I was often embarrassed by her effusive outpourings
about things I did. To me, they were just things I did. To her, they were signal
achievements in the history of the human race: pretending to be Batman with my robe
tied around my neck and a Green Hornet mask on the upper part of my face; winning a
fruitcake in a lottery at the Belle Meade theater; having lunch with Jane Goldberg when
she and I were seven, my mother‟s version of my first date.

Mother loved us fiercely and, as I came to appreciate in time, really was struck with
wonder at almost anything we did. Not a bad attitude to have about your children or
about life. That they and it are truly full of wonder.

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Mother was fastidious about her personal dress and the house she kept, an unfortunate
trait with three energetic boys to handle. I can still see the look of horror on her face
when I emerged from our coal bin, so covered in coal dust that I made Charles Schulz‟s
Pig-Pen look immaculate by comparison. I was told to stand stock still while she ran for a
hose to wash me off before I could dirty anything.

She was also not happy when my nine year old right foot drop-kicked the leg off her
living room coffee table.

But somehow, despite initial anger about such episodes, and disappointment over things
like my getting dismissed from dance class or my becoming a Unitarian Universalist, she
never held onto her anger for very long, she never told me I was worthless because I had
not lived up to her expectations, she just went on bragging.

A typical way her anger ended up was the time when I had broken some favorite piece of
china and she blew up at me. A small boy at the time, I ran from the house to escape
punishment and slithered into a crawl space under the porch. There I stayed till dad got
home, and he was sent to get me. When I saw him start to come into the crawl space, I
asked, “Oh my goodness, is she mad at you too?” I heard my mother start to laugh, then
dad, and before long laughter had replaced anger, a not uncommon occurrence with my

Mother fixed meals to the personal specifications of her men, which sometimes meant
cooking several different meals for one gathering at the dining room table. She did this
effortlessly, or apparently so. She made my lunches when I worked summer jobs, made
my bed when I was too lazy to do so, made certain I got a haircut from time to time,
bought my clothes and cleaned them, nursed my wounds, cared for me in my illnesses,
and somehow smiled her way through the numerous crises I and my brothers presented to

She never lost faith in me or my brothers. That‟s not a bad definition of what it means to
be a good mother, or a good father.

She was a good mother and she was a good woman. She bore the adversities of growing
old with enormous grace, enduring with astonishing calm and courage bad arthritis,
shingles and for eight and one-half years the daily pain of post-herpetic neuralgia (there is
a vaccine for shingles now, please if you are over 60, ask your doctor about it),
osteoporosis, and the congestive heart failure that eventually took her life at 93.

No incident more vividly reflects who my mother was than when she lost an eye at the
age of 90. She tripped over a bunched up mat at McDonald‟s and her glasses fell off and
one of the prongs poked her eye out. Following the surgery, the doctor, seeking to
comfort her, began to talk of how well people who had only one eye lived. He had said
very little when she reached out and touched his arm and said, “Doctor, thank you so
much, but I am 90 years old and have had a wonderful life. I am still with the man I love,

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to whom I have been married for 68 years, I have three wonderful sons, five lovely
grandchildren, two beautiful great-grandchildren, and I live in Hawaii! I‟ll be fine.” And
so she was, enjoying the beauty of the Islands for another three years without complaint.

Tutu never worked outside the home once she was married. She had no role to play in the
larger society, the way Jane Addams and Mother Jones did. But like them, she was all
that one could ask for in a mother, and I am grateful that she was mine.

Three very different mothers, but all attesting to certain qualities that define what being a
good mother is.

One of those qualities is care and nurture, a spiritual quality, an attitude, a way of being
that reaches out to protect and support and help bring to maturity or back to health or to a
full enjoyment of human rights.

A second quality is a willingness to get your hands dirty—as Mother Jones did by going
to jail, by sleeping in shacks or on the ground, by being never afraid to face down wicked
men; as Jane Addams did by tending sick children and by picking up garbage and by
entering the fray of corrupt politics to clean it up; as Tutu did by giving birth and doing
our dirty laundry and cleaning up the mess that sickness causes.

Thirdly, each of these women possessed the quality of always being there, of a presence
that one knew could be counted on, of not having only certain hours when they would do
the work but doing the work whatever it was when the work needed to be done; often it is
not that such people have to do anything, but knowing that they will at a moment‟s notice
is a comfort and a blessing.

May these brief stories of three mothers inspire each person to remember and be grateful
for some mother who has been a vital part of your life. If she is still alive, and you have
not done so, why not let her know you are grateful.

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