‘Dangerous Women’ exhibit now at St. Louis Public Library is a ‘must see’

Explores the lives of two local women who fought for workers’ rights despite their own tragedies

DANGEROUS WOMEN – An exhibit, now on display through January 7, 2023 on the third floor at Central Library, 1301 Olive St., explores the amazing true-life stories of Mother Jones and Fannie Sellins who, despite their own tragic stories, fought tirelessly for workers’ rights. The exhibit is free and open to the public. – St. Louis Library photo

“They faced jail and death to challenge power on behalf of workers’ rights” proclaims a poster announcing a special new workers’ exhibit – “Dangerous Women” – now at the downtown St. Louis Public Library, 1301 Olive St., that explores the amazing true-life stories of two St. Louis area women – Mary Harris Jones, aka Mother Jones, and less well-known but equally significant Frances “Fannie” Sellins, both of whom had a major impact for workers during their time.

Noting that St. Louis women at the time were among the most exploited workers and industries grew wealthy from their labor, the exhibit stresses that, Jones and Sellins “…faced jail and death to challenge power on behalf of workers’ rights. They wanted women to be at the heart of the movement to transform society.

“They defied the police, the politicians, the bosses, the judges who told them to stay in their place,” the exhibit notes, adding that, “Their lives reflected the militant resistance that was part of the tradition and culture of St. Louis workers.”

The display opened last month and will be available through Jan. 7, 2023, announced Cathy Sherwin of the AFL-CIO Retirees Association, at the recent St. Louis Labor Council delegate meeting.

The exhibit is free and open 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Friday- Saturday and closed on Sunday and holidays.

Meet Mother Jones

Mary Harris Jones lived a life marked by tragedy. Her family fled her native Ireland when she was only five to escape famine, her husband and four children were all killed in a single week by a yellow fever epidemic in 1867, and her dressmaking shop was incinerated in the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Yet for all the hardship that had marred her life, Mary refused to be broken. Instead, she turned her focus and heart on the plight of miners, factory workers, and the vulnerable masses of working-class families. For nearly six decades, “Mother” Jones worked tirelessly to champion the cause of workers’ rights, galvanizing not only men but also women and children in her crusade for fairer conditions and better pay.

She participated in numerous strikes across the country, including the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886, and led the March of the Mill Children in 1903 to protest the extreme danger of child labor. She was arrested on multiple occasions, even being tried for conspiracy to murder in 1913. Her 20-year prison sentence was eventually commuted by President Wilson, just as Fannie Sellins was.

Mother Jones continued to champion the cause up to her final days at the ripe old age of 93.

Her efforts earned her two enduring monikers: Mother Jones and the “Most Dangerous Woman in America.”

(Source: St. Louis Public Library blog)


Meet Fannie Sellins

Born in New Orleans in 1872, Fannie Sellins first encountered the world of Labor unions in St. Louis, where she worked as a garment maker to support her four children after the death of her husband.

Her work in organizing a local union for her fellow factory workers brought her to the attention of the district president of the United Mine Workers (who moved) Fannie first to West Virginia, and then to the Allegheny River Valley, where she recruited miners…to the union’s cause.

On Aug. 26, an altercation broke out between striking union workers and local law enforcement. Reports differ on the exact events, but general consensus places Fannie on the scene with a group of women and children attempting to administer aid to a dying miner when police identified her as a leading member of the organizing committee.

She was pursued down the street to the home of a union worker where she was shot four times in the back before being bludgeoned in the head and shot point-blank in the face.

Fannie’s legacy is that of a woman who cowered before no man or law. Her sense of moral justice led to her arrest on multiple occasions, where her release was secured by President Woodrow Wilson himself. Her murder by local law enforcement established her as a martyr for the cause and brought her story to the attention of “the most dangerous woman in America”…


One Comment

  • Fascinating and fantastic article about “the most dangerous woman in America” but, there’s no author’s credit? As a former writer 4 the Labor Tribune; I felt proud about the time I spent there.
    Keep up the good work! I know both the national labor union movement and the newspaper industry are very challenged these days.


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