Mary Harris (Mother) Jones

Celebrate Mother’s Day with 5 Super Moms

May 09, 2010
by Colleen Brondou
The world is full of super moms who do extraordinary things for their kids every day, often without recognition or fanfare. In celebration of super moms everywhere, we take a look at five women who made headlines by taking motherhood to new heights.

Lillian Moller Gilbreth

Brown Alumni Magazine explains that “Lillian Moller Gilbreth was a woman of firsts.” She was the first mother to earn a doctorate at Brown University in 1915, and the first female engineer to win the Hoover Medal of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1966. A psychologist as well as an engineer, she was a pioneer of industrial management techniques, a prolific author, a volunteer for the Girl Scouts and an adviser to the Office of War Information during World War II.

Perhaps most impressive of all: She was the mother of 12 children. When her husband Frank died in 1924, Lillian Gilbreth was left to support and raise their children—all under the age of 19—by herself. How did she do it? “She worked, efficiently and hard,” according to the Brown Alumni magazine, “eventually seeing every one of her children through college.” She must have done a good job: Two of her children shared their chaotic yet happy family life in the books “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Belles on Their Toes.”

Evelyn Ryan

If you saw the 2005 movie “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio,” you’re familiar with Evelyn Ryan. Based on the book of the same name (written by Ryan’s daughter, Terry), the movie tells the true story of how Evelyn Ryan, a stay-at-home mom, entered advertising jingle-writing contests in the 1950s and 1960s to support her 10 kids and alcoholic husband. Raising “ten kids on 25 words or less,” Ryan wrote on her couch or at her ironing board, cranking out winning jingle after winning jingle that earned the family appliances, groceries and even money to pay off a mortgage.

What made her so special was that she managed to keep the family afloat, and do it with a positive attitude. Salon book reviewer Jennifer Foote Sweeney wrote, “The real transcendental nub in this quiet tale is the astonishing and unencumbered love of Evelyn Ryan's children for their mother—proof positive of her eminence.”

Jeanne White-Ginder

Ryan White was a 13-year-old boy living in Kokomo, Ind., when he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. A hemophiliac, Ryan had received a blood transfusion infected with HIV; doctors told him he had six months to live. Although he wanted to remain in school and live a normal life, the small town of Kokomo responded with ignorance and fear. Ryan was banned from school, and he and his family were ostracized by their neighbors and fellow church members.

Ryan and his mom, Jeanne White-Ginder, launched a court battle and became advocates for AIDS care and treatment. Although Ryan died in 1990, White-Ginder has continued to crusade for people with AIDS. In 1990, shortly after Ryan’s death, Congress passed the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, a bill that provides federal funding for AIDS research, education and medical care for low-income, underinsured or uninsured people living with HIV/AIDS. When the law expired in 2005, she successfully fought to have it renewed in 2006.

Mary Harris Jones (Mother Jones)

According to Chicago-Kent College of Law, she’s been called “the greatest woman agitator of our times” and was labeled “the grandmother of all agitators” by the U.S. Senate. Mary Harris Jones fled Ireland with her family and moved to America in 1835. She grew up in Toronto, Canada, and eventually moved to Memphis, Tenn., where she met her future husband, George E. Jones, a member of the Iron Molders’ Union.

In 1867, her husband and their four young children died of yellow fever. Jones moved to Chicago to make a fresh start but she lost everything in 1871 to the Great Chicago Fire. These hardships left a great impression on her. Perhaps in memory of her husband, she found solace in the labor movement. She became involved with the Knights of Labor and attended meetings, organized workers during strikes, became an organizer for the United Mine Workers and helped found the Social Democratic Party. Jones earned national attention in 1903 when she led children from the textile mills of Kensington, Pa. to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home in Long Island, N.Y., to protest child labor.

Though Jones had lost her own children, the union members and their families became her family over the years, earning her the title of “Mother Jones.”

Christine Collins

Christine Collins’ story was brought to the big screen in 2008 with the release of “Changeling.” The movie tells the true story of how Collins, a working-class mother, took on the corrupt Los Angeles Police Department after the disappearance of her nine-year-old son, Walter, in 1928.

After months of searching that led nowhere, a boy claiming to be Walter was reunited with Collins. The L.A. Police Department seized the opportunity to create a media bonanza around the reunion, hoping to redeem their image and create a public relations success story. The only problem was that the boy was not Walter. When Collins insisted that the boy was not her son and asked the police to continue searching for Walter, she was committed to the county psychopathic ward. The boy claiming to be Walter later admitted to being a Midwest runaway who wanted to come to California to meet his favorite actor. With the help of a Presbyterian minister, Collins took her case to city council welfare hearings. Sadly, Walter was never found; he is believed to have been a victim of the Wineville Chicken Murders. However, according to the Movie News blog, Collins’ testimony “led to the dismissal of senior civic leaders and exposed corruption that was commonplace in the day.”

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