I have finally finished my book on Jane Street. While researching and writing the book has been an enjoyable journey, so many of the book’s themes are, unfortunately, evident today.
I first came across Jane Street, supposedly a housemaid who organized other domestics against mistresses on Denver’s Capitol Hill, while researching for Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood That Stained an American Family (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017). My own Danish grandmother, product of a frontier mining environment, had been a housemaid in an elite neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado, at the exact time of Jane’s story. She had run away, like many young girls who became domestics, hiding from a forced marriage in Iowa and searching for work. Regarding Denver’s Scandinavian domestics, a Denver Public Library historian later confirmed an old adage, “Good girls become housemaids.” Would my grandmother have heard of Jane?
I have a habit of chasing rabbits, so I immediately paused to discover exactly who Jane was and if she was significant to Frank Little’s story. I discovered she wasn’t, but he was surely significant to hers. Frank Little, indeed, had met Jane, even helped her, but few specifics completed the circumstances of their meeting. Generally, women, such as Jane, in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were not historically well-documented with the exception of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and a few other prominent activist-women. In fact, when I searched for Jane in western labor histories and women’s studies, she was mentioned marginally, though credited with starting a housemaids’ union long before significant national conversations seriously discussed legislative protections for the lowest class of women’s professions, prostitution excepted.
Only one document seemingly existed, a 1917 letter written to Mrs. Elmer Bruse, previously hidden in the bowels of the National Archives Records Center, where Jane detailed methods that she employed to organize maids. Jane also provided new revelations, how IWW men sabotaged her efforts, even assaulted her. In the age of #Me, Too—with heated national discussions and disagreements concerning victimhood, survivorship, sexual assault, gender discrimination, and false accusations—I was intrigued. This was not just a western labor story, but perhaps a narrative that might shed some light on disparate views today.
Discovering David D. Kilpatrick’s 1992 Princeton thesis, “Jane Street and Denver’s Rebel Housemaids: The Gender of Radicalism in the IWW,” sealed my decision to research the rebel-girl’s story even further. Kilpatrick, a New York Times international correspondent, introduced me to virile syndicalism, basically an organized, gendered form of protest in a workplace where working class men are uncertain about their manly status, including among female union organizers (my definition, not Kilpatrick’s). He wrote that Jane’s presence seemed deliberately “almost nonexistent,” an “aberration in a masculine organization in its least adulterated and most radical region [the West].” Kilpatrick primarily used the Bruse letter, contemporary newspaper accounts, and general labor studies to discuss events of 1916 through 1917, a step toward unpeeling the layers of Jane Street that no other historian had ever done. I had to find more about this story that involved core western views.
Being adept with researching old Bureau of Information files, I located a 70-page dossier on Jane Street. Information collected between 1917 (when it was finally legal to confiscate and read suspected radicals’ mail) and other case histories filed well into the 1920s contributed even more information. But it was my final discovery that propelled my decision to actually write Jane’s life story. Through Ancestry.com, I located Jane’s extended family. She had left a pile of writings—poems, essays, short stories—expressing her deepest sorrows and greatest joys, her regrets and hopes, her protests at societal injustices and acceptance of nature’s changes, and her fervent desire for motherhood. Just as wonderful, her grandson, keeper of Jane’s papers, was alive and eager to talk about the grandmother he knew and adored.
By searching Denver’s well-known characters, their homes, and own correspondences, I was able to paint images of Denver’s Capitol Hill and flesh-out residents relevant to Jane’s story. Many of the mansions still exist with little change in appearance, easily helping this Denver sightseer to envision life in the late teens of the twentieth century. Sometimes I was fortunate, and a particular mansion came on to the real estate market. The Campbell mansion’s interior, in particular, is detailed in this narrative by studying marketing photos. I researched women’s attire, pre-war language and attitudes, and historical context in order to set Jane into a narrative that, hopefully, reads better than a generic nonfiction account. Finally, framing Jane’s unusual life are the labor wars in the western mining camps and the first Red Scare—its leaders, villains, and victims—when Americans’ xenophobic and patriotic attitudes melded together to produce a troubling picture of what our nation can become again.
This book is not a purposeful study of feminism, the IWW, or domestic studies although these subjects are surely present. Instead, the book traces the life of a woman who was not even a maid, her indoctrination into the IWW, her remarkable success organizing the “unorganizable,” and her downfall due to sex. Jane’s two worlds collide—that of traditional motherhood and wife, and that of an unencumbered revolutionary, fighting for an unconventional new world. Themes involving sexual exploitation, violent assault, misogyny, and virile syndicalism permeate the narrative. In the book’s periphery, western women, with their unique spirits and backgrounds, strive to bring independence to all classes of women—except for the housemaids. Thus, Jane Street, who originally supports the IWW’s fight as a class war and not a gender war, evolves into an organizer for female domestics in a battle staged against some of Denver’s well-known suffragists and club women, even as she fights her male counterparts along the way. Both groups betray her, and as the resulting tragedy unfolds, the reader is left with a surprising ending.
I am so anxious to hold this book in my hands. Hopefully you will want to read it too. Unfortunately, university presses do not move quickly, so you will have to wait until late next year or early 2021 to meet Jane. I think the wait will be worth it!