Jane Little Botkin turned to historical investigation and writing upon her 2008 retirement from teaching. Now she melds personal narratives of American families with compelling stories of women, labor radicals, miners, lawmen, and outlaws in settings rich with the history of the West. Though a Texas native, her family’s roots are entwined with Colorado’s mining camps. She is the author of “Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood That Stained an American Family,” which revolves around Botkin’s great-grand-uncle, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, who was lynched for his words on August 1, 1917. Jane and her husband reside in the White Mountain Wilderness area above Nogal, New Mexico.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Jane Little Botkin: I first came across Jane Street, supposedly a housemaid who organized other domestics against matrons 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).
I was surprised to learn that my Danish grandmother, product of a frontier Colorado mining environment, became a housemaid in an elite neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado, at the exact time of Jane’s story. After her parents’ deaths, my 13-year-old grandmother had been whisked away from Denver to Iowa and two years later forced into a marriage to a man twice her age.
Not long afterward, she ran away and hid in an enormous mansion, like many young girls who became domestics. Jane, too, had been ensnared by an older man who displayed pedophilia tendencies. She also fled, putting as much distance as she could between Arkansas—and her conman—and her new life in the West.
He would reappear in her periphery again, causing personal havoc and public sensationalism in Denver. Regarding Denver’s Scandinavian domestics, a Denver Public Library historian later confirmed an old adage, “Good girls become housemaids.” I knew I had to tell Jane’s story as it related so closely to my grandmother’s early life.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Some of Colorado Springs’ and Denver’s matrons publicly disparaged the victims of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, specifically young mothers. Jane valued motherhood above all else and possessed a militant spirit that wanted to protect women and their children. She agreed that all mothers, wives, and daughters should have protested in a loud voice against the Ludlow episode.
Since very little had been written about Jane Street, I was especially committed. With only a 1991 thesis and a letter that Jane had written in 1916, I had hurdles to overcome at the get-go. Generally, women, such as Jane, in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were not historically well documented apart from 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. Perusing old Bureau of Investigation files (today’s FBI) contributed enormously to my research.
So, 28-year-old Jane Street, a stenographer by trade and a single mother, arrived in Denver in late 1915 to punish the privileged women of Denver. Ironically, many of these same matrons helped other women, while at the same time, they ignored the class of women who toiled in their homes, enabling them to have leisure time for activism.
Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write?
I love the challenge of research! As a deep researcher, preparing for this biography took about three years. (My research on Frank Little took eight years!) I want to know and understand every detail of my subject’s life and the context in which my subject lived. Research is not the only part of preparing a biography. The author must also walk the subject’s life, that is, physically go to the environment where the story happened. Obviously, I spent a lot of time in Colorado, but I also traveled to Bisbee, Arizona, and Sacramento, California, for Jane Street’s biography.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
By searching Denver’s well-known characters, their homes, and their own correspondences, I was able to paint images of Denver’s Capitol Hill and flesh-out residents relevant to Jane’s story. Sometimes I was fortunate, and a Capitol Hill 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-World War I language and attitudes, and other historical context in order to set Jane into a narrative that, hopefully, reads better than a generic nonfiction account.
Finally, I framed Jane’s unusual life within the labor wars in the western mining camps and the first Red Scare—its leaders, villains, and victims—when Americans’ xenophobic and uber-patriotic attitudes melded together to produce a troubling picture of what our nation can become again.
In short, I had to unpeel layers of the Jane Street story that no other historian had ever done. I had to find more about a narrative that involved core Western views.
Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
Oh, my goodness, yes! Jane had provided new revelations, how IWW men sabotaged her efforts, even assaulted her. In the age of #metoo — with heated national discussions and disagreements concerning victimhood, survivorship, sexual assault, gender discrimination, and false accusations — I was intrigued.
When the 2018 hearings began for selecting a new Supreme Court justice, I was deep into my research about Jane’s misogynist treatment. Unlike the women who testified at the hearings, Jane never saw herself as a victim. Victimhood meant weakness to her. I realized this was not just a Western labor story, but perhaps a unique narrative that might shed some light on disparate views today.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Chasing rabbits! The other people who entered Jane’s life had unique backstories of their own — Denver’s clubwomen and especially Louise Sneed Hill and her Sacred Thirty-Six. At some point, a researcher has to put blinders on. That was so difficult for me.
The Stephen J. Hart Research Center at History Colorado provided numerous documents belonging to Denver’s early movers and shakers. Holding Susan B. Anthony’s letters to Colorado suffragists in my hands was an enthralling experience, as was perusing Caroline Bancroft’s confidential notes on the famous Sacred Thirty-Six in the Western Genealogical and Research Library (Denver Public Library). I dug deeply into one particular maid, Cora Cowan, in Louise Sneed Hill’s mansion. Her own narrative is fascinating and meeting her descendants was a treat. I love the stories behind the stories!
The best surprise was locating Jane’s extended family through Ancestry.com. Jane 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 private papers, was alive and eager to talk about the grandmother he knew and adored. I have since donated those papers, with his permission, to the Stephen J. Hart Research Center.
Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
I have been amazed at the interest in Jane Street. My copy editor, contracted by the University of Oklahoma Press, commented to me that she became so enthralled with the draft’s content, that she had forgotten to check for usage errors! That made my day. But most importantly, many of my readers have remarked about how the various threads within “The Girl Who Dared to Defy” are similar to today’s issues.
I have already mentioned the discussions about gender and misogyny, but censorship is a societal and political ill prevalent in Jane’s life as well. Our country was divided shortly before and during World War I, impacting this narrative, and my readers often remark at the content’s similarities in what we Americans are experiencing today. Yes, history does repeat itself.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
I have a designated writing area. An admitted bibliophile, my work area — consisting of my book collections, files, and folders — is organized by my projects, current as well as projects yet to be researched. I’m always dreaming about the future and occasionally a useful tidbit surfaces for a new book. I record the information and toss it with other notecards, Post-It notes, magazine articles, primary documents of every kind, new contacts, etc. in areas for later perusal. Yes, this is organized chaos!
I do not handwrite anything! After having graded senior English essays for 30 years, my handwriting is illegible. My laptop, which I zealously guard, is my best friend in my office. Recently, my husband gave me one of those new X-Chair Elemax office chairs, the one that heats and cools, even massages. Heaven! With a glass of red wine and dark chocolate by my side, I can do online research for hours and write. Obviously, exercise needed to counteract the resulting ill effects always comes later. Does walking my subject’s story count?
What advice do you give to future writers?
It is never too late to begin writing. I retired in 2008 from teaching, never dreaming that I would become a successful author. I had always believed my students wrote far better than me. But with my love of history and ability to use narratives to get my students’ attention in English classes, I knew that I could tell a good story.
Still, writing is like sculpting, an art form. An author has to begin with the bones of his or her story, add the clay — the body — and then reshape, reshape, and reshape. Oftentimes, this is not fun. With my first book, the press asked me to cut 50,000 words! That was difficult, but I begrudgingly complied, creating a far better product. Later, a reader asked me if he could purchase the edited portions. I knew then that my book had been both important and enjoyable to read.
Sometimes I calculate how many books I can write in the time I have left on Earth, knowing my penchant for deep research. Not many. Though I wish I had started sooner, I’m glad I took the chance to become a writer late in life.
Tell us about your next project.
Currently, I have four projects lined up. The first, “The Pink Dress, Memoir of a Guyrex Girl,” is complete and ready for print. This is my COVID book, the kind of book requiring no archives, interviews, etc. The meat of the narrative is about my year as the first Guyrex Girl, a participant in the Miss America and Miss USA state pageants. After my year, beauty queen-makers Richard Guy and Rex Holt would go on to own the Miss Texas and Miss California USA pageants, and the term “Guyrex Girl” was finally trademarked.
Every one of Guyrex’s girls journeyed a singular experience compared to other traditional beauty contestants until a distinctive Guyrex look emerged. From 1985 through 1989, five Guyrex Girls, all Miss Texas titleholders, went on to win Miss USA and become semifinalists or runners-up to Miss Universe. Since I was a first generation Guyrex Girl — Version 1.0 — like all first versions in experimentation, I was flawed, as were my creators. Our story is not fluff, as one might expect, and some serious themes evolve within the memoir. Not exactly scholarly nonfiction, is it? But this book has been cathartic.
I am currently researching Molly Goodnight, the other half of cattleman and trail blazer Charles Goodnight. I believe Molly’s story has been overshadowed by her famous husband. If not for Molly, the southern bison herd would have become extinct. I have been spending many research hours in Pueblo, where the Goodnights lived before finally moving to the Palo Duro Canyon in Texas and building the famed Goodnight Ranch.
Other projects include a Wyoming narrative about a lawman, a family member who was also a friend of Butch Cassidy’s, and a biography involving a New Mexico murder that includes major players during Billy the Kid’s own demise. Both will be scholarly nonfiction projects. Will I have time? I’ve added vitamins to my daily chocolate and red wine intake!