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SunLit Excerpt: “The Girl Who Dared to Defy” galvanized Denver’s domestic mutiny

Jane Little Botkin's historical work traces the impact of Jane Street's Denver "housemaid rebellion" in the wake of the Ludlow Massacre

Editor’s note: The following is a shorter version of the chapter that appears in the book.

CHAPTER FOUR

Fiery, Little Jane Street

“The melodrama, ‘Woman Against Woman, or How the Mistress Lost the Maid’ is going full blast.”

― Frances Wayne, Denver Post, March 20, 1916

The two eggs lay side by side in a kitchen icebox of a prominent merchant’s residence on Capitol Hill in Denver, Colorado, one early spring morning. One was virgin-fresh while the other exhaled age, cheapness, and cold storage. Inspecting the icebox for her mistress’s morning breakfast was Mary, the cook. She pondered its contents. She knew that the freshly-laid egg was specially ordered, but a momentary inspiration niggled at her brain. As Mary reached inside to grasp the egg, memories of a long list of grievances against “Mrs. T,” her mistress, suddenly erupted. The cook hesitated. As uncertainty turned into deliberate decision, Mary selected the newer egg and tossed it into a pot of water heating on the stove. Minutes later, she ate it.  Mary next boiled the older egg and served it to her mistress. How the esteemed madam could determine her breakfast consisted of an old egg is up to speculation, but the cook soon found herself out on the street. Only after calling a policeman could Mary retrieve her clothes and money from the great home. 

That same night, March 26, 1916, Mary, in her best clothes and carrying a worn purse, arrived at her first “experience meeting,” joining other disgruntled servants who had ridden a creaky elevator to the third floor of the ancient Charles Building on the corner of 15th and Curtis streets, a low-rent property engaged for the new Domestic Workers Industrial Union (DWIU), Local No. 113. Housemaid after housemaid, cook after cook, rose to describe her experiences working in the homes of Capitol Hill’s rich. The Denver Post later reported that the women did not “murder the King’s English” when they got up to speak, and though their clothing was not as “smart” as that seen behind the department store counters, “their faces were the faces of intelligent, determined American women.” 

After Mary shared her story, one cook empathized with her. “I worked for ‘Mrs. X.’ She always bought the best for the family to eat and the cheapest cold storage eggs she could buy for the servants to eat.” When one “neat, efficient-looking” cook asked if anyone had ever worked for “Mrs. Blank,” laughter rippled through the room, many indignantly answering, “I should say I did!” The cook went on to describe how she was dismissed for serving “too heavy,” or too much food, despite the wishes of Mrs. Blank’s husband and daughter who liked the servant’s cooking. Another “pretty, refined-looking” girl also commiserated, testifying that her mistress was so penurious that the cook had to spend her own wages every week to purchase meat for herself. Mary probably felt exhilarated to hear others tell similar stories. This was a sisterhood, for certain, since everyone shared her pain and indignation. 

More women spoke out boldly though politely, giving the floor to timid girls inexperienced with speaking out. Mary heard shared tales of tyrannical, bad-tempered mistresses who demanded fifteen, eighteen, and twenty-hour workdays that culminated in poor beds in drafty, attic rooms. One poor girl admitted that working a month on any one job was so taxing, that, before going to her next assignment, she had to have rest. The meeting was secret, and a “sharp lookout” was engaged to keep an eye out for reporters and spies from Denver’s mistresses. Yet, next day, the Post’s light commentary sympathetically confirmed the housemaids’ testimonies, stating that insurance companies considered the servants “the worst risks of any class of women on their books.” The fact that the meeting was reported in two Denver newspapers afterwards, though humorously concealing the names of outed mistresses, suggests immense failure regarding the meeting’s intended secrecy or perhaps a certain calculation on the part of the organizer.

   Leading the discussion of this second official DWIU Local No. 113 meeting was “fiery little Jane Street,” as described by the disguised Post reporter in attendance, who gave her own experiences working in the kitchen of one Denver mistress. Mary and the other women viewed Jane with curiosity. The diminutive woman standing in front of them was energetic, feisty, and fearless, not tired, downtrodden, and submissive. How could she talk rebellion? It was unnatural for servants to question their masters and mistresses. In fact, the entire meeting seemed surreal, even illegal, though no laws had been broken. This young woman was awakening them to the realization that they could voice complaints about work, share commiserations, and unite with purpose. They could not peel their eyes away from Jane Street.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

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Jane’s appearance had changed from her smart, business dress reflecting her new roles as domestic worker and union-organizer. Instead of a stylish feather hat or a tam hat with matching plaid gown, a 1916 photograph shows how she may have first appeared to her audience—a small, mousey face below a likewise small black pilgrim hat, her abundant black hair tucked above her simple, dark coat. A sentiment on the photograph, however, written in Jane’s scratchy handwriting profoundly reveals her complete transformation. “Yours for the D.W.I.U.  Jane Street.” Despite her domestic appearance, the Post described the petite brunette as “pretty.” 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Jane’s physical transformation was not the only change she had undergone since 1915.  She had reinvented herself to become a union organizer, using her capable business skills and stenographical experiences to create a business model for creating a domestic workers’ union.  Sacramento’s IWW local surely contributed to her new-born knowledge of organizing—how to gather at least twenty signatures of wage-workers to form a temporary local, apply for a charter, hold an initial union meeting to elect a temporary secretary and chairman—but no ephemera or, more importantly, IWW documentation exists concerning her initial schooling. Since organizing domestic servants was quite different from organizing factory or agricultural workers, Jane had to become a domestic herself to lend any kind of credibility to her purpose.

Jane Street

By March, Jane had collected 300 names of housemaids and cooks. Of this number, she selected “the most promising” women and sent them invitations to attend a first meeting. Jane never mentioned the IWW to any of the women because she feared they would be “prejudiced,” but later wrote that this “did not prove the case.” On Sunday evening, March 12, 1916, Jane held her first meeting with housemaids and cooks behind closed doors, introducing unionization for “self-protection.” Of the 100 women invited, only 35 attended. The following Sunday, March 19, Jane held a second “secret” meeting, though the Post, armed with the meeting’s contents, next day reported in detail that Jane made a “short-right-from-the-shoulder speech” before officially establishing DWIU Local No. 113:

You do the menial work of the town, the dirtiest work in the world.  You cook for rich women.  You scrape the food from their plates into the garbage can.  You wash their dirty clothes, you wash their dirty dishes in their greasy dishwater.  You take care of their babies and scrub their floors.  You make your hands rough and red and ugly doing these things. You have no time to yourself.  If you do have an hour or two, it is to rest so you can do more work.  You have your room.  Your mistress tells you that you are free to read or sew there. You can’t have company there, and you must stay right there.  Even the employment agency that gets you your job is for the mistress, and not for you.  You have the privilege of taking her job.  But you have one great advantage over your mistress.  She must have you in her home.  She won’t wash her own dishes!

Jane’s use of the words dirty and dirtiest is provocative, as she points out that Denver mistresses’ cleanliness is made possible by the housemaids’ dirtiness. Women’s studies historian Phyllis Palmer describes the evolution of this belief, pointing out that the “division between whose body was clean and tended to accordingly, and whose body became relatively unclean in the process” became stronger by the nineteenth century. A sweet-smelling, clean woman reflected superior mental and moral capacities. Images of “good (clean) and bad (dirty) women were easily projected” onto mistresses and housemaids. Thus, work distribution among women reflected the moral superiority of higher-class women and the moral degradation of working-class women. Jane, on the other hand, uses the comparison between classes to point out Denver’s mistresses’ primary weakness—aversion to menial labor and dirt.

Of the women attending the March 19th meeting, only thirteen signed the application for a new charter, each paying a dollar initiation fee and pledging fifty cents a month afterwards.  Jane was ecstatic, nonetheless. Months later, when she described her methods of union organization, she emphasized that money was very difficult to get, especially from those who were out of work, so she invited all women to future meetings, including those who could not afford to join. Jane described her vision, claiming that the new union would not hold strikes but “wear down the nerves of the individual (mistress) until she came to their terms.” In other words, new union members would train the women of Capitol Hill by sabotaging their homes. “A long series of maids who leave once a week, serve meals late, take no back talk, and demand the privileges for which they have been asking in vain, is going to do the training,” Jane promised.  

To soften the sacrifices of giving up their jobs on a weekly basis, Jane pledged to rent a “temporary barracks” where union members could live between jobs. The use of the word barracks, typically a place to house soldiers, further supports Jane’s vision of domestics doing battle on Capitol Hill. Instead of paying someone to cart their trunks between jobs, women could travel light, leaving their trunks at the union house. Mothers with children would be provided childcare as well. Then Jane’s maids and cooks would demand their terms of peace in the households:  twelve dollars weekly wages, no work on Sundays, and better treatment. 

An odd letter from a sympathizer helped bolster the women’s will. The author congratulated the women and girls on their organization, pointing out, “Can you tell me why, when the eight-hour law was passed for women, the housemaids were not included?” Remarkably, the author of the letter was a Capitol Hill mistress, who claimed, “I do not call my girls maids:  they are my companions. I see that they get rest in the afternoon, as I take mine.  When they have finished, their time is their own. If I gave a luncheon, I would hire extra help. If I couldn’t afford to do this, I wouldn’t entertain.” The mistress had dared to diverge from the pack of Capitol Hill socialites and club leaders’ views—that housemaids needed to be obedient, on hand at all times, and respectful.  

Even more frightening for Denver mistresses who read the Post’s front-page article on March 20, 1916, perhaps was Jane’s plan for blacklisting all “cross” and undesirable mistresses. A long list, kept like a “secret archive,” of every employer of house servants in Denver would list its owner’s character (“without mincing words”), house size, number and disposition of children. Jane threatened, “Don’t think the housemaids’ union is a joke.  It’s deadly earnest.”  The Post headlined the March 19th meeting as a “war” and the housemaids’ tactics as a “guerrilla campaign” juxtaposed to international headlines about Pancho Villa escaping across the Chihuahuan desert and Allied bombings in Belgium. The attention to the new union in this context promised a public battle, with mistresses and employment agencies taking the fight to Jane Street and her union. But who could have attended the supposedly “secret” meeting and provided the information to the Post? And who was the sympathizer-mistress?

The March 26 “experience meeting” was about to conclude. Mary and forty-nine other women had just joined DWIU Local No. 113 and added their mistresses’ information to the union’s blacklist. When Jane announced a need for financial help in securing new headquarters upstairs at 404 Charles Building, the cook who had lost her job under the stingy mistress led off with a contribution of twenty-five dollars. Though she could not afford to give, Mary contributed, joining others who pulled liberal contributions from worn purses and out-of-date hand bags, placing monies into the hat. Afterwards, a “goodly” collection of bills, gold pieces, and silver “rattled into its crown.”   

The next morning, as mistresses opened their newspapers, reading about the abuse meted out in their homes, a significant number of servants gave notice that unless wages increased, working hours were decreased, and living quarters made more attractive, mistress and house would be boycotted, undoubtedly reddening some faces over soured breakfasts. Many servants left their jobs without even the formality of a notice. Denver’s so-called “servant problem” was about to become exposed in an unconventional manner, emboldening the train of cooks, housemaids, and parlor maids who were being led by fiery little Jane Street.   


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. Jane and her husband reside in the White Mountain Wilderness area above Nogal, New Mexico. 


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