In Fallen among Reformers, Janet Lee explores Stella Miles Franklin’s New Woman writing from the decade Franklin spent in Chicago working with the National Women’s Trade Union League (1906–15). Through close readings of Franklin’s short stories, plays and novels from this period, most of which have never been published, Lee offers new insight into the political commitments – particularly to feminism, pacifism, protest and socialism – that shaped Franklin’s work throughout her life.
Fallen among Reformers is part of our Sydney Studies in Australian Literature series. It is out now in paperback and ebook.
You can read an extract from the book below.
Protest and Solidarity: an extract from Fallen among Reformers by Janet Lee
A central focus of attempts dedicated to improve the lives of working people was the need for recognition of the similarities of workers’ struggles across the nation, as well as the importance of transnational solidarity. These were central themes of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or “Wobblies”, whose international labour union had been founded in Chicago in 1905. Franklin described such focus as the “world-old struggle between human slavery and human freedom” with global class struggle a broad-based war of multiple parties allied in solidarity against injustice. When the strike was over, “the great gift” was “the solidarity . . . that exists today between this huge unorganized group of immigrant workers and the Americanized group of organized labor”.
However, it is her play “The Waiter Speaks” that specifically draws similarities between the poor working conditions of both garment workers and waiters, and demonstrates the similarity of their grievances in making the case for their solidarity. In this regard Franklin establishes dialogue about the poor working conditions of the waiters that puts them on par with the plight of the garment workers and also sets them up as skilled labourers deserving of respect and collective bargaining. The awkward vernacular of the waiters’ dialogue is also an attempt at establishing their status as working-class men. For example, Waiter no. 1 uses the inclusive “us” to describe the plight of the working-class people across multiple venues. “I tell you”, he exclaims when referring to the restaurant’s clientele, “they come here and they speak of us as cattle … it’s a waiter that knows”. This repeated motif serves to establish the wisdom of the waiters as witness to the plight of the garment workers and as advocates in solidarity of their struggle.
This issue of similarities across the conditions of working people’s lives is raised by Mrs Dobson when she asks Waiter no. 2 how many hours he works daily and is indignant upon hearing his answer of twelve hours. Scholars have suggested that waiters during this period suffered “bondage”, being “compelled to work 15 hours and even longer”.61 Their wages were also very low because their labour in many eating establishments was unskilled, and because non-white labour could be exploited if whites were unwilling. Waiter no. 3 alludes to these facts in a remark about fund-raising for the strikers: “We wish it was more but our own conditions are none too rosy”. As Mrs Dobson leaves a generous tip, we are reminded that waiters’ wages are supported by the generosity of patrons.
“The Waiter Speaks” not only presents a dignified portrayal of hard working waiters but also emphasises the skilled aspect of this labour: an important issue because it provided justification for their union involvement and their strength as a collective bargaining unit alongside other workers. The waiters in Franklin’s play are courteous in serving the women and attending to their wants; they hover unobtrusively and arrange cutlery or water plants as they converse with their clientele. Waiter no. 1, for example, remembers that the secretary likes “very weak coffee”: a fact which impresses the secretary. He also explains that waiters must “put [their] personalities aside” in emphasising the neutrality of manner needed in this line of work. When discussing the clientele whom he finds abhorrent, the waiter explains the difficulty of “keep[ing] silences” about such bigotry and how “once in a while [he must tell] the truth”. In this dialogue Franklin points out that waiters deal with class relationships on a daily basis, using their “truth” as a basis for collective action. The latter is exemplified by Waiter no. 3, who not only supports the strikers but is actively working with the Waiters’ Union despite its challenges, explaining that they have to meet secretly “in this land of the free where the bosses can organize, but the workers can’t or every one of us would be fired right now”.
Although this play dramatises the necessity of unionisation for improving worker autonomy and conditions, it also spells out the challenges associated with class consciousness and the ways workers identify with business and impose status hierarchies among themselves. Franklin uses Waiter no. 2, the headwaiter, to achieve this end, demonstrating how he unwittingly adopts the views of the oppressor class and directs resentment about his situation onto those of equal or lesser status by setting himself above the general class of waiters. Franklin shows how he has internalised ideologies that keep him ignorant of the ways power works in his profession and in society generally. From his point of view “anyone” can belong to a union, and “the best ones of the profession don’t have to pay no more money than the “bums” who “spill … over ladies”. In response, the secretary makes a humorous suggestion: “Well, couldn’t you have a division in your union?” she asks. “The hoboes of the profession who carry things on their arms and spill some of it over ladies could pay fifty cents … and the experts who know how to wait on a lady could pay double”. Such a suggestion would have garnered a laugh from a potential audience at the same time that it illustrates the problems of solidarity among workers.
In this way Franklin’s politics and their relationship to writing represent one of the defining characteristics of New Woman fiction: the challenge to and disruption of dichotomies between literature and political writing across multiple locations. While this experience of the garment workers’ strike reinforced her politics and understandings of labour issues, it also provided a confidence and narrative authority for literary endeavours presented in both the Life and Labor articles about the strike and “The Waiter Speaks”. Articulating the plight of garment workers, the role of the allies, and need for worker solidarity in this writing, Franklin modelled the ways the protest tradition responded to the complex social and economic conditions of modernity during this period.
From Fallen among Reformers: Miles Franklin, Modernity and the New Woman by Janet Lee (Sydney University Press 2020)