Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley

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FLYNN, Elizabeth Gurley

Born 7 August 1890, Concord, New Hampshire; died 5 September 1964, Moscow, USSR

Daughter of Thomas and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn; married Jack A. Jones, 1908 (separated 1910, divorced 1920)

The daughter of first-generation Irish immigrants, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was raised in an atmosphere of concern for social and political issues. Her parents were both members of the Socialist Party, and her mother was a strong women's rights advocate. When the family moved to the South Bronx, New York, in 1900, Flynn was introduced to city poverty and to radical political activity. At twelve she won the prize in a Socialist Party debate, and at sixteen gave her first public speech, "What Socialism Will Do for Women," at the Harlem Socialist Club. Later that year she was arrested in New York City (the first of many arrests) for speaking without a public permit.

In 1906 Flynn joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and a year later quit school to travel throughout the U.S. as one of the IWW's most effective speakers and organizers. Flynn had a son in 1910, and in that same year she separated from her husband (with formal divorce notice in 1920) because she was not prepared to give up her political activity to settle into a more limited domestic life. Both her mother and her sister Kathie provided an important home base for Flynn and her son after the separation.

During World War I and in the postwar years, as government arrests of radical political leadership increased, Flynn was the moving force in several labor defense leagues. She became seriously ill in 1927 and for about 10 years lived in semiretirement with a friend in Portland, Oregon. Against the advice of her doctor, she returned to the East Coast in 1936, joined the Communist Party of the U.S., became a columnist for the Daily Worker in 1937, and in 1938 was elected to the party's national committee. In 1952, she was arrested for subversive activities under the Smith Act and served from January 1955 to May 1957 at the women's prison in Alderson, West Virginia. Upon her release she returned to party activity and was elected to the national chair in 1959, a post she held until her death while on a visit to the USSR.

All of Flynn's writing relates directly to her political activism and focuses on the rights and problems of workers, on the status and corresponding activities of working women, and on civil liberties in general. Underlying all these works is the attempt to acquaint future generations with the historical legacy of the workers' struggle in the U.S. and with the role of working-class leadership in this struggle. Referring to a speech made to the party in 1945, Flynn noted that it had been "partly biographical, partly confessional, and partly an evaluation of our weaknesses." The perspective expressed in this statement—combined with a continued advocacy of working-class rights and a belief in socialism as the solution to economic, social, and political problems—characterizes all of her writing. Flynn's strength as a writer rested on her ability to present ideas with clarity, simplicity, and personal fervor.

In addition to numerous pamphlets, journal and newspaper articles (in Political Affairs and Solidarity, for example), and regular columns in the Daily Worker and Sunday Worker from 1937 to 1964, Flynn also wrote two major works that are primarily autobiographical. I Speak My Own Piece (1955, reprinted in 1973 as The Rebel Girl, incorporating Flynn's own editorial comments) describes her life, her contemporaries, and the events of radical working-class history from 1906 to 1926, using amusing and pertinent anecdotal material. At times the events and people are idealized, in keeping with her purpose to insure that the heroic struggle of those early days would not be lost to history. At the time of her death, Flynn had completed only the notes and outlines for the sequel to this volume, to cover what she called her "second life."

The Alderson Story (1963) details the experiences of Flynn's 1952 trial and the following period of imprisonment. It is of more than autobiographical significance because Flynn tries to record, in a series of prison poems, the voices and emotions of other women with whom she associated in the prison. The book thus becomes a document on women's prison experience in addition to a chapter in her life.

Flynn's associates and friends considered her a "great political leader and a great human being." Her ability to express complex issues in simple, unassuming, yet convincing language made her one of the most effective popular leaders of her time. Her autobiographical and political writings are among the best sources available for the history of women's involvement in radical U.S. politics.

Other Works:

Women in the War (1942). Women Have a Date With Destiny (1944). Women's Place in the Fight for a Better World (1947). The Twelve and You (1948). The Plot to Gag America (1950). Communists and the People (1953). Horizons of the Future for a Socialist America (1959). Freedom Begins at Home (1961). The McCarran Act: Fact and Fancy (1963).

The largest collection of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn's writings and personal records is located at the American Institute for Marxist Studies in New York City.


Camp, H. C., "Gurley": A Biography of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, 1890-1964 (1984). Camp, H. C., Iron in Her Soul: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left (1995). Cole, S. C., "Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: A Portrait" (thesis, 1991). Dixler, E. J., The Woman Question: Women and the American Communist Party, 1929-41 (dissertation, 1974). Hardy, G. J., American Women Civil Rights Activists: Biobibliographies of 68 Leaders, 1825-1992 (1993). Holzkamper, C. O., Rebel Girl, Radical Woman: A Biography of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1980). Joyce, M. H., "Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Irish Nationalism" (thesis, 1995). Maupin, J., Labor Heroines: Ten Women Who Led the Struggle (1974). Motherland: Writings by Irish American Women about Mothers and Daughters (1999). Post, D. "The Crucible: The Heresy Trial of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Within the American Civil Liberties Union" (1991). Trautmann, W. E., Direct Action & Sabotage: Three Classic IWW Pamphlets from the 1910s (1997). Wertheimer, B. M., We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America (1977). Words on Fire: The Life and Writing of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1987).

Other references:

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Rebel Girl (audiovisual, 1993). Nation (17 Feb. 1926). Political Affairs (Oct. 1964, Nov. 1964). Radical America (Jan.-Feb. 1975). Women Who Dared: 1992 Calendar (1992).