Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

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Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964) devoted her life to the cause of the working class. She organized workers, defended the civil liberties of radicals, and was a leading figure in socialist and communist circles.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was born in Concord, New Hampshire, on August 7, 1890, to Thomas and Annie Gurley Flynn. From her parents she absorbed principles of socialism and feminism that would inform the rest of her life. After several moves, in 1900 the family settled in the Bronx in New York City, where Flynn attended public schools. At the age of 16 she gave her first public address to the Harlem Socialist Club, where she spoke on "What Socialism Will Do for Women." Her striking appearance and dynamic oratory made her an enormously popular speaker. Upon her arrest for blocking traffic during one of her soapbox speeches she was expelled from high school, and in 1907 she began full-time organizing for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

In the IWW Flynn met Jack Archibold Jones, a miner and organizer, and they married in 1908. The marriage lasted little more than two years, during which their work separated them for much of the time. Their first child died shortly after its premature birth in 1909; the second, Fred, was born in 1910. Motherhood did not interrupt Flynn's career; she moved back to the Bronx, where her mother and sister cared for her son while she travelled on behalf of workers. Flynn did not remarry, but she carried on a long love affair with Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca, who lived with the Flynn family in New York.

Flynn's efforts for the IWW took her all over the United States, where she led organizing campaigns among garment workers in Minersville, Pennsylvania; silk weavers in Patterson, New Jersey; hotel and restaurant workers in New York City; miners in Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range; and textile workers in the famous Lawrence, Massachusetts, strike of 1912. She spoke in meeting halls, at factory gates, and on street corners in cities and towns across the country from Spokane, Washington, to Tampa, Florida. As she participated in the IWW campaigns against laws restricting freedom of speech she was arrested ten times or more, but was never convicted.

Many of the workers whom Flynn sought to organize were women and children, and Flynn combined her class-based politics with recognition of the particular oppression women experienced because of their sex. She criticized male chauvinism in the IWW and pressed the union to be more sensitive to the needs and interests of working class women. She was a strong supporter of birth control, and she reproached the IWW for not agitating more on that issue. While Flynn considered the women's suffrage movement largely irrelevant to working-class women and opposed mobilization of workers on its behalf as diversionary and divisive, she believed that women should have the right to vote and never opposed suffrage publicly as did some of her colleagues. Her feminist consciousness grew when she joined the Heterodoxy Club, a group of independent women who met regularly to discuss issues of concern to women.

By the later 1910s Flynn was devoting more and more of her time to defending workers' rights, which came under intensive attack during and after World War I. She was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and chaired the Workers Defense Union and its successor, International Labor Defense. Besides making speeches, Flynn visited political prisoners, raised money, hired lawyers, arranged meetings, and wrote publicity on behalf of dozens of radicals, including Sacco and Vanzetti, whose defense went on for seven years.

In 1926 Flynn's health failed, and she spent the next ten years recovering in Portland, Oregon, where she lived with Dr. Marie Equi, an IWW activist and birth control agitator. In 1936 Flynn returned to New York and joined the Communist Party, on which she would focus her work for the rest of her life. Although she had announced her new affiliation to the ACLU and had been elected unanimously to a three-year term on its executive board, in the wake of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1940 the ACLU expelled her for her party membership.

During World War II Flynn organized and wrote for the party with a special emphasis on women's affairs and ran on its ticket for congressman-at-large from New York. She joined other women leaders in advocating equal economic opportunity and pay for women and the establishment of day care centers and publicized women's contributions to the war effort. Fully supporting the war effort, she favored the draft of women and urged Americans to buy savings stamps and to re-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. Flynn rose in party circles and was elected to its national board.

With other Communist leaders, Flynn fell victim to the anti-Communist hysteria that suffused the United States after the war. After a nine-month trial in 1952, she was convicted under the Smith Act of conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the United States government. During her prison term from January 1955 to May 1957 at the women's federal penitentiary at Alderson, West Virginia, she wrote, took notes on prison life, and participated in the integration of a cottage composed of African-American women. Upon her release Flynn resumed party work and became national chairman in 1961. She made several trips to the Soviet Union. Falling ill on her last visit, she died there on September 5, 1964, and was given a state funeral in Red Square.

Further Reading

Flynn published two books about her life: The Rebel Girl, An Autobiography: My First Life (1906-1926; revised edition, 1973) and The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner (1955). A summary of Flynn's IWW and labor defense activities can be found in Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall, "Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: The Early Years," in Radical America (January-February 1975). The following books provide discussions of Flynn in the context of women activists and labor radicals: Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (1969); Meredith Tax, The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917 (1980); and June Sochen, Movers and Shakers: American Women Thinkers and Activists, 1900-1970 (1973).

Additional Sources

Camp, Helen C., Iron in her soul: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left, Pullman, Wash.: WSU Press, 1995. □

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Elizabeth Gurley Flynn