Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley (1890–1964)

views updated

Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley (1890–1964)

American radical, labor organizer, and Communist Party official who dedicated her life to the overthrow of capitalism. Name variations: Elizabeth Gurley; the Rebel Girl. Pronunciation: Flin. Born Elizabeth Gurley Flynn on August 7, 1890, in Concord, New Hampshire; died of acute gastroenterocolitis on September 5, 1964, in Moscow, USSR; daughter of Annie Gurley Flynn (a seamstress) and Thomas Flynn (a civil engineer and mapmaker); attended public schools in New Hampshire and New York City through the 10th grade; married John Archibald Jones, in January 1908 (divorced 1920); children: John Vincent (1909–1909); Fred (1910–1940).

After several moves, the Flynn family settled in the South Bronx (1900); gave first speech at age 15 before the Harlem Socialist Club; joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, 1906); led the IWW free speech fights in Missoula, Montana, and Spokane, Washington; arrested twice for conspiracy; was an organizer for the IWW during the Lawrence strike (1912) and Paterson strike (1913); helped found the Workers' Defense Union (1918) and American Civil Liberties Union (1920); was active in Sacco and Vanzetti defense movement (1920s); elected to American Communist Party (CPUSA) national committee (1938); elected to CPUSA political bureau (1941); served as delegate to Women's Congress in Paris (1945); indicted by federal government under the Smith Act (1951); imprisoned at the federal penitentiary for women at Alderson, West Virginia (January 1955–May 1957); elected national chair of CPUSA (1961).

Selected publications:

Thirteen Communists Speak to the Court (1953); I Speak My Own Piece: Autobiography of "The Rebel Girl" (1955); The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner (1963); numerous articles and regular columns in the Daily Worker, Sunday Worker and Political Affairs.

On Wednesday, January 31, 1906, the Harlem Socialist Club gathered to hear that evening's speaker. She was a slender, serious 15-year-old who had regularly attended the club's meetings and had already won a gold medal in her grammar school debate club for a speech demanding women's suffrage. Although still in high school, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn felt quite confident about her talk, entitled "What Socialism Will Do For Women." She had recently read Mary Wollstonecraft 's Vindication of the Rights of Women and August Bebel's Women and Socialism.

That night, a career was born. Flynn, also known as "The Rebel Girl" after the 1915 song written about her by Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) songwriter Joe Hill, went on to make many more speeches, inspiring countless men and women to organize for their rights as workers. She played an active role in some of the most violent labor strikes from the early 1900s through the Red Scare of the 1920s and was a Communist Party leader during the heady days of the Popular Front in the 1930s and during the anti-communist reaction of the McCarthy era of the 1950s. Through it all, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn never lost the spark that sustained her radicalism.

She was born in Concord, New Hampshire, on August 7, 1890. Her mother Annie Gurley Flynn came to America from Ireland in 1876 and worked as a seamstress. Her father Thomas Flynn was born in Maine and worked in granite quarries there and in New Hampshire. Though he attended Dartmouth College, he never graduated; shortly before he was to earn his degree in engineering, his older brother died, forcing him to support his widowed mother and sisters. Thomas Flynn found work as a civil engineer in several New England towns as well as in Cleveland, Ohio. By 1900, he and Annie Flynn had three other children in addition to their first born, Elizabeth. After living in several cities, the family finally moved to New York City, settling in the South Bronx. Given her father's apparent inability to hold one job for any length of time, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn's childhood was marked by economic uncertainty, even poverty. So too did the political radicalism of both her parents leave a mark.

Annie Gurley was an Irish nationalist and an ardent feminist. Tom Flynn was also a supporter of Irish nationalism and a devout Socialist. Both the Flynns encouraged their daughter Elizabeth to become politically involved at an early age. As a young teenager, she attended Socialist club meetings in the company of one or both her parents. At her mother's suggestion, Flynn read Edward Bellamy's socialist utopian novel, Looking Backward, when she was just 15. A year later, she was reading the work of Marx and Engels. Thomas Flynn was also quite taken by socialist theory and its attack on capitalism. However, it was Annie Gurley Flynn who, through her emotional and financial support, made it possible for her eldest daughter to try to turn theory into practice.

In the era before television, much less radio, public speaking was not only a convenient way to air ideas, it was also a form of entertainment. From her first speech, Flynn proved herself to be one of the most effective speakers of her day. The aspiring novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote an article in 1906 in which he likened Flynn to Joan of Arc , saying "she electrified her audience with her eloquence, her youth and loveliness."

She took her message to the streets, speaking on New York City streetcorners to passersby who gathered in increasing numbers to hear her simple yet powerful condemnation of capitalism. While Flynn was well aware of the social and political oppression of women in the early 20th century, she sought a greater change. From 1906 until her death in 1964, she truly believed that only with the overthrow of capitalism would women ever achieve real equality. Socialism

would also address the exploitation of men as workers as well. Seeking change and feeling that the Socialist Party was "too stodgy," in 1906 Flynn joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical working-class organization founded the previous year. For the next ten years, she toured the country as one of their most powerful and beloved speakers and organizers.

Flynn was soon on the front lines. During the summer of 1907, while still a high-school student, Flynn participated in her first strike, aiding the Metal and Machinery Workers Union in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Later that summer, she traveled to Chicago for the annual IWW convention where she came to the attention of several IWW leaders. On her return to New York, Flynn stopped along the way, making speeches in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. She also visited factories and coal mines, gathering firsthand impressions of the difficult, even dangerous conditions under which American industrial workers labored. When the Pittsburgh IWW local paid her two weeks' salary for her organizing efforts there, Flynn suddenly realized she could make a living at what she loved best—speaking and organizing workers. Although she had planned on continuing her education and becoming a constitutional lawyer, the now 17-year-old Flynn quit high school and began her career as an IWW "jawsmith."

Socialism was a great discovery—a hope, a purpose, a flame within me, lit first by a spark from anthracite.

—Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

With her parents' reluctant permission, she traveled to the iron ore mines in Minnesota's Mesabi Range. Flynn had been invited to come there by a fellow IWW organizer and miner, John A. Jones, whom she had met at the previous summer's convention. A handsome man in his early 30s, Jack Jones represented everything that Flynn found so appealing about miners, the West and the IWW. As she later remembered in her autobiography, "I romanticized the life—so different from New York—and the organizer who lived and worked there, under conditions of hardship. I fell in love with him and we were married in January 1908."

Despite the romantic beginnings, the marriage was troubled from the start, and the two rarely lived together, separating for good in 1910. The young couple were both dedicated to their IWW work, and, during two pregnancies, the first of which ended in the birth of a premature infant who lived only a day, Flynn refused to quit. While Jones continued to focus on organizing Western miners, Flynn became involved in the free-speech fights that brought the IWW and its fiery young orator to national attention.

Local governments sought to limit the spread of the IWW by denying organizers the right to speak in public. First in Missoula, Montana, and then in Spokane, Washington, IWW members from across the country came to challenge local ordinances they saw as oppressive despite the risk of arrest and even police brutality. Most notable perhaps was the 19-year-old Flynn who was arrested in Missoula for her efforts there. Later in Spokane, she was arrested again in November 1909, visibly pregnant with her second child. The IWW won their right to free speech after a long and difficult struggle. However, by the spring of 1910, Flynn realized that her marriage to Jones was a struggle not to be won. In April, she traveled home to be with her mother in the South Bronx. There, in May 1910, Fred Flynn was born. Although Jack Jones came East and lived briefly with his wife and newborn son during the summer, the couple could not reconcile and soon separated permanently. They were officially divorced in 1920.

Flynn took a few months off but soon returned to organizing and speaking for the IWW. Her mother and her sister, Kathie , cared for Fred during Flynn's many absences. She felt guilty about the long periods away from her son. In turn, her son expressed his resentment more than once. But Flynn was passionate about her work. As a self-providing woman, she also needed the salary she received as an organizer.

The 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, was the next major IWW campaign. Flynn was one of several IWW leaders who spent months in Lawrence during what was also known as the Bread and Roses strike. She was particularly effective in organizing women textile workers, many of whom spoke little English. From IWW leader William D. (Big Bill) Hay-wood, Flynn perfected the art of plain yet impassioned speaking that could reach even those workers who spoke little English. Along with the future birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger , Flynn organized the placement of hundreds of the strikers' children in temporary foster homes outside of Lawrence. The underfed and under-clothed appearance of these children as they arrived in New York and Vermont generated national headlines and helped to bring a successful settlement to the strike in March 1912.

It was in Lawrence that Flynn met the Italian anarchist, Carlo Tresca. Tresca, a handsome man who had been forced to leave Italy in 1904 because of his radical politics, was married to someone else, as was Flynn. However, the two fell in love and would live together for the next dozen years. They appeared to be the perfect couple, passionate about their work for the IWW and for each other. Yet, as time went on, Tresca increasingly urged Flynn to be less active, to stay home and care for him and her son Fred. As she had refused to give up her work for Jones, she now refused to do the same for Tresca who sought revenge through unfaithfulness. In 1925, after Flynn's youngest sister, Bina , gave birth to Tresca's son, the couple separated. Still, for the rest of her life, even after his murder by an assassin in 1943, Flynn considered Tresca to be her greatest love. From Lawrence to the less-successful IWW strikes in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913 and on the Mesabi Range in 1916, Flynn and Tresca publicly and privately represented the passion of the IWW.

After a disagreement between Flynn and Haywood developed in late 1916, she changed her focus. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, persecution of workers began on the federal level. Flynn, along with the radical Socialist Ella Reeve Bloor , helped organize the Workers' Defense Union (WDU) in 1918. The WDU raised money and provided legal assistance for the thousands of workers arrested as suspected revolutionaries. In 1920, as the post-World War I "Red Scare" went into high gear, Flynn was a founding member of the National Civil Liberties Bureau, later the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). As a leader of both the WDU and ACLU, Flynn was a prominent part of the Sacco and Vanzetti defense movement during the 1920s. The two Italian anarchists were, many felt, falsely accused of murder because of their radical politics. Until Sacco and Vanzetti were finally executed in 1927, many liberals and radicals such as Flynn devoted themselves to freeing the pair. However, before that struggle ended in failure, Flynn collapsed in 1926.

She had just applied for membership in the recently formed Communist Party (CPUSA) and wanted to return to organizing workers rather than focus on their legal problems. At the same time, she was coping with the painful end to her long relationship with Carlo Tresca. While speaking in Portland, Oregon, Flynn became ill and was told by doctors she had heart disease and needed immediate and complete rest. An old friend and fellow radical, Dr. Marie Equi , took her in and nursed her back to health. It would be ten years before Flynn returned to public life. Although she regained her strength within a couple years, she stayed in Portland caring for Equi after she became ill in 1928. Flynn increasingly felt trapped in this relationship and in 1937 finally broke away. Her brother Tom had just committed suicide, and Flynn used his death and the need to be with her mother as an excuse to return East.

Resuming political life was even more difficult as so much had changed. During her absence, Flynn had gained 70 pounds; she was now in her late 40s. So much of her public persona had been based on her youthful good looks as well as her radical politics. Further, during her ten-year stay in Portland, the Great Depression had begun in 1929. As part of the New Deal, labor organizing had received a new lease on life with the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935. Finally, the Communist Party was attempting to enter mainstream American politics through its efforts known as the Popular Front.

The broad-based policies of the CPUSA appealed to Flynn as well, and in 1937, sponsored by her old friend Bloor and Communist Party official William Z. Foster, she reapplied for membership. The application was immediately accepted and the party appointed Flynn to a salaried position. Still, she worried that her effectiveness as a radical had peaked. In a poem from 1939, Flynn wrote: "My ten lost years, the broken thread of work.… Frightened—was I a ghost, a passing legend?"

Although the first phase of her political career may have passed, Flynn would achieve much more in the years ahead. She quickly rose through the upper levels of the CPUSA hierarchy and was elected to the party's national committee in 1938. As a national organizer, she spoke across the country, often to the children of workers she had organized 30 years earlier. She wrote a regular column for the party newspaper, the Daily Worker, focusing on issues pertaining to women; she was also a member of the party's women's commission.

Yet, Flynn's life during the days just before the United States entered World War II was not without difficulty, even tragedy. Despite the efforts of the Popular Front, the CPUSA fell into disfavor with many American liberals in 1939 after the Soviet Union signed a treaty with Nazi Germany. What was to be a very brief alliance between fascism and communism affected Flynn a year later. In 1940, the executive board of the ACLU voted to expel her because of her activities for the CPUSA. Flynn was not only a member of the ACLU executive board, she had been one of the organization's founders in 1920. She refused to resign, publicly arguing that the ACLU condemnation of her was in violation of its own, most basic principles.

Flynn was finally expelled after a bitter internal trial made even worse by the recent death of her son. Fred Flynn died from lung cancer before his 30th birthday. Since her return from Portland a few years earlier, she had worked hard at reestablishing a relationship with the son she barely knew. Nonetheless, his early death caused her to lament all the years she had spent away. While she never once regretted her lifelong efforts to improve conditions for the American working class, she grieved over the effect her career had on her son. That grief, along with the trauma of her ex-lover Carlo Tresca's death in 1943, haunted her the rest of her life.

Flynn's work sustained her through these personal crises. In 1941, she was elected to the highest level of leadership in the CPUSA, the party's national board. Now that the United States and the Soviet Union were allies in the fight against fascism, the CPUSA joined the war effort on the home front. Flynn continued to speak and write, placing particular emphasis on women's role in ridding the world of fascism. When World War II ended, she went to Paris in November 1945 as a delegate to the Women's Congress where she opposed the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), fearing that its passage would erase vital protective labor legislation for women.

At the end of the war, the CPUSA was divided by internal disputes over leadership and the direction the party should take in postwar America. Flynn did her best to avoid involvement in party factionalism. However, she did not escape the growing anti-communist reaction of the period that came to be known as the Mc-Carthy era. In 1948, she led defense efforts for several top party officials arrested under the Smith Act for conspiring to teach or support the overthrow of the U.S. government through force or violence. In 1951, Flynn and 12 other party leaders were also indicted on the same charges.

Perhaps harkening back to her youthful ambitions to be a constitutional lawyer, Flynn acted as her own attorney during the nine-month trial. In her closing statement to the court, she stressed her love of America, arguing that she and her codefendants sought not to overthrow the country, merely to improve it. Flynn also argued for the principles of free speech, much as she had more than 40 years earlier during her IWW days. She told the court, "My body can be incarcerated but my thoughts will remain free and unaffected." She was sentenced to three years and, after numerous appeals failed, served her time in the women's federal penitentiary in Alderson, West Virginia, from January 1955 to May 1957.

Upon her release from prison, the now almost 66-year-old radical continued to play an active role in the CPUSA. As the Civil Rights movement grew in the early 1960s, Flynn urged her fellow American communists to support the efforts of African-Americans demanding their rights as citizens. She traveled to the Soviet Union in 1960 and again in 1961. Before her second visit, she was elected national chair of the CPUSA, the first woman to hold the office. During her third trip to the Soviet Union, she became ill and died there September 5, 1964. She received a state funeral and some of her ashes were placed beneath the Kremlin Wall. The rest of her ashes were returned to the United States and interned in Waldheim cemetery in Chicago, the final resting place of several other American radicals including Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, and Emma Goldman .

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn dedicated her life to bringing the message of socialism to the American people. Shortly before her release from prison in 1957, she wrote her sister Kathie, "I love this country and her varied people and I know them well. For over fifty years I have traveled back and forth across the broad bosom of my country, to make it a happier, more prosperous place to live in for our people."


Baxandall, Rosalyn Fraad. Words on Fire: The Life and Writing of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley. The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography, My First Life, 1906–1926. NY: International Publishers, 1973 (first published as I Speak My Own Piece, 1955).

suggested reading:

Dubofsky, Melvin. We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World. Chicago, IL: Quadrangle Books, 1969.

Gallagher, Dorothy. All the Right Enemies: The Life and Murder of Carlo Tresca. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University press, 1988.

related media:

"Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: The Rebel Girl" video, directed by Leah Siegel, 1993.


Correspondence, papers, and memorabilia located in the Tamiment Library, New York University.

Kathleen Banks Nutter , Manuscripts Processor at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts