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Summary Article: Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley
from Workers in America: A Historical Encyclopedia

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (August 7, 1890–September 5, 1964) was an important leader of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the early 20th century, and later became an activist in the Communist Party. Her radical left politics notwithstanding, Flynn is an example of an independent woman who broke with social convention and followed her ideals rather than caving in to cultural expectations.

Elizabeth was born in Concord, New Hampshire, and was one of three daughters raised by Irish Americans Tom and Annie Flynn. When she was in her teens the family moved to New York's South Bronx, where the Flynns introduced their daughters to socialist ideals. Her father, a civil engineer, suffered from periodic bouts of unemployment, and the family frequently depended upon Annie's wages for sustenance. Mrs. Flynn worked as a tailoress, an occupation that spawned numerous female labor leaders during the late 19th century, including Leonora Barry. Annie Flynn was also well read, instructed her daughters in feminist and socialist literature, and encouraged them to break free from traditional gender roles. Elizabeth made her first public speech at a labor rally when she was just 15, and both parents urged her to cultivate her talent as a speaker.

One year later, in 1907, Elizabeth dropped out of high school to become an organizer for the IWW, a union rhetorically in favor of a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism through the applied use of general strikes. Flynn quickly became acculturated into the IWW's polyglot world. Unlike the more conservative craft unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the IWW was devoted to industrial unionism and organized workers whom the AFL often ignored: unskilled and semiskilled laborers, women, African Americans, and recent immigrants, including those who spoke little or no English. Flynn traveled extensively for the IWW and took part in the organization's 1909 free speech battle in Spokane, Washington. Back East the writer Theodore Dreiser was so captivated by Flynn's electrifying rhetorical gifts that he dubbed her “an East Side (of New York) Joan of Arc.” Flynn had minimal foreign language skills, but her striking good looks and passion made her a favorite among workers of all tongues, and the IWW generally paired English-speaking organizers with those who could address workers in their native languages. Flynn also took her mother's lessons to heart and upheld the rights and power of women.

Flynn and the IWW proved the AFL wrong in its assumptions that women and immigrants could not be organized. She played a key role in two of the IWW's most dramatic East Coast strikes. During the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts, “bread and roses” strike, Flynn helped organize mothers to send their children out of the city during the conflict. This generated so much negative publicity for the textile firms and the city that they attempted to halt the practice. When that effort turned violent, the resulting public revulsion was instrumental in helping workers win the Lawrence textile strike. Flynn was also active in a 1913 strike in Paterson, New Jersey, and helped organize a pageant that generated great publicity. Although the Paterson strike did not succeed, Flynn's efforts were praised by supporters and foes alike. Her charisma also served on the legal front; between 1907 and 1916 she was arrested at least 10 times, but was never convicted of an offense.

Flynn's lively speaking style, her straightforward language, and her charm attracted many workers to the IWW. She was also a strong advocate for birth control and economic independence for women, and realized that female workers had needs different from those of males. True to her IWW beliefs, Flynn saw social class as more important than gender, but in retrospect she was an early adopter of woman-centered organizing models. She also expressed sympathy for the suffrage movement and even cooperated with middle-class women's rights leaders on occasion.

Flynn was expelled from the IWW in 1916 after a quarrel with Bill Haywood over her handling of a Minnesota miner strike. She was accused of bungling a plea bargain that sent three immigrant miners to prison for 20 years instead of being set free. It is unclear whether Flynn made her way back into the IWW, but the organization was badly crippled by the post-World War I Red Scare and the ensuing persecutions led Flynn to become a cofounder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920. She was also a cofounder of the Workers Defense Union, which provided legal and financial aid to victims of the Red Scare. During the 1920s Flynn was very active in ACLU campaigns to free Sacco and Vanzetti, and she was drawn deeper into the birth control cause.

Flynn's whirlwind activism took its toll and, in 1926, she moved to Portland, Oregon. Although she was in poor health for much of her 10-year stay in Portland, she took part in the city's 1934 longshoremen's strike. Like many leftists during the Great Depression, she came to believe that this era signaled the imminent demise of capitalism. Flynn had been enthralled by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and she was convinced that communism would soon supplant capitalism. In 1936, she joined the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) and began writing a regular column for its official journal, the Daily Worker. As a well-known rabble rouser, Flynn soon attracted the attention of conservatives. She eventually became too controversial for even her allies. In 1940, she was dismissed from the ACLU's governing board. Flynn advocated for women's causes during World War II and, in 1942, ran an unsuccessful congressional campaign. The war's end touched off a second Red Scare and the aging Flynn would be among its victims.

In 1948, Flynn took part in a legal effort to dismiss the charges against 12 CPUSA colleagues convicted under the 1940 Smith Act, which made it illegal to advocate the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. The convictions and the Smith Act were upheld by a 1951 Supreme Court decision that opened the door for Flynn's own arrest. Flynn spent 28 months in the Federal Reformatory at Alderson, West Virginia. There, she wrote her autobiography, The Rebel Girl, and assisted poor and uneducated inmates. Her time in prison did little to chasten Flynn, and she resumed her work with the CPUSA upon her release. From 1961 to 1964, she chaired the CPUSA and made several trips to the Soviet Union, where she died in 1964. According to her wishes, her ashes were sent to Chicago and interned at a site containing the remains of anarchists convicted for the 1886 Haymarket bombing. Although Flynn died a communist, she was an activist rather than an ideologue. Her life was that of a woman who cared more about social justice than social norms.

Suggested Reading
  • Baxandall, Rosalyn F. , Words on Fire: The Life and Writing of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, 1987;.
  • Camp, Helen C. , Iron in Her Soul: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left, 1995;.
  • Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, The Rebel Girl, An Autobiography: My First Life (1906-26), 1955.
Copyright 2013 by Robert E. Weir

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