Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley, 1890-1964Variant names
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was an agitator and organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and a Communist Party (CP) official. Flynn was an organizer in major strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts and Paterson and Passaic, New Jersey. She saw labor court trials as important extensions of organizing, and participated in trials in Missoula, Montana (1908), and Spokane, Washington (1909-1910). As part of her defense work she created the Workers’ Defense League, an organization to fight for the victims of the post-World War I Red Scare, and helped establish the American Civil Liberties Union. Flynn also wrote leaflets, pamphlets, articles, and a regular newspaper column for twenty-six years.
Up until the publication of her microfilm collection, there has been no easily available collection of her work. The microfilm contains her writing depicting the complexities of her political life, as both a team player and a dissenter in the IWW and Communist Party. It also includes her writings on world events that deeply affected her life, including World War I and II, the Palmer Raids, and the McCarthy period. Her written work includes pamphlets, letters, columns and drafts for her unpublished autobiography of her latter years. Her columns include articles about women’s suffrage, International Women’s Day, and the Spanish, French and American revolutions, plus portraits of Irish, French, Russian, and American revolutionaries, as well as her relatives and friends.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was born in 1890 in Concord, New Hampshire. Her mother, Annie Gurley, related to George Bernard Shaw, emigrated from Ireland. She supported the family through tailoring. She advocated equal rights for women and taught her children of Irish history, English classic literature, Greek mythology and working-class solidarity. Thomas Flynn, Elizabeth’s father, ran for the New York State Assembly in 1920 on the Socialist Party ticket, getting more votes than the Republican. The Flynn family was friends with Irish politicians and union leaders, James Larkin and James Connolly.
The young Elizabeth Gurley attended Socialist meetings with her parents and read The Worker and other left publications as well as the works of Edward Bellamy, Upton Sinclair, Karl Marx, and Frederick Engels. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women and August Bebel’s Women and Socialism finally propelled her into socialist activism. At fifteen, Flynn mounted her first soapbox to inaugurate her career as a “jawsmith” as professional agitators were then called.
By the end of 1906, Flynn had been arrested for the first time, and was speaking regularly. Broadway producer David Belasco tried to lure her onto the stage, but as she told him, she wanted to, “speak her own piece.” In 1906, Flynn dropped out of school and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) as an organizer.
As “One Big Union,” the IWW stood in direct opposition to the staid American Federation of Labor (AFL), which primarily organized skilled white men. The Wobblies, as they were called, were a young (beginning in 1905) labor union and social movement that sought to organize immigrant and migrant workers. From 1906 to 1918, Flynn spoke in strikes around the country as IWW's youngest organizer and one of the few women in the organization. She spoke alongside agitators such as Big Bill Haywood and Eugene V. Debs.
In Minnesota’s Mesabi Range in 1908, Flynn spoke to miners about the IWW and fell in love with IWW member, Jack Jones. Flynn married Jones in January 1908. After two years, and with a baby due, Flynn left Jones and returned home to the Bronx. There, she lived with her mother and sisters, who babysat Fred Flynn (born on May 19, 1910) so that she could continue her life as an organizer. Later she regretted that she had missed being an attentive, present mother.
Flynn organized iron miners in Minnesota, copper miners and timber workers in Montana, textile workers in the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts strike, silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey in 1913, and hotel cooks and waiters in New York City. The IWW met strong and sometimes violent resistance. Towns tried to discourage labor organizers by enacting legal restrictions on free speech. The IWW generally regained the right to speak in public.
In major strikes of the century, Flynn led the organizing operations. Lawrence, Massachusetts was a major textile-producing center in 1912. Flynn estimated that 30,000 workers were employed in the woolen mills there, paid starvation wages for their labor in dirty, noisy, unventilated and unsafe conditions. The IWW became the organizing core of the strike, with Flynn giving speeches and arranging for outside speakers and entertainment, setting up schools and dances, organizing the food distribution, arranging to send the children away from the violence and sustaining long parades and pickets that formed many blocks of human chains. The violent Lawrence strike - one woman was killed and many beaten and injured - brought news reporters and humanitarians to Lawrence, fueling a nationwide protest that helped to force the employers to negotiate. On March 14, 1912 the strike was settled with worker demands for wage increases and increased overtime pay met. Another outcome of the Lawrence Strike was Flynn’s encounter with Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca, who became her lover for fourteen years (1912-1926) and remained the love of her life until he was murdered in 1943. He edited an Italian-language anarcho-syndicalist newspaper.
With the victory of the Russian Revolution, the U.S. government grew alarmed about Bolshevism and immigrant radicals. Repressive legislation was passed culminating in the Palmer Raids. In 1919 IWW headquarters in many cities and towns were raided, IWW leaders arrested, and tens of thousands of immigrants beaten, jailed and some deported. Flynn response was to mobilize a broad coalition, the Workers Defense Union (WDU), to represent the more than fifteen hundred political prisoners. More than 170 labor, socialist and radical organizations participated in the united front organization consisting of unions, cooperative apartments, vegetarians, consumers and progressive women. Over the next five years Flynn worked to raise money, provide lawyers and bail, publicize cases, provide relief for families, visit prisoners and appeal to government agencies to secure pardons.
Flynn was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In 1920, she played a leading role in the case against the conviction of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
Along with defense work, she worked on the Passaic Strike of 16,000 woolen workers in 1926, the longest textile strike in history, lasting over a year.
Flynn’s constant organizing and traveling began to take a toll. Furthermore, she felt betrayed when Tresca had a child in 1923 with her younger sister, Bina. In 1926, she moved to Portland, Oregon to recuperate. She spent most of the next ten years at the home of Dr. Marie Equi, an out lesbian who was involved in prison reform, provided abortions, and dispensed birth control, which was then illegal. In a letter to her sister Kathie, Elizabeth described this period as one of the most difficult in her life, but it gave her chance to reflect, rest, and plan for the future. Prompted by the suicide of her brother Tom, and a need to be with her son and her mother, who were both ill, Flynn returned east in 1937.
Shortly after her return to New York, Flynn became a member and a paid officer in the Communist Party of the United States (CP). She saw joining the CP as a way to continue her IWW commitment to labor organizing and defense work. The Party was the largest at this time in its U.S. history, having doubled its membership between 1936 and 1938 to just over 80,000. The transition was not entirely smooth; having come from a loose anarcho-syndicalist movement, she was unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with party discipline and doctrinal shifts, often directed from Moscow. She preferred militant direct organizing to bureaucratic reform work, radio talks, and internal party politics. Her constituency remained the immigrant workers and, in the late fifties and sixties, civil rights workers and students. Coming into the Party at the top, she never developed her own base, although she was one of its most popular speakers and columnists. In her personal writings, she recorded her disagreements with the Party.
She assumed the position of Chair of the CP Women’s Commission, and in 1938 was elected to the Party’s National Committee. In 1942, Flynn ran unsuccessfully for a Congressional seat in New York, receiving 50,000 votes. Flynn was also a regular teacher at the Party’s Jefferson School and at their national training school.
In 1940, the ACLU demanded that Communists resign from official posts and Flynn was ousted from the ACLU's National Board of Directors. Flynn alone refused and defended her position. Refused a hearing, she was expelled. In l976, they repudiated their ouster on grounds that it was inconsistent with their basic principles.
In the period shortly after the Cold War, CP members and sympathizers often lost their jobs, were shunned and suspected of being "anti-American." CP membership declined by almost fifty percent due to the repression and fear. In 1948, several members of the CP and other immigrant organizers were arrested and held for eventual deportation. Later that year, twelve top CP leaders (the entire National Board except for Flynn) were arrested for having violated the Smith Act.
Flynn became the chair of the Smith Act Defense Committee. She toured the country, speaking and raising money for publicity, legal fees and for families support; and she alerted Americans to the threat to their basic freedoms, the right of assembly and the right to free speech. Anti-Communist hysteria mounted with the Korean War and the Rosenberg trial. Loyalty oaths were enforced and books burned. The McCarran Act was passed, mandating government registration of communists and members of communist front organizations. States passed anti-subversion laws, and communists were denied the right to unemployment and Social Security benefits and were evicted from their homes. The records of the CIA and FBI spying on Flynn, opening her letters, and spying on anyone to whom she talked, even the waitress at the luncheonette where she ate breakfast, are included in the microfilm.
In June 1951, a second group of Smith Act victims, referred to as “second string CP leadership,” were arrested and prosecuted. The New York Times referred to Flynn as the most notorious. Flynn acted as her own counsel, bearing the brunt for ten months of the courtroom offensive. She called upon her long career and personal reasons for joining and advancing the Party. Judge Dimock offered Flynn the option of spending the rest of her life in Russia as a substitute for prison. Flynn’s reply to this unprecedented offer was: “I am an American; I want to live and work in the United States of America. I am not interested in going any place else and would reject any such proposition.” On January 20, 1953, all defendants were found guilty.
Between 1953 and 1955, Flynn waited while the case went through the appeals process, and in this time wrote the autobiography of her life prior to joining the CP. I Speak My Own Piece was published first in 1955, and was later republished in 1973 and called The Rebel Girl. On January 11, 1955, Flynn went to Alderson Federal Penitentiary for Women in West Virginia to serve her twenty-eight month sentence.
Flynn tells the story of her incarceration in The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner, which she wrote after her release and published in 1963. Elizabeth was assigned to a maximum-security residence. She used the time to read over 200 books, poetry, plays, classics philosophy and psychology. She had intended to write the second half of her autobiography, but prison officials censored her writing and paper was even hard to obtain.
Flynn left Alderson Prison on May 25, 1957. In 1960, she attended a fiftieth anniversary celebration in Copenhagen of International Women’s Day. She accepted many invitations to speak in the Soviet Union and celebrate May Day in Moscow. She travelled and spoke for eight months. On returning to the United States, she was elevated to the post of Party chair.
Under new State Department regulations issued in 1961, strictly enforcing the McCarran Act, Flynn was denied the right to travel. When the Supreme Court struck down the passport provision of the Act in 1964, she returned to the Soviet Union to finish her autobiography. She was hospitalized within a month of her arrival and died on September 5, 1964, of stomach and intestinal inflammation aggravated by a blood clot to her lungs. Flynn was given a full-scale state funeral in Red Square with over twenty-five thousand people attending, before being returned, to be buried in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery close to the Haymarket Martyrs in accordance with her wishes. The New York Times gave her a substantial front-page obituary. In October, a memorial service was held for her at the Community Church with over a thousand people attending.
- Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall, “Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: The Early Years,” Radical America, 8:6 (Jan-Feb 1975).
- _______________. Words on Fire: The Life and Writing of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987.
- Helen C. Camp, Iron in Her Soul: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left. Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1995.
- Cole, Stephen Charles, “Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: A Portrait.” Ph. D. Dissertation, Indiana University, 1991.
- Elsa Jane Dixler, “The Woman Question: Women and the American Communist Party, 1929-1941.” Ph. D. Dissertation, Yale University, 1974.
- Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner. New York: International Publishers, 1963.
- _______________, I Speak My Own Piece: Autobiography of ‘The Rebel Girl.’ New York: Masses and Mainstream, 1955. (Reissued as The Rebel Girl, An Autobiography: My First Life, 1906-1926. New York: International Publishers, 1973.)
- Margaret Gerteis, “Coming of Age with the Industrial Workers of the World: The Early Career of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.” M.A. Thesis, Tufts University, 1975.
- Rebecca Hill, “Nothing Personal? Women in the Communist Party, U.S.A., 1940-1956.” B.A. Thesis, Wesleyan University, 1991.
- Benjamin H. Kizer, “Elizabeth Gurley Flynn,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, 58 (1966).
- Corliss Lamont, editor. The Trial of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn by the American Civil Liberties Union. New York: Horizon Press, 1968.
- Audrey P. Olmsted, “Agitator on the Left: The Speechmaking of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, 1904-64.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Indiana University, 1971.
- Robert Shaffer, "Women and the Communist Party USA, 1930-1940," Socialist Review, No. 45, May-June 1979.
- Kate Weigand, Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women’s Liberation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
|Place Name||Admin Code||Country|
|Women political activists--United States|
|Silk Workers' Strike, Paterson, N.J., 1913|
|Anti-fascist movements--United States|
|Women and socialism--United States|
|Women labor leaders--United States|
|Women communists--United States|
|Women labor leaders|
|Political crimes and offenses--United States|
|Communist trials--United States|
|Textile Workers' Strike, Lawrence, Mass., 1912|
|Strikes and lockouts--Textile industry|
|Women and socialism|
|Mesabi Iron Range Strike, 1916|
|Strikes and lockouts--Textile industry--United States|
|Political crimes and offenses|
|Sacco--Vanzetti Trial, Dedham, Mass., 1921|
|Trials (Political crimes and offenses)--United States|
|Strikes and lockouts--Miners|
|Women political activists|
|Strikes and lockouts|