Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
Born August 7, 1890(1890-08-07) (August 7, 1890 – September 5, 1964)
Concord, New Hampshire
Died September 5, 1964 (aged 74)
Soviet Union
Resting place Waldheim Cemetery, Chicago
Nationality American
Occupation labor leader, activist

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (August 7, 1890 – September 5, 1964) was a labor leader, activist, and feminist who played a leading role in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Flynn was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union and a visible proponent of women's rights, birth control, and women's suffrage. Late in life, she became chairwoman of the American Communist Party. Flynn died in the course of a visit to the Soviet Union, where she was accorded a state funeral.


[edit] Biography

[edit] Early years

Gurley was born in Concord, New Hampshire in 1890. The family moved to New York in 1900, and Flynn was educated at the local public schools. Her parents introduced her to socialism. When she was only 16 she gave her first speech, "What Socialism Will Do for Women", at the Harlem Socialist Club. As a result of her political activities, Flynn was expelled from high school.

[edit] Activist career

In 1907, Flynn became a full-time organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Over the next few years she organised campaigns among garment workers in Pennsylvania, silk weavers in New Jersey, restaurant workers in New York, miners in Minnesota, Missoula, Montana, and Spokane, Washington; and textile workers in Massachusetts. During this period, author Theodore Dreiser described her as "an East Side Joan of Arc".

In 1909, Flynn participated in a free speech fight in Spokane, in which she chained herself to a lamppost in order to delay her arrest. She later accused the police of using the jail as a brothel, an accusation that prompted them to try to confiscate all copies of the Industrial Worker reporting the charge.

Flynn was arrested 10 times during this period, but was never convicted of any criminal activity. It was a plea bargain, on the other hand, that resulted in Flynn's expulsion from the IWW in 1916, along with fellow organizer Joe Ettor. Three Minnesota miners had been arrested on murder charges when a gunman by the name of Myron came to the residence of one of the miners and was killed. Three IWW organizers were also charged with the murder. Head of the IWW's organizing committee, Bill Haywood seemed confident that Judge Hilton, who had successfully defended George Pettibone when he and Haywood were on trial in Idaho, could win the case for the miners.

1913 photo of Paterson silk strike leaders Patrick Quinlan, Carlo Tresca, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Adolph Lessig, and Bill Haywood

It didn't happen that way – the main organizers on the scene accepted an arrangement by which the other organizers were allowed to go free, but the three miners, none of whom spoke English fluently, faced time in prison. There was also a mixup in the sentencing; a prior agreement for one year in prison was somehow changed in the courtroom to a sentence of five to 20 years. Haywood held Flynn and Ettor responsible for allowing the miners to plead guilty to charges they probably didn't understand.[1] Haywood wrote in his autobiography that Flynn and Ettor's "part in the affair terminated their connection with the IWW."[2] Haywood's biographer, Peter Carlson, wrote that Ettor left the IWW, and that Flynn "remained in the union, but took pains to avoid Haywood and his supporters."[3]

A founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920, Flynn was active in the campaign against the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti. Flynn was particularly concerned with women's rights, supporting birth control and women's suffrage. Flynn also criticized the leadership of trade unions for being male dominated and not reflecting the needs of women.

Between 1926 and 1936, Flynn lived in southwest Portland, Oregon with birth control activist and Wobbly Dr. Marie Equi. Though Flynn was in poor health most of her time in Portland, she was an active and vocal supporter of the 1934 West Coast Longshore Strike.[4] In 1936, Flynn joined the U.S. Communist Party and wrote a feminist column for its journal, the Daily Worker. Two years later, she was elected to the national committee. Her membership in the Party led to her ouster from the board of the ACLU in 1940.[5]

During the Second World War she played an important role in the campaign for equal economic opportunity and pay for women and the establishment of day care centres for working mothers. In 1942, Flynn ran for Congress at-large in New York and received 50,000 votes.

In July 1948, 12 leaders of the Communist Party were arrested and accused of violating the Smith Act by advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government by force and violence. They appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld their conviction in Dennis v. United States; two justices wrote in dissent that they were convicted in violation of their Constitutional rights for engaging in activities protected by the First Amendment.

IWW activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was the inspiration for Joe Hill's song, "The Rebel Girl."

Flynn launched a campaign for their release, but in June 1951, was herself arrested in the second wave of arrests and prosecuted under the Smith Act.

After a nine-month trial, she was found guilty and served two years in the women's penitentiary at Alderson, West Virginia. She later wrote an account of her prison experiences in The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner.

[edit] Later years and legacy

After her release from prison, Flynn resumed her activities for leftist and Communist causes. She became national chairperson of the Communist Party of the United States in 1961. She made several visits to the Soviet Union and died while there on September 5, 1964. The Soviet government gave her a state funeral in Red Square with over 25,000 people attending. In accordance with her wishes, Flynn's remains were flown to the United States for burial in Chicago's Waldheim Cemetery, near the graves of Eugene Dennis, Bill Haywood and the Haymarket Riot Martyrs.

Flynn's influence as an activist was far-reaching, and her exploits were commemorated in a popular ballad. The song "Rebel Girl" was written by Joe Hill in honor of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

A fictionalized version of Flynn is depicted in John Updike's novel In the Beauty of the Lilies in which she is said to have had an affair with the anarchist Carlo Tresca, which is supported by Flynn's letters and memoir .

[edit] Quotes

"History has a long-range perspective. It ultimately passes stern judgment on tyrants and vindicates those who fought, suffered, were imprisoned, and died for human freedom, against political oppression and economic slavery."

"We believe that the class struggle existing in society is expressed in the economic power of the master on the one side and the growing economic power of the workers on the other side meeting in open battle now and again, but meeting in continual daily conflict over which shall have the larger share of labor's product and the ultimate ownership of the means of life."

[edit] Selected works


  • Sabotage: the conscious withdrawal of the workers' industrial efficiency. Cleveland, Ohio: I.W.W. Pub. Bureau, 1916.
  • Debs, Haywood, Ruthenberg,. New York, Workers library publishers, 1939.
  • I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier–for Wall Street. New York, Workers library publishers, 1940.
  • Earl Browder: the man from Kansas. New York, Workers library publishers, 1941.
  • Questions and answers on the Browder case. New York, Citizens' Committee to Free Earl Browder, 1941.
  • Coal miners and the war. New York, Workers library publishers, 1942.
  • Women in the war. New York, Workers library publishers, 1942.
  • Daughters of America: Ella Reeve Bloor, Anita Whitney. New York, Workers library publishers, 1942.
  • Women have a date with destiny.. New York, Workers library publishers, 1944.
  • Meet the communists New York, Communist Party, U.S.A., 1946.
  • Woman's place in the fight for a better world. New York, New Century Publishers, 1947.
  • The twelve and you: what happens to democracy is your business, too!. New York, New Century Publishers, 1948.
  • Labor's own William Z. Foster; a Communist's fifty years of working-class leadership and struggle.. New York, New Century Publishers, 1949.
  • Stool-pigeon. New York, New Century Publishers, 1949.
  • The plot to gag America. New York, New Century Publishers, 1950.
  • A message to all women communists from Elizabeth Gurley Flynn on Mother's Day, May, 1950. New York: National Women's Commission, Communist Party, U.S.A., 1950.
  • Debs and Dennis, fighters for peace. New York, New Century Publishers, 1950.
  • Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speaks to the Court: opening statement to the Court and statement in the case of the Sixteen Smith Act victims in the trial at Foley Square, New York.. New York, New Century Publishers, 1952.
  • 13 Communists speak to the Court. New York, New Century Publishers, 1953.
  • Communists and the people; Summation speech to the jury in the Second Foley Square Smith Act trial of thirteen communist leaders. New York, New Century Publishers, 1953.
  • I speak my own piece: autobiography of "The Rebel Girl".New York, Masses & Mainstream 1955.
  • An appeal to women New York: Campaign Committee, People's Rights Party, 1955.
  • Horizons of the future for a socialist America. New York, Communist Party, USA, 1959.
  • Freedom begins at home. New York, New Century Publishers, 1961.
  • Ben Davis on the McCarran Act at the Harvard Law Forum. by Benjamin J. Davis New York, Gus Hall-Benjamin Davis Defense Committee, 1962. (introduction)
  • The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner. New York: International Publishers, 1963.
  • The McCarran Act, fact and fancy. New York, Gus Hall-Benjamin J. Davis Defense Committee, 1963.
  • Memories of the Industrial Workers of the World New York: American Institute for Marxist Studies 1977.


[edit] Footnotes

  1. ^ Bill Haywood, The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, 1929, pp. 291 ppbk.
  2. ^ Bill Haywood, The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, 1929, pp. 292 ppbk.
  3. ^ Peter Carlson, Roughneck, The Life And Times of Big Bill Haywood, 1983, page 237.
  4. ^ The Portland Red Guide, 2007, p. 98
  5. ^ Roger Baldwin: Founder, American Civil Liberties Union

[edit] References

  • Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall (1987). Words on Fire: The Life and Writing of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-1241-7. 
  • Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley (1963). The Alderson Story: My Life As a Political Prisoner. International Publishers. ISBN 0-7178-0002-4. 

[edit] Further reading

[edit] External links

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