The Rebel Girl – Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

By JAN BIRCH

There are many heroes in the U.S. revolutionary working-class movement but sadly most workers today have never heard their names or their stories.

One such hero that everyone should know about is Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Her life spanned huge upsurges in the working class. She was born in 1890 and lived until 1964-from the time of the Populist Movement to that of the Civil Rights Movement.

Flynn was born in Boston, one of the sixth generation of Irish rebels and the daughter of working-class activists. She was already a soapbox street-corner speaker at the age of 16 in New York City, where she earned the nickname the “Red Flame” and the “Joan of Arc of the working class.”

She was a lifelong fighter for women’s rights and socialism. Flynn titled her first speech, ” What Socialism Will Do for Women.” She spoke about “the possibility, at least under socialism, of industrializing all domestic tasks by collective kitchens, and dining places, nurseries, laundries and the like.”

Flynn knew that capitalism denied women equal opportunity with men. In another street corner speech she said, ” The state should provide for the maintenance of every child so that individual women shall not be compelled to depend for support upon the individual man while bearing children. The barter and sale that go under the name of love are highly obnoxious.”

While she had several relationships with men and had one son, Flynn consciously chose to be an activist and to forego the traditional role of wife and mother. She openly challenged the attitudes of some of her male comrades, who thought a women’s place was in support of “her man” and not on the battlefields of the class struggle.

She traveled the country from one end to the other, a fighter for the worker’s cause. From 1906 to 1926, she was a leader in 20 strikes and was arrested 15 times.

Flynn was an organizer with the IWW ( International Workers of the World), a revolutionary union that was very active in the early 1900s. In 1907, at 17 years of age, she was the only woman delegate from the Western Federation of Miners to the IWW Convention.

Flynn was an active leader in the IWW campaigns for free speech for revolutionaries and trade unionists. When militants were denied the right to speak in public, IWW members from around the country would descend on the town and keep giving speeches and getting arrested until the jails were full. At this point the town leaders usually gave in and allowed the IWW to go about their organizing without interference.

In 1909, Flynn was part of a militant textile strike in New York City. And in 1912, she was a key organizer in the textile strike in Lawrence, Mass., called the “Bread and Roses Strike”.

A sign carried by some women workers in Lawrence said, “We want Bread and Roses too.” This inspired a song that has become a battle cry of women workers ever since. The workers not only wanted better wages but they wanted time and opportunity for culture and education and a chance to enjoy life.

This strike involved thousands of workers, many of them immigrants from dozens of countries who held simultaneous strike meetings in their own languages to discuss how the strike should be run. Flynn commented on this, saying, “We spoke to nationalities who had been traditionally enemies for centuries in hostile European countries, like the Greeks and the Turks and the Armenians. … We said firmly: ‘You work together for the boss. You can stand together to fight for yourselves.'”

Flynn was instrumental in helping to organize the children, many of whom were sent to New York, Philadelphia, and other cities during the strike to be cared for by strike supporters. She was key to helping the women of Lawrence to participate and support the strike, against male prejudice and chauvinist attitudes.

Flynn was a vocal opponent of U.S. participation in World War I. She was a key leader in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, two revolutionary workers’ leaders who were put to death for their activities with the IWW, their ideas, and because of the strong prejudices at the time against Italian immigrants in this country.

Flynn joined the American Communist Party in 1926, like many other revolutionary workers of the time who had been inspired by the achievements of the Russian Revolution. Nevertheless, after the party was taken over by a bureaucratic grouping beholden to Stalin, Flynn failed to speak out against the new leadership’s anti-working-class policies.

Flynn likewise neglected to criticize the expulsion of the party’s revolutionary (Trotskyist) cadre in 1928-notably James P. Cannon, with whom Flynn had worked in the Sacco-Vanzetti defense.

During World War II, the leadership of the Communist Party applauded when Cannon and other Trotskyists were framed up and imprisoned under the reactionary Smith Act. (At the time Flynn was one of four women on the National Committee of the Communist Party.)

A decade later, however, a number of Communist Party members-including Flynn-were themselves sent to prison under the Smith Act. Flynn remained in prison for three years, until 1955. She was an elected leader of the Communist Party until her death in Moscow at the age of 74 on Sept. 4, 1964.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was a very talented, courageous, and determined person who consciously chose the life of a militant. Despite her capitulation to Stalinism in her later years, she made major contributions to the workers’ movement. In a period where women were relegated to auxiliary roles at best, she was a leader on the front lines of the class struggle.