The story of the Rebel Girl

Benjamin Silverman chronicles the radical legacy of IWW leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn addressing strikers in Paterson, N.J. (1913)Elizabeth Gurley Flynn addressing strikers in Paterson, N.J. (1913)

"FOR PEACE and socialism is in the hearts, in the minds, on the lips of millions around the world...The 'sun of tomorrow' shines upon us. The future is ours."

So said one of the giants of American radicalism, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, in a May Day speech in 1941. Flynn dedicated her life to the struggles of the working class through its highest and lowest points. She breathed class struggle and spoke of revolution for nearly 60 years, and her legacy is worthy of the highest admiration.

Born to poor Irish immigrants in 1890 in New Hampshire, she could claim proudly, "There had been an uprising in each generation in Ireland [against British rule], and forefathers of mine were reputed to be in every one of them."

Her father, Thomas Flynn, educated her and her siblings in the meaning of her Irish heritage and the politics of liberation. "When one understood British imperialism, it was an open window to all imperialism," wrote Flynn. "As children, we came to hate unjust wars, which took the land and rights away from other peoples."

Now living in the South Bronx, her father drifted to socialist politics and brought young Elizabeth with him. Recounting what her father taught her, Elizabeth said, "Scientific socialism made clear that it was not a poor man's fault if he is out of work...and you were not a 'failure' because you did not climb to riches on the backs of your fellow man."

Thomas Flynn--who ran for the New York State Assembly on the Socialist ticket in 1918--later became overbearing and eventually jealous of his daughter's popularity in the labor movement. But looking back, Elizabeth still felt that "[o]ur father's methods were not entirely correct, but his purpose was clear, not to allow his children to be 'educated' against the interests of the working class."

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FLYNN WOULD begin to develop politically on her own, devouring socialist novels like Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and William Morris' News From Nowhere, along with the works of Peter Kropotkin and August Bebel. It was the latter's book Woman Under Socialism that she used as a basis for her first public speech and lecture on "What Socialism Will Do For Women," which she gave at age 15.

A lifelong advocate for birth control access and a fighter for women's rights, she said looking back on those times, writing in her autobiography Rebel Girl:

Fathers and husbands collected women's wages, sometimes right at the company door. Women did not have a legal right to their own earnings...Equal opportunity, equal pay and the right to be organized were the crying needs of women wage-earner then and unfortunately still now.

This teenage agitator become a hit among working men and women, and a target for sexist ire from the snobbish New York Times, which commented after her first of many arrests in 1906, "Miss Flynn, who will graduate school in two years and whose shoe tops...show below her skirts [i.e., she dressed immodestly], tells us what to think, which is just what she thinks."

A Broadway producer wanted to offer her a career as an actress due to her clear oratory talents, which she refused, saying, "I don't want to be an actress! I want to speak my own words."

Flynn began to speak across the country on behalf of the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, often referred to as the "Wobblies"). She joined the IWW's Mixed Local No. 179 in 1906, a year after the IWW's founding.

During her long train trips to labor struggles and speaking engagements, she said she "fell in love with [this] country, its rivers, prairies, forests, mountains...I felt then, as I do now, it's a rich and fertile land, capable of satisfying all the needs of its people. It could be a paradise on earth if it belonged to the people, not to a small owning class."

Now, as a "professional revolutionist" with the IWW, she became a close collaborator with socialist Eugene Debs and IWW leaders Vincent St. John, Mother Jones and Joe Hill, the rebel songwriter. Flynn became a close friend of legendary Irish socialist James Connolly, who would be executed by the British in 1916 for his part in leading the Dublin Easter Rising against imperial rule, and helped him organize the Irish Socialist Federation.

One of her most important political relationships was with IWW leader and organizer William "Big Bill" Haywood. Flynn recalled some years later how Bill said in a speech, "'I'm a two-gun man from the West, you know.' And while the audience waited breathlessly, he pulled his union card from one pocket and his Socialist card from the other."

Though the two would have a major political falling out some years later over the direction of the IWW, Flynn and Haywood worked closely together in a number of the IWW's most historic struggles.

They worked together organizing agricultural workers in the West and lumber workers in the Pacific Northwest, and at countless freedom of speech fights all over the country. They were part of the 1913 silk strike in Paterson, N.J.; massive textile strikes in Lowell and New Bedford, Mass., and the great "Bread and Roses" strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Mass.

Flynn was arrested for one trumped-up charge or another at just about all of these occasions. Her son Fred boasted many years later that he had been arrested twice, once in Missoula and a second time in Spokane--before he was even born.

During the Lawrence "Bread and Roses" strike, Flynn and Haywood worked hard to educate the mostly immigrant textile workers of, as Flynn put it:

their power, as workers, as the producers of all wealth, as the creators of profit. We talked of "solidarity," a beautiful word in all languages. We said firmly, "You work together for the boss. You can stand together to fight for yourselves!" We ridiculed the police and militia. "Can they weave cloth with soldiers' bayonets or policemen's club?"

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THIS WAS the Wobblies' great strength--the ability to relate and speak to people on their own terms, to point out to workers what they already knew in their guts, that the whole system is stacked against them and the only chance they've got is to band together, into "One Big Union."

These were the high points of the early IWW, but they didn't last. While the key to the IWW's success was organizing among the unskilled workers who the American Federation of Labor refused to organize, some of their own policies diminished their ability to hold the group together.

For instance, the IWW refused to sign contracts over wages, benefits and working conditions because this, IWW leaders believed, represented a compromise with the bosses. Without contracts, the IWW failed to consolidate many of the gains it made during the brave workers' struggles it led. In many cases, when IWW organizers left town, the local organizations fell apart.

The IWW also argued that the key to transforming society was organizing the majority of workers into "One Big Union," which would be the framework for a new socialist society. The final blow to capitalism would come through a mass general strike that would paralyze the economy and force the bosses to give industry over to the working class. As a result, the IWW didn't participate in politics--leaving this important arena of struggle to the Socialist Party, which was dominated by a conservative wing.

Reflecting many years later, Flynn said that "possibly a permanent industrial union movement could have been built a quarter century earlier than the CIO. But our incurable 'infantile leftism' blinded us." By the beginning of the First World War, the IWW had been weakened by splits, factionalism and an unwillingness to tackle explicitly political issues.

And this was just before its greatest challenge. With the entry of the U.S. into the First World War, a wave of government-backed mob violence spread across the country. Pacifists, certain Christian sects, German immigrants, socialists and especially Wobblies were attacked, brutalized, tarred and feathered, and sometimes lynched.

During the Red Scare, socialists and communists, anarchists, Wobblies, unionists and other radicals were attacked, their halls ransacked and their members arrested. Many were rounded up in the Palmer Raids, named after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and deported under the auspices of the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn took it upon herself at this time to struggle for the freedom all of these "class war prisoners." She said, "We planned to work for the release of all [labor] and political prisoners...the imprisoned comrades, of whatever persuasions, were a bond of unity."

She became a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a principal activist within the International Labor Defense (ILD), which formed in 1925.

"One of our first undertakings was to publicize the facts of each case," explained Flynn. "We organized outside correspondents to write to the prisoners. Through these channels, we soon became very familiar with the conditions inside the gray, forbidding walls of federal penitentiaries."

Flynn helped win the release of those who participated in the Green Corn Rebellion, a revolt of poor Oklahoma farmers against the draft, fought for the freedom of many imprisoned Wobblies and antiwar activists, and was heavily involved in the campaign to save Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti from execution.

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HER POLITICAL activities in the 1920s were cut short by illness, and she spent the better part of a decade ill and inactive. When she finally re-entered her lifelong work as a revolutionist, it was to join the Communist Party (CP)--an organization she had already moved close to through her work with the ILD.

Flynn joined the Communist Party in 1936, was elected to the national committee two years later and became national chairperson in 1961. By this point, the U.S. Communist Party, like all those around the world, had become a creature of the new ruling bureaucracy in Russia, led by Joseph Stalin, and so it followed the dictates from Russia, even when this meant opposing struggle.

Flynn followed the CP line through its many appalling twists and turns, including the Stalin-Hitler Pact, and then support for the Second World War, revelations by Khrushchev of the extent of Stalin's murderous crimes, and the Russian suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

But this period in her life shouldn't overshadow Flynn's record of militancy and courage in the cause of the labor movement, for which she faced police violence and was thrown in jail countless times for her beliefs and even served two years behind bars in the late 1950s as a victim of McCarthyism.

In a world of "great men" she was a proud, working-class, Irish woman who stood with her shoulders square and spoke with an impassioned voice that was eloquent, yet relatable; inspiring, but not condescending; and militant to the core.

When Elizabeth Gurley Flynn went to see the great IWW songwriter Joe Hill in Salt Lake City while he was awaiting execution for a crime he didn't commit, Joe dedicated a song to Flynn called "The Rebel Girl":

Yes, her hands may be harden'd from labor
And her dress may not be very fine;
But a heart in her bosom is beating
That is true to her class and her kind.
And the grafters in terror are trembling
When her spite and defiance she'll hurl.
For the only and thoroughbred lady
Is the Rebel Girl.

And this is exactly how Elizabeth Gurley Flynn deserves to be remembered.