Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964)
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was born on August 7, 1890 in Concord, New Hampshire. She was born into a radical, activist family; her father was a socialist and her mother was a feminist. She grew up in poor industrial New England towns before her family settled in the blue-collar Bronx section of New York City. Flynn became active in socialist groups and gave her first public speech at the age of sixteen. Delivered at the Harlem Socialist Club, it was titled “What Socialism Will Do for Women?” As a result of her involvement in political affairs, she was expelled from her high school in 1907.
Her reputation as an orator grew quickly, and she was still sixteen when she was first arrested – for blocking traffic in New York’s theater district when people were drawn to her street-corner speech. A Philadelphia reporter wrote that people were “frowning when she frowned, laughing when she laughed, growing earnest when she merely grew moderately so.” With striking dark hair and clear blue eyes, she mesmerized her audiences.
In 1908, Flynn became an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW was a radical labor union of unskilled workers who often were immigrants; most could not qualify for membership in the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which represented skilled craftsmen who usually were older and American-born. IWW members often were young and impulsive: they hoped to lead a general strike or boycott, and some advocated sabotage and violence to overthrow the capitalist system. At age 19, Flynn declared, “I will devote my life to the wage earner. My sole aim in life is to do all in my power to right the wrongs and lighten the burdens of the laboring class.”
Although still a teenager, she did not hesitate to speak to large male groups, often in harsh circumstances. Under the aegis of the IWW, Flynn organized mine workers on the Minnesota iron range and went on to Montana and Spokane, where her incendiary speeches twice brought arrest and jail. She returned to the East Coast in time for the great 1912 strike of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Most were immigrant women, and some were badly mistreated by the police. One woman, Annie LoPizzo, was killed when police shot at demonstrators.
While forging campaigns with workers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts, Flynn was arrested ten times, but never was sentenced to prison. Prosecutors knew that there was no legal ground for these arrests; policemen simply saw themselves as enforcers for corporate men who were unwilling to deal with unionized workers. They hoped to harass Flynn to the point that she would leave but workers adored her; both men and women found courage in her bold words.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Flynn was one of many suffragists and pacifists who were arrested. Most women faced minor charges such as disturbing the peace, but Flynn’s arrest was more serious: she was charged with violating the newly passed federal Espionage Act. The government never demonstrated any actual spying, however, and once again, Flynn insisted on her constitutional right to free speech. This long legal battle led her to participate in the founding of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The mission of the ACLU is to protect the citizens’ rights of freedom of speech, right to equal protection under the law, right to due process of law, and right to privacy. Flynn’s work at the ACLU in the 1920s encouraged her to join the International Labor Defense, a legal defense organization that supported civil rights all over the world. She chaired it for three years, part of which was during the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti case. These two immigrant men were executed in Boston after a highly politicized trial, and there were international protests.
The Great Depression of the 1930s radicalized the economic views of many Americans, and Flynn moved further left by joining the American branch of the Communist Party in 1937 -- which led to her being ousted from the ACLU board in 1940. After the U.S. entered World War II, however, she proved the depth of her devotion to democracy. A genuine believer in both economic equality and political freedom, she unequivocally supported the war against fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan. (Communist Russia had been attacked by Hitler’s Germany in 1940; it became an ally when Germany declared war on the U.S. in 1941.)
During World War II, Flynn advocated for equal economic opportunity for women, especially in her regular column for The Daily Worker. She published a booklet, Women Have a Date with Destiny, in which she urged women to volunteer for the military and take war jobs, and she supported the establishment of day care centers for working mothers. In 1942, she ran for Congress from New York; stressing women’s issues, she received 50,000 votes. Her eagerness for American victory was sufficiently great that she abandoned any pretense of supporting Communist candidates, and she campaigned for President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the crucial election of 1944.
The 1950s brought political repression, however, and free speech was under attack by right-wingers led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Flynn again was arrested, this time for violating the Smith Act, a 1940 law that banned the advocacy of overthrowing the government by force. After a nine-month federal trial, her impassioned plea to the jury did not work; she spent two years in prison. She could have avoided it by accepting deportation to the Soviet Union, but Flynn’s intention was to improve America, not to flee it.
She passed her 65th and 66th birthdays at the federal women’s prison in Alderson, West Virginia, and wrote about the experience in The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner. Both it and her autobiography, I Speak My Own Piece, were published in 1955, after her incarceration ended.
Flynn resumed her activities, and in 1960, after the Supreme Court ruled that she could not be denied a passport, she finally took her first trip to Europe. In 1961, her colleagues elected 71-year-old Flynn as the first woman to head the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). She was back in Moscow when she died on September 5, 1964. The Soviet government gave her a state funeral in Red Square, and over 25,000 people attended.
Taken from Young and Brave: Girls Changing History
- Archer, Jules. Famous young rebels. New York, Messner ,1973.
- Camp, Helen C. Iron in Her Soul: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the American Left. Pullman, Wash.: WSU Press, 1995..
- Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley. Women Have a Date with Destiny. New York: Worker’s Library Publishers, 1944.
- Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley. Words on fire : the life and writing of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn . ed. Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall. New Brunswick : Rutgers University Press, 1987.