Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Biography

Rebel Girl

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, about 1920
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, about 1920. Courtesy Library of Congress

Occupation: orator; labor organizer, IWW organizer; socialist, communist; feminist; ACLU founder; first woman to head the American Communist Party

Dates: August 7, 1890 - September 5, 1964

Also Known as: "Rebel Girl" of Joe Hill's song

Quotable Quotes: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Quotes

Early Life

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was born in 1890 in Concord, New Hampshire. She was born into a radical, activist, working-class intellectual family: her father was a socialist and her mother a feminist and Irish nationalist.

The family moved to the South Bronx ten years later, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn attended public school there.

Socialism and the IWW

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn became active in socialist groups and gave her first public speech when she was 15, on "Women under Socialism." She also began making speeches for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or "Wobblies") and was expelled from high school in 1907. She then became a full-time organizer for the IWW.

In 1908, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn married a miner she met while traveling for the IWW, Jack Jones. Their first child, born in 1909, died shortly after birth; their son, Fred, was born the next year. But Flynn and Jones had already separated. They divorced in 1920.

In the meantime, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn continued to travel in her work for the IWW, while her son often stayed with her mother and sister. Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca moved into the Flynn household as well; Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Carlo Tresca's affair lasted until 1925.

Civil Liberties

Before World War I, Flynn was involved in the cause of free speech for IWW speakers, and then in organizing strikes, including those of textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Paterson, New Jersey. She was also outspoken on women's rights including birth control, and joined the Heterodoxy Club.

When World War I started, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and other IWW leaders opposed the war. Flynn, like many other war opponents at that time, was charged with espionage. The charges were eventually dropped, and Flynn picked up the cause of defending immigrants who were being threatened with deportation for opposing the war. Among those she defended were Emma Goldman and Marie Equi.

In 1920, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn's concern for these basic civil liberties, especially for immigrants, led her to help found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She was elected to the group's national board.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was active in raising support and money for Sacco and Vanzetti, and she was active in trying to free labor organizers Thomas J. Mooney and Warren K. Billings. From 1927 to 1930 Flynn chaired the International Labor Defense.

Withdrawal, Return, Expulsion

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was forced out of activism not by government action, but by ill health, as heat disease weakened her. She lived in Portland, Oregon, with Dr. Marie Equi, also of the IWW and a supporter of the birth control movement. She remained a member of the ACLU board during these years. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn returned to public life after some years, joining the American Communist Party in 1936.

In 1939, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was re-elected to the ACLU board, having informed them of her membership in the Communist Party before the election. But, with the Hitler-Stalin pact, the ACLU took a position expelling supporters of any totalitarian government, and expelled Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and other Communist Party members from the organization. In 1941, Flynn was elected to the Communist Party's Central Committee, and the next year she ran for Congress, stressing women's issues.

World War II and Aftermath

During World War II, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn advocated women's economic equality and supported the war effort, even working for Franklin D. Roosevelt's reelection in 1944.

After the war ended, as anti-communist sentiment grew, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn again found herself defending free speech rights for radicals.

In 1951, Flynn and others were arrested for conspiracy to overthrown the United States government, under the Smith Act of 1940. She was convicted in 1953 and served her prison term in Alderson Prison, West Virginia, from January 1955 to May 1957.

Out of prison, she returned to political work. In 1961, she was elected National Chairman of the Communist Party, making her the first woman to head that organization. She remained chairman of the party until her death.

For a long time a critic of the USSR and its interference in the American Communist Party, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn traveled to the USSR and Eastern Europe for the first time. She was working on her autobiography. While in Moscow, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was stricken ill, her heart failing, and she died there. She was given a state funeral in Red Square.

Legacy

In 1976, the ACLU restored Flynn's membership posthumously.

Joe Hill write the song "Rebel Girl" in honor of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

By Elizabeth Gurley Flynn:

Women in the War. 1942.

Women's Place in the Fight for a Better World. 1947.

I Speak My Own Piece: Autobiography of the "Rebel Girl." 1955.

The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography: My First Life (1906-1926). 1973.