Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – Rebel with a Cause

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There are many heroes and heroines in the working-class movement, but sadly most workers today have never heard their names or their stories. One such heroine that everyone should know about is Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Her life spanned huge upsurges in the US working class movement. 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 a 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.”

She was active all of her life in fighting for women’s rights. She campaigned during World War II for equal pay and opportunities for women and for the creation of day care centers for working women’s children. She was also an early advocate of birth control.

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 activist friends, 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 (Industrial 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, a militant and active miner’s union, 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, Massachusetts, called the “Bread and Roses Strike”. A sign carried by some women workers in Lawrence said, “We want Bread and Roses too.” The workers not only wanted better wages but they wanted time and opportunity for culture and education and a chance to enjoy their lives. These ideas of the Lawrence strike were expressed in a song “Bread and Roses”, that has become a battle cry of women workers ever since.

Bread and Roses by James Oppenheim

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient song of bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for – but we fight for roses, too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler – ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

This strike involved thousands of workers, many of them immigrants, from dozens of countries. They 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 striker’s 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 in 1927, 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 ideas and activities with the IWW, and because of the strong prejudices at the time against Italian immigrants in this country. She was a founding member in 1920 of the American Civil Liberties Union Though in poor health, she remained a supporter of the struggles of US workers giving support to the West Coast Long Shore strike in 1934.

Flynn joined the American Communist Party in 1936, like many other militant workers of the time who had been inspired by the achievements of the Russian Revolution of 1917. But by the 1930s, the Russian working class had lost power and its state was taken over by a bureaucratic grouping tied to Joseph Stalin. Despite the leading role they played in many struggles, the communist parties of the world became in many ways rubber stamps for Stalin’s policies, and took anti-working class positions in the US.

During the McCarthy period and Cold War and after World War II, there was an active government witch hunt against socialists, communists and other left militants in the unions. In 1951, Flynn was convicted with other members of the Communist Party under the Smith Act, accused of advocating the overthrow the US government by force and violence. A number of Communist Party members – including Flynn – were sent to prison. Flynn remained in prison for two years.

While Flynn clearly saw the nature of capitalism and opposed the system all of her life, she failed to recognize what had happened with the Soviet Union and the Communist Party. She was an elected leader of the Communist Party until her death in Moscow 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 support of the Communist Party, 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. She said: “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.”

To learn more about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, you can read her autobiography The Rebel Girl.