Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was born to a politically radical family of Irish immigrants in Concord, New Hampshire on August 7, 1890. Exposed to socialism by her parents, Flynn gave her first public speech, “What Socialism Will Do For Women,” at age sixteen.
In 1907, Flynn became a full-time organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), collaborating with socialist Eugene Debs and IWW leaders Vincent St. John, Mother Jones and Joe Hill, the rebel songwriter. [Hill was memorialized in a tribute poem written about him around 1930 by Alfred Hayes titled “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.” The poem was put to music in 1936 by Earl Robinson, and recorded by many activist performers, including Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger. Joan Baez memorably performed it at Woodstock.]
Over the next few years Flynn helped to organize campaigns among garment workers in several states, including the famous “Bread and Roses” strike in the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile mills. [According to the 1912 U.S. Bureau of Labor’s Report on the Strike, in 1910 Lawrence had the eighth highest death rate per 1000 in the country; the seventh highest death rate for infants in the country; and the fifth highest death rate in the country for children under 5. Life expectancy for millworkers in Lawrence was an astounding 22 years less than those who did not work in the mills.]
Flynn was arrested for one trumped-up charge or another at just about all of the protests in which she participated. Her son Fred boasted many years later that he had been arrested twice, once before he was even born.
The IWW eventually fell apart, weakened by splits, factionalism, and political harassment from the U.S. Government, inter alia.
Flynn then 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, but her political activities were curtailed for a decade by illness.
When she was able to reenter the political arena in 1936, she joined the Communist Party (CP). She was elected to the national committee two years later and became national chairperson in 1961, sticking with the CP even after the revelations about Stalin. Her dedication to the cause of laborers outweighed other considerations for her. As Joe Hill wrote in the song he dedicated to her, “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.”
Flynn made several visits to the Soviet Union and died while there on September 5, 1964, on this day in history, at 74 years old. The Soviet government gave her a state funeral in Red Square with over 25,000 people attending. In accordance with her wishes, Flynn’s remains were flown to the United States for burial in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery, near the graves of Eugene Dennis, Bill Haywood and the Haymarket Riot Martyrs.