For Rebel Girls in Distress
By R.H. Lossin
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn spoke publicly for the first time in 1906, at the age of 15. This “mere slip of a girl” delivered a simple and radical message that she would work to realize for the rest of her life: workers must unite to overthrow capitalism. But what distinguished Flynn’s youthful speech was its emphasis on women. Capitalism depended on exploitation and the exploitation of women was even more extreme than that of men. Socialism, she argued, would relieve the “drudgery and monotony” of women’s work. Within a few years she had become an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World and by 1909 she was waking up in jail cells at the other end of the country. In 1915 the Wobbly songwriter and martyr Joe Hill memorialized her in a song called “The Rebel Girl.”
Flynn’s parents were Irish and fostered her radicalism with stories of anti-British rebellion and a generally anti-imperialist worldview. Her mother was a feminist who identified strongly as a worker and was proud of the material support she provided to her family. All of Annie’s children were delivered by female doctors and Elizabeth was named after one of them. Her father, Tom, became a socialist and brought his children with him to meetings. More importantly though, Flynn was raised in factory towns and the Bronx and while she and her siblings attended school, the evidence of exploitation dangerous working conditions were all around her. That she was enrolled in school past the age of 14 was exceptional and she understood this.
Flynn was a major figure in the IWW in the years leading up to and including World War I. During the first Red Scare of the 1920s Flynn devoted most of her time to legal defense of radicals and immigrants. In the 1930s she became a lifelong member of the Communist Party. In its embrace of the state, the CP was an ideological shift away from the revolutionary syndicalism that provided the basis of her early education as an activist and organizer. It was also a political break with her long time partner Carlo Tresca who remained dedicated to anarchist principles.
Her relationship with Tresca ended when he had an affair with her youngest sister. Following the revelation of the affair Flynn lived in the Northwest with a female doctor and contraceptive activist (the IWW was vocally pro-contraception, printing and distributing illegal literature on the topic, not doubt under Flynn’s influence). But when her partner fell ill she became a caretaker—politically inactive and depressed.
She eventually left this relationship to resume her work as an organizer and the latter part of her life was as impressive as its precocious beginning. She was an outspoken anti-fascist during World War II. Despite being one of its founding members, she was expelled from the ACLU for her continued dedication to the Communist Party. She suffered the premature death of her only son from lung cancer. She had several lovers, most of them quite a bit younger than herself.
Laura Vapnek’s readably slim biography, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: Modern American Revolutionary, empathetically presents Flynn’s personal struggles without detaching them from their social and political context. Vapneck’s skillful and sympathetic presentation of Flynn’s considerable romantic suffering, mid-life professional and existential slumps, and unconventional family relations offer us real and wrenching moments of identification with a woman whose personal commitments were never far from her political ones.
Flynn was not a suffragist. She thought women should have the vote but considered economic inequality and dependence on men as far more damaging than political disenfranchisement. She also viewed the assertion that women should organize as women without addressing the problem of class with suspicion, if not hostility. But the biography reminds us that women, including Flynn herself, do suffer as women and that the personal is always political.