Women You Missed in History Class: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964)

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.

Joe Hill, “Rebel Girl”

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was the quintessential rebel girl.  So rebellious, in fact, that the IWW songwriter Joe Hill wrote a song about her called “Rebel Girl.”  Born August 7, 1890 in Concord, New Hampshire to a socialist father and a feminist mother, young Elizabeth got her start in activism early on in life.  She gave her first public speech, “What Socialism Will Do for Women,” at the Harlem Socialist Club when she was just fifteen years old.  By seventeen, she was a full-time organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  She played a crucial role in organizing strikes and labor campaigns all over the country, including the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts.  Even as a teenage rebel girl, Elizabeth held her own against the male leadership of the labor movement.  She didn’t shy away from addressing large crowds of men and calling them out on their failure to include women, immigrants, and people of color in the mainstream labor unions.  From the beginning of her career, she showed an astounding talent for public speaking, and was even offered a career as an actress for her ability to captivate audiences.  She turned it down, of course; her true passion was speaking up for the oppressed.

She focused her efforts mainly on labor organizing and direct action until 1917, when she was one of many suffragist activists arrested, and was charged with violating the Espionage Act.  Flynn’s arrest and her subsequent insistence on her constitutional right to free speech prompted her to change her focus to defending free speech, due process, right to privacy, and equal protection under the law.  In 1920, she became one of the founding members of the American Civil Liberties Union.  As a member of the ACLU’s national board, she led the campaign against the conviction and execution of Italian-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, two men wrongfully accused and unlawfully convicted of first-degree murder in a highly politicized trial.

Her success as an organizer and activist hit a roadblock in the 1940s and 1950s, as the political climate became more and more hostile to radicals like Flynn.  After the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, the ACLU took an anti-Communist position, and expelled all communists and leftists, including Flynn, from the ACLU in 1940.  During the Red Scare of the 1950s, when the fear of Communism led to political repression and targeting of leftist activists, Flynn found herself a prime target of McCarthyism.  In 1951, she was arrested and tried under the Smith Act for conspiracy to overthrow the US government.  After a nine-month federal trial, she was sentenced to two years in federal prison.  She served her sentenced, but was not deterred from activism.  After her release, she wrote a prison memoir, The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner, and continued to fight for social and economic justice until her death on September 5, 1964.

In 2017, the ACLU has an extremely important role to play in protecting our civil rights and civil liberties, and passionate activists, organizers, and orators are crucial to defending democracy.  In the political climate we currently find ourselves in, the life and work of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn are more important and relevant than ever.  If we’re going to get through the next few years, we’re going to need a movement of rebel girls that would make Elizabeth Gurley Flynn proud.  I’m going to be a rebel girl; are you?


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