Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was born in Concord, New Hampshire on 7th August, 1890. The family moved to South Bronx in 1900 and Flynn was educated at the local public school. She later recalled: "I hated poverty. I was determined to do something about the bad conditions under which our family and all around us suffered." Converted by her parents to socialism, she was only 16 when she gave her first speech, What Socialism Will Do for Women , at the Socialist Club in Harlem. As a result of her political activities, Flynn was expelled from high school.
In 1905 representatives of 43 groups who opposed the policies of American Federation of Labour, formed the radical labour organisation, theIndustrial Workers of the World (IWW). At first its main leaders were William Haywood, Vincent Saint John, Daniel De Leon and Eugene V. Debs. Other important figures in the movement included Mary 'Mother' Jones, Lucy Parsons, Hubert Harrison, Carlo Tresca, Joseph Ettor, Arturo Giovannitti, James Cannon, William Z. Foster, Eugene Dennis, Joe Haaglund Hill, Tom Mooney, Floyd B. Olson, James Larkin, James Connolly, Roger Nash Baldwin, Frank Little and Ralph Chaplin. Flynn became a full-time organizer for the IWW in 1907.
In January 1912 the American Woolen Company in Lawrence, Massachusetts, reduced the wages of its workers. This caused a walk-out and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who had been busy recruiting workers into the union, took control of the dispute that became known as the Lawrence Textile Strike. The IWW formed a strike committee with two representatives from each of the nationalities in the industry. It was decided to demand a 15 per cent increase in wages, double-time for overtime work and a 55 hour week.
The mayor of Lawrence called in the local militia and attempts were made to stop the workers from picketing. Thirty-six of the workers were arrested and most of them sentenced to a year in prison. Money was collected throughout America to help the strikers. One of the IWW's leading figures, Arturo Giovannitti, arrived in Lawrence to help organize relief. A network of soup kitchens and food distribution stations were set up and striking families received from $2 to $5 cash a week. Soon afterwards Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Bill Haywood, and Carlo Tresca of the IWW arrived in Lawrence and took over the running of the strike.
Dynamite was found in Lawrence and newspapers accused strikers of being responsible. However, John Breen, a local undertaker, was charged and arrested with planting the explosives in an attempt to discredit the IWW. It was later discovered that William Wood, the president of the American Woolen Company, had paid Breen $500. Another man, Ernest Pitman, who claimed that he had been present in the company offices in Boston when the plan was developed, committed suicide before he could give evidence in court. Wood was unable to explain why he had given Breen the money but charges against him were dropped.
The Lawrence Textile Strike became so violent that as William Cahn has pointed out in his book Lawrence 1912: The Bread and Roses Strike (1977): "To safeguard the health of small children during the strike, parents would send them to relatives and friends in other cities. Small tots were bundled up, with identification tags hung around their necks, and sent off to spend a few weeks in New York or Bridgeport or Barre or Philadelphia. Usually a reception demonstration would be given the children upon their arrival in a community.
The governor of Massachusetts ordered out the state militia and during one demonstration, a fifteen-year old boy was killed by a militiaman's bayonet. Soon afterwards a woman striker, Anna LoPizzo was shot dead. The union claimed that she had been killed by a police officer, but Joseph Caruso, a striker, was charged with her murder. Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti, who were three miles away speaking at a strike meeting, were arrested and charged as "accessories to the murder".
Faced with growing bad publicity, on 12th March, 1912, the American Woolen Company acceded to all the strikers' demands. By the end of the month, the rest of the other textile companies in Lawrence also agreed to pay the higher wages. However, Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti, remained in prison without trial. Protest meetings took place in cities throughout America and the case eventually took place in Salem. On 26th November, 1912, both men were acquitted. It was a great success for the Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the IWW.
On 27th January, 1913, 800 employees of the Doherty Silk Mill at Paterson, New Jersey, went on strike when four members of the workers' committee were fired for trying to organize a meeting with the company's management to discuss the four-loom system. Within a week, all silk workers were on strike and the 300 mills in the town were forced to close.
Flynn, Bill Haywood, and Carlo Tresca of the Industrial Workers of the World arrived in Paterson and took over the running of the strike. Flynn held successful weekly meetings for women only. During the dispute over 3,000 pickets were arrested, most of them received a 10 day sentence in local jails. Two workers were killed by private detectives hired by the mill workers. These men were arrested but were never brought to trial.
John Reed, the well-known socialist journalist, arrived in the town to report the strike. He was soon arrested and imprisoned in Paterson County Jail. When the police found that he was embarrassing them by writing articles on prison conditions, they released him. Other left-wing journalists such as Walter Lippman and Mabel Dodge arrived to show solidarity with Reed and to support the demand that reporters should be free to report industrial disputes.
John Reed, Mabel Dodge and John Sloan organised a Paterson Strike Pageant in Madison Square Garden in an attempt to raise funds for the strikers. Dodge later wrote: "For a few electric moments there was a terrible unity between all of these people. They were one: the workers who had come to show their comrades what was happening across the river and the workers who had come to see it. I have never felt such a pulsing vibration in any gathering before or since."
However, as Bertram D. Wolfe pointed out: "It is hard work to fill Madison Square Garden. The dollar and two-dollar seats remained almost empty until workers and strikers were let in free or at ten cents a seat. Instead of making money, the pageant ended with a deficit." The strike fund was unable to raise enough money and in July, 1913, the workers in Paterson were starved into submission.
Flynn defended the way the Industrial Workers of the World run the campaign: "What is a labour victory? I maintain that it is a twofold thing. Workers must gain economic advantage, but they must also gain revolutionary spirit, in order to achieve a complete victory. For workers to gain a few cents more a day, a few minutes less a day, and go back to work with the same psychology, the same attitude toward society is to achieve a temporary gain and not a lasting victory. For workers to go back with a class-conscious spirit, with an organized and determined attitude toward society means that even if they have made no economic gain they have the possibility of gaining in the future."
After the Lawrence Textile Strike and the Paterson Textile Strike Flynn helped to organise campaigns among garment workers in Pennsylvania, silk weavers in New Jersey, restaurant workers in New York City, and miners in Minnesota. During this period the writer, Theodore Dreiser, described her as "an East Side Joan of Arc." Flynn was arrested ten times during this period but was never convicted of any criminal activity.
Eugene Lyons met Flynn during this period. In his autobiography, Assignment in Utopia (1937), he described Flynn as "the most brilliant woman I had ever met. A veteran of the front trenches in the labor struggle since fifteen, she was, at thirty, attractive, winsomely Irish in her wit and her savor of life, with a remarkably cool intelligence behind her fiery oratory and personality. In the Mesaba Range strike, the Paterson and Lawrence strikes, her eloquence and courage and sweetness had won her tens of thousands of worshipful friends among the workers."
A founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Flynn was active in the campaign against the conviction of Sacco-Vanzetti. Flynn was particularly concerned with women's rights. She supported birth control and women's suffrage. Flynn also criticised the leadership of trade unions for being male dominated and not reflecting the needs of women.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn's biographer, Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall, has pointed out: "After a brief marriage she left her husband and returned to her family, and remained with them most of her life. Her mother and her sister Kathie, a schoolteacher, raised her son, Fred (1911-1940), who died tragically as the result of an operation." Flynn had a love affair with Carlo Tresca and when the relationship came to an end in 1928 she had a breakdown and ceased to be active in politics for the next eight years.
In 1936 Flynn joined the American Communist Party and wrote a feminist column for his journal, the Daily Worker. Two years later she was elected to the national committee. She was mainly a figurehead and rarely dissented from the party line and did not question the Great Purge of those Bolsheviks who were accused of being followers of Leon Trotsky. As Paul Buhle has pointed out: "The public portrayals of Russia as a virtual paradise for workers and peasants required great credulity, even in the best of times, and the later 1930s were far from the best of times. Stalin's purges of the Old Bolsheviks through the Moscow Trials required ideological overkill from American Communists, which baffled and pained their liberal allies."
Flynn also supported the foreign policy of the Soviet Union. It was argued that this was the best way to defeat fascism. However, this view took a terrible blow when on 28th August, 1939, Joseph Stalin signed a military alliance with Adolf Hitler, and other leaders of the party decided to support the Nazi-Soviet Pact. As John Gates pointed out that this created serious problems for the party. "We turned on everyone who refused to go along with our new policy and who still considered Hitler the main foe. People whom we had revered only the day before, like Mrs. Roosevelt, we now reviled. This was one of the characteristics of Communists which people always found most difficult to swallow - that we could call them heroes one day and villains the next."
When the United States joined the Second World War and became allies with the Soviet Union, attitudes towards communism changed. Flynn played an important role in the campaign for equal economic opportunity and pay for women and the establishment of day care centres for mothers working in industry. In 1942 Flynn ran for Congress in New York and received 50,000 votes.
On the morning of 20th July, 1948, Eugene Dennis, the general secretary of the American Communist Party, and eleven other party leaders, including William Z. Foster, Benjamin Davis, John Gates, Robert G. Thompson, Gus Hall, Benjamin Davis, Henry M. Winston, and Gil Green were arrested and charged under the Alien Registration Act. This law, passed by Congress in 1940, made it illegal for anyone in the United States "to advocate, abet, or teach the desirability of overthrowing the government". Flynn launched a campaign for their release, but in June 1951 was arrested in the second wave of arrests and charged with violating the Alien Registration Act.
After a nine-month trial she was found guilty and was sentenced to a three-year term in the Alderson Federal Penitentiary in West Virginia and served from January 1955 through to May 1957. She later wrote an account of her prison experiences in The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner (1955).
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn became national chairman of the American Communist Party in 1961. She made several visits to the Soviet Union and died while there in September, 1964. She was given a state funeral in Red Square. In accordance with her wishes, Flynn's remains were flown to the U.S. for burial in Chicago's Waldheim Cemetery, near the graves of Eugene Dennis, Bill Haywood and the Haymarket Martyrs.