Home > Uncategorized > Concord’s own Rebel Girl, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – posted 8/22/2022

Concord’s own Rebel Girl, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – posted 8/22/2022

A few years back, while on vacation, I was browsing in Tim’s Used Books in Provincetown. In the biography/autobiography section, I came across The Rebel Girl, An Autobiography by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. To my surprise, Flynn wrote that she was born in Concord, New Hampshire in 1890. I had no idea Flynn was from Concord. As far as I knew, no one ever claimed her. She also lived some of her early years in Manchester. Her father had moved the family around New England as he tried to find work.

The name Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is now obscure but in the early twentieth century she was one of the most famous labor leaders in America. The title, The Rebel Girl, comes from a song written by the legendary minstrel, Joe Hill, that he dedicated to Flynn. In part, the lyrics go:

“There are women of many descriptions
In this queer world, as everyone knows
Some are living in beautiful mansionsAnd are wearing the finest of clothes
There are blue blood queens and princesses
Who have charms made of diamonds and pearl
But the only and thoroughbred lady
Is the Rebel Girl

That’s the Rebel Girl, the Rebel Girl!
To the working class, she’s a precious pearl”…

Gore Vidal once called the USA “the United States of Amnesia”. When it comes to labor history, Vidal could not be more accurate. The vital and colorful history of American labor has not been transmitted. It is forgotten history, an untold story.

Flynn was from a poor but intellectual Irish working class family. She wrote that all four kids slept in a single bed with their coats on because of the cold. Her parents were too poor even to afford a babysitter so they dragged her and her siblings to political meetings. Her parents were radicals and her father ran for assemblyman in New York as a Socialist Party candidate.

As a young teen, she was asked to give a speech at the Harlem Socialist Club in New York City and she spoke on the topic of “What socialism will do for women”. She was inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Women” and August Bebel’s book Women and Socialism.

Quickly Flynn proved she was a gifted orator. Right from the start she grabbed media attention. She started speaking on the street in New York City and got arrested. One newspaper headlined “Mere child talks bitterly of life”. The New York Times called her “ a ferocious Socialist haranguer”.

In 1907, her high school expelled her and she joined the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies. She began a period in her life when she travelled widely around America working as a labor agitator. She said she had wanderlust in her heart. She described the IWW this way:

“The IWW identified itself with all the pressing immediate needs of the poorest, the most exploited, the most oppressed workers. It “fanned the flames” of their discontent…The memorable accusation against Jesus, “He stirreth up the people!” fitted the IWW. It set out to organize the unorganized, unskilled foreign-born workers in the mass production industries of the East and the unorganized migratory workers of the West, who were largely American born and employed in maritime, lumbar, agriculture, mining and construction work.”

Flynn was a contemporary of Emma Goldman, Mother Jones, Big Bill Haywood and Eugene Debs. She knew them all. Theodore Dreiser called Flynn “an East Side Joan of Arc”. She led the famous Lawrence Massachusetts Bread and Roses textile strike in 1912. Workers were being forced to work 56 hours a week for starvation pay. Conditions in the shop were deplorable. Mill owners were forced to settle, giving workers a 20% pay raise.

In the years before World War 1, Flynn worked to organize garment workers in Pennsylvania, restaurant workers in New York City and miners in Minnesota. She also played a central role in the silk workers strike in Paterson, New Jersey in 1913.

She was an opponent of World War 1 and like other anti-war activists, she was accused of violating the Espionage Act. The government ultimately dropped those charges. She fought against the deportation of other immigrants who had also opposed the war.

In 1920, Flynn helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU, and she was elected to the National Board. In 1921, She took up the struggle against the conviction of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The defense of Sacco and Vanzetti was
the cause celebre of the 1920’s. She was a key fundraiser.

In spite of seven years of unrelenting effort by the Defense Committee, the state of Massachusetts executed Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. On August 23, 1977, the 50th anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis pardoned them and declared any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from their names.

After a long period of ill health, Flynn joined the Communist Party in 1936. She wrote a series of feminist articles for its paper, the Daily Worker. Flynn wrote about birth control, women’s suffrage, labor legislation for women, divorce, prostitution and desire for love. She never publicly dissented from the party line. She remained a loyalist even in the face of the exposure of Stalin’s crimes.

During the McCarthy witch hunt, Flynn and sixteen others were prosecuted for violating the Smith Act. She and the others were accused of conspiring to “teach and advocate violent overthrow” of the government. After a nine month trial Flynn was found guilty. She served two years in Federal Prison in Anderson West Virginia. Her statement delivered at her trial in 1952 is remarkably eloquent, defiant, and revealing.

In her history of American labor, Fight Like Hell, Kim Kelly writes:

“Collective working-class power was behind every stride forward this country has made, grudgingly or otherwise, and will continue to be the animating force behind any true progress.”

I am sure that is a statement with which Elizabeth Gurley Flynn would have agreed.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 23, 2022 at 1:11 pm

    Thanks, Jonathan. Great piece! I just learned about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn when I read the novel, “The Cold Millions,” by Jess Walter, which is set in Spokane in 1911 and centers around the IWW. I was sorting through the fictional and historical characters in the novel, and I was surprised to find that EGF a) was a real historical figure, and b) she was born in Concord! Thanks for this, and keep up the good work.

    • August 23, 2022 at 1:30 pm

      Thanks Alan. I never heard of the Cold Millions. I will check it out.

  2. August 23, 2022 at 1:12 pm

    Correction: The novel is “The Cold Millions.”

  3. jlewandohotmailcom
    August 23, 2022 at 3:31 pm

    Once again, powerful history I never knew. This is why books are being suppressed, of course. If anything is more powerful than collective action, it’s books. I plan to look up “Cold Millions,” too.

  4. August 25, 2022 at 5:56 pm

    Jon, contact me for relevant news.
    (Also, IWW is the Industrial Workers of the World.)

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