In 1906, 16-year-old Elizabeth Gurley Flynn stood on a soapbox near New York’s Times Square and delivered a fiery speech championing workers’ rights. She was a pretty, delicate girl wearing braids and a plaid dress that stopped at the top of her high-button shoes.
A Broadway producer, impressed with her oratorical gifts, stopped and offered to put her on stage.
“I’m in the labor movement and I speak my own piece,” she retorted. And then she was arrested.
True to her word, she spent the rest of her life fighting for workers’ and womens’ rights.
Sinn Fein Mama
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn went on to organize the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Mass., founded the American Civil Liberties Union, chaired the Communist Party USA and died in the Soviet Union.
She was born on Aug. 7, 1890, in Concord, N.H., to radical working-class parents. Her mother, Annie, immigrated from Ireland and belonged to Sinn Fein. Her father, the son of Irish immigrants, organized a chapter of the Knights of Labor.
The family moved around poor New England industrial towns until settling in a blue-collar neighborhood in New York City when Elizabeth was 10. She gave her first public speech at 16, What Socialism Will Do for Women, at the Harlem Socialist Club. That got her expelled from high school. The next year she fell in love with J.A. Jones, an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, 16 years older than she. They married in January 1908 and had two sons, John Vincent, who died at birth, and Fred Flynn.
She left Jones in 1910 when she was pregnant with Fred. Later, she had a 12-year affair with Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca and a 10-year-affair with Marie Equi, a gay physician.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Speaks
She was a mesmerizing speaker. A Philadelphia newspaper reporter wrote her audience was “frowning when she frowned, laughing when she laughed, growing earnest when she merely grew moderately so.”
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn described how she got involved with the IWW in a speech to students at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., in 1962. She told them critics said the IWW stood for “I won’t work.” But actually, she said, ‘the people who belonged to the organization were in the basic, most difficult hard-working industries of our country.’
My father and mother were Socialists, members of the Socialist Party. So all of us of the younger generation were impatient with it. We felt it was rather stodgy. Its leaders were, if you will pardon me for saying so, professors, lawyers, doctors, minister, and middle-aged and older people, and we felt a desire to have something more militant, more progressive and more youthful and so we flocked into the new organization, the IWW.
Author Theodore Dreiser called her ‘an East Side Joan of Arc.’ She was arrested 10 times for giving speeches, but never convicted.
In 1912 she led the Bread and Roses textile strike. She and IWW leader Bill Haywood came to Lawrence after three IWW organizers were arrested on false charges of killing a woman bystander. Two of them were three miles away at the time and the woman was probably shot by police.
The strike involved 20,000 workers of 51 nationalities who walked off the job after wages were cut. It lasted two months during a frigid winter. Flynn and Haywood started a campaign to send hundreds of hungry strikers’ children to sympathetic families in New York, New Jersey and Vermont. When police stopped a second wave of children from leaving the train station, violence erupted. The Congressional hearings that followed exposed shocking conditions inside the mills. Mill owners decided to settle the strike, giving workers a 20 percent pay raise.
The Paterson, N.J., silk workers’ strike the next year was less successful. Police arrested nearly 2,000 strikers during the seven-month strike, and local officials shut down their meeting hall. The strike failed, though workers won their demand for an eight-hour day in a 1919 strike.
In 1920, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. She campaigned against the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian-born anarchists accused of murder during an armed robbery. Despite evidence of their innocence, Massachusetts executed the two men.
In 1937, Flynn joined the American branch of the Communist Party, which got her kicked off the ACLU board. During World War II she fought for equal pay for women and day care centers for working mother. She ran for Congress from New York City in 1950, receiving 50,000 votes.
In 1951, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was arrested for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government by force and violence in violation of the Smith Act. After a nine-month trial she was convicted and served for two years at the Federal Prison Camp, Alderson, near Alderson, W.Va. The description of the photograph above, by the Bain News Service, reads, “Socialist girl orator on trial for speeches inciting strikers to violence.”
At the age of 71, Flynn won election as chairwoman of the Communist Party of the USA. In 1964, she traveled to the Soviet Union and died in Moscow on September 5 that year. Soviet authorities gave her a state funeral attended by 25,000 people.
This story last updated in 2022.