Women's History Month Union Woman of the Day: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
A brief intro to this series. Since it is union time with all this attack on unions and it is women's history month, and I am a Wobbly, I thought I would take the time to highlight some very important women from the history of the Wobblies. Enjoy.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is one of the many women who stand out in the history of the IWW. She was just 17 years old when she shared the platform with a certain James Connolly, who she described as a “Short, rather stout, plain-looking man, [...] a scholar and an excellent writer [whose] speech was marred for American audiences by his thick North of Ireland accent.” Connolly thought very highly of her too:
“She started out as a pure utopian, but now she laughs at her former theories. Had she stuck by her first set of opinions she would have continued a persona grata with the Socialist Party crowd...but her advocacy of straight revolutionary socialism and industrial unionism alienated them and now they hate her.”
Shortly after becoming a socialist, Flynn began making speeches for the IWW and was expelled from high school in 1907. She then became a full-time organizer for the IWW, standing at the forefront of organizing support for the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, along with famous Wobblies Big Bill Haywood and Carlo Tresca. In the face of police brutality and hunger, the striking workers agreed to evacuate their children out of Lawrence. Flynn was in charge of this evacuation effort, though many of the children were subsequently arrested and beaten after they left town.
Flyn, Haywood and Tresca also grew involved in fanning the flames of the Paterson Silk Strike. Flynn held successful weekly meetings for women only and delivered powerful speeches to mass meet- ings throughout.
After the Lawrence Textile Strike and the Paterson Sil Strike, Flynn helped to organize campaigns among garment workers in Pennsylvania, silk weavers in New Jersey, restaurant workers in New York City, and miners in Minnesota. Flynn was arrested ten times during this period but was never convicted of any criminal activity. In 1915, Flynn visited Wobbly Joe Hill in his jail cell. Hill immediately composed a song in honor of Flynn— a sentimental tune that championed the women of the IWW, titled “The Rebel Girl.”
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn once fa- mously remarked, when responding to criticism of the IWW for using women as shields: “The IWW has been accused of putting the women in the front; the truth is: the IWW does not keep them at the back – and they go to the front.”