Socialist Classics: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, ‘The Rebel Girl’

In Issue 55 (March 2014) Joe Conroy looked at an intriguing Irish-American socialist who confronted both the might of capitalism and personal pressures to conform.

In 1906, as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was winning fame and notoriety as a sixteen-year-old socialist firebrand, a big-shot Broadway producer asked to see her, and offered her a part in an upcoming play on labour strife. “I don’t want to be an actress!” she replied. “I want to speak my own words and not say over and over again what somebody else has written. I’m in the labor movement and I speak my own piece!” I Speak My Own Piece: Autobiography of ‘The Rebel Girl’ became the title of the memoirs she published in 1955. Before her death in 1964 she asked that future editions be entitled The Rebel Girl. The original title was better, and even though union martyr Joe Hill writing ‘The Rebel Girl’ for her is some claim to fame, it’s not one of his better songs. Under either title, Flynn’s book is a fascinating record of political struggle in the US and the personal contradictions it confronted her with.

When reading a socialist’s biography, the question of how exactly they ended up a socialist is always to the fore. Flynn’s mother offered an uncommon example of a woman not prepared to accept her place. She worked outside the home, read widely, and encouraged her daughters to think for themselves. Her father was self-educated and involved in the socialist movement, later on an election candidate. Neither parent held religious beliefs, and political discussion was always going on:

We were conditioned in our family to accept socialist thinking long before we came into contact with socialism as an organized movement.… Ideas were our meat and drink, sometimes a substitute for both. It is not strange, therefore, that in such a household our minds were fertile fields for socialism, when the seeds finally came.

They often attended socialist meetings as a family. Elizabeth’s first boyfriend was an anarchist who quoted left-wing writers and brought her to meet Emma Goldman.

Her first public activity as a socialist came when, not yet sixteen, she was invited to speak to the Harlem Socialist Club. She chose ‘What Socialism Will Do For Women’ as her topic, and was well received. August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism had fired her imagination, as had Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Having to speak from her own area of interest and expertise, she took on the specific exploitation of women workers and how a new society could end it. This initial impulse to her socialist activity remains a constant feature throughout the book.

Her father was put out that he hadn’t been asked to speak, considering himself quite the expert. “I’m afraid my father would be labelled a ‘male-supremacist’ these days”, writes Flynn, although an overblown idea of his own importance seems to be as much to blame as outright sexism. He spouted from books while his wife cleaned around him, insisting that his daughters stop doing their homework while he explained what was really important. Their mother realised something was amiss when Elizabeth’s seventeenth birthday party was attended exclusively by the father’s middle-aged comrades. Flynn muses on how socialists should bring up their children, and is grateful to her father at least for not wrapping them up in cotton wool against the world’s problems and potential solutions. In her case, healthy rebellion against his authority lay, not in rejecting his socialism, but in making it into a living, active principle.

Another strong influence was her Irish background. In traditional Irish-American style, there are cheesy references to “the Emerald Isle” and “that most distressful country”, as well as a dubious claim that all four great-grandfathers fought in 1798. (When the French landed at Killala, “Young Irishmen for miles around dropped their potato digging”, apparently!) But behind the shamrockery, there is a significant element in Flynn’s political formation. “As children, we drew in a burning hatred of British rule with our mother’s milk”, she writes. Her mother’s background seems intriguing, a nationalist family of non-practising Presbyterians from Loughrea. Her father’s cursing of England was easy to broaden out: “When one understood British imperialism it was an open window to all imperialism.”

New York was home to a good few Irish-American socialists at the time, and Flynn was a founder member of the Irish Socialist Federation in 1907. Her description of James Connolly has often been quoted:

It was a pathetic sight to see him standing, poorly clad, at the door of Cooper Union or some other East Side hall, selling his little paper. None of the prosperous professional Irish, who shouted their admiration for him after his death, lent him a helping hand at that time.… He had no false pride and encouraged others to do these Jimmy Higgins tasks by setting an example.

Some of those prosperous professional Irish are with us still, platonically admiring Connolly while they wouldn’t be seen dead distributing unpopular propaganda cutting across the prejudices of the day. The picture confirms Connolly as someone who expected commitment to unglamorous practical work as an inherent part of a socialist’s job. (Jimmie Higgins, by the way, is a novel by the US socialist Upton Sinclair whose early chapters portray a socialist engaged in similarly mundane work.)

There are asides which reveal interesting aspects of the Irish-American left. Some of the Connolly daughters were less than happy about leaving America in 1910, it seems. The plan to bring Dublin strikers’ children away on holiday in 1913 was inspired by the big textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the year before—but Flynn, who was centrally involved in that strike, says that the precedent came from Europe. Jim Larkin turns up on her mother’s doorstep in 1914 with the words: “James Connolly sent me.” Maybe he only meant that Connolly gave him the address to look up, or maybe Larkin was beginning to weave a tale which would grow wings in subsequent years.

The intersection with other ethnic groups is interesting. Sam Stodel was also present at the founding of the ISF but, tragically, “we excluded him as we feared ridicule if we included a Jew”. This anecdote, of Flynn’s arrest at a demonstration, illuminates a complicated dialectic of oppressor and oppressed:

a very provocative act was committed by the police. A Negro policeman, and there were very few at that time, was thrust forward by the white cops to make the arrest and face the jeers and catcalls of over a thousand workers, predominantly Irish. The contemptible meanness of forcing him to arrest a white woman—and an Irish one at that—was clear to me. I felt the man trembling when he grasped my arm. “Don’t worry, I’ll see that they don’t hurt you!” I assured him.… I was greatly relieved when we reached the local police station, followed by hundreds of workers. I felt I had delivered him safely. Usually I had scant sympathy for a policeman, but from this instance I began to realize that a special persecution of the Negro people extended to all walks of life, and no Negro was exempt, not even a policeman.

Throughout the twenty years of activism covered in the book, “all the work I did was for the movement, sometimes paid for and some­times not”. She spoke and organised for the Industrial Workers of the World, and often found herself specialising in defending workers imprisoned for militant union activity. And such activity could be a matter of life and death, as these pages testify. IWW organiser Frank Little was lynched in 1917, with gravedigger’s measurements pinned to his body as a warning. Another, Fanny Sellins, was shot in the back by police in 1919 when she tried to stop them attacking a striker: “After she fell, they pumped more bullets into her body” and one cop paraded around with her hat on. In the same year, Wesley Everett tried to defend an IWW hall from a right-wing mob, but they got him:

Everest was beaten, a rope put around his neck and he was dragged senseless to the jail. In the night he was taken out, castrated and lynched, his swinging body used as a target for shot after shot. The next day the body was brought back to the jail and thrown in among the prisoners, then taken out and surreptitiously buried in an unknown grave…

It is small comfort that the evidence goes against the claim that Everest was castrated, but revolutionary activists in the US at that time faced dangers akin to those meted out by dictatorships.

Flynn draws lessons from her activity which at times read like a striker’s handbook. “The life of a strike depends upon constant activities”, involving not just all groups and nationalities among the strikers themselves, but their families and communities. Decentralised administration is needed: “When funds came directly to a local strike committee they were bound to participate more actively in raising them.”

However, “Most of us were wonderful agitators but poor union organizers.” Few roots were struck that could grow outside the heady times of struggle and consolidate what had been won. Hundreds of thousands joined the IWW, but precious few stayed. Flynn writes that “the IWW carried ‘rank-and-file-ism’ to excess”, allowing its fear of bureaucracy to stifle effective long-term organisation. Later on, though, she saw it moving “From the extreme of anarchistic de­centralization… to develop a degree of bureaucratic centralism that was equally dangerous”.

Early on Flynn tells of her marriage to an IWW organiser, admitting there was some justice in a comrade’s observation that she was falling for the glamour of a rebel as much as anything else. He wanted her to settle down to life as a wife and mother, but “I saw no reason why I, as a woman, should give up my work for his.” They separated, and Flynn entered a relationship with Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca. This lasted for years, but eventually broke down, Flynn claims, because—on top of Tresca’s infidelities—she was still un­willing to play the subordinate domestic role expected of her.

This is the point where the memoirs end. She had told the story of “My First Life” up to 1926, and planned another volume on “My Second Life”. The break between the two lives is supposed to be around her decision to join the Communist Party of the USA after years of hesitation about committing to party discipline. But this doesn’t ring true. She didn’t actually join the Communists until 1936, supposedly because faction fights in the party prevented her application being processed. Such fights were going on fiercely, but ten years is a long time to let a membership application slide. The preface to The Rebel Girl says that the next book would deal with “my life as an active Communist from 1936 to the present day”. But what about that decade in between?

It must be down to another case of her personal desire for free­dom conflicting with the political imperatives of others. Over those ten years, Flynn lived with Marie Equi, a women’s rights campaigner and IWW supporter who spent three years in jail for opposing the first world war, and is favourably referenced several times in The Rebel Girl. Equi was an out lesbian, but whether her relationship with Flynn was sexual is unclear: she was at the very least a source of compassion as Flynn recovered from exhaustion brought on by constant activity and her split with Tresca. But the question is ultimately irrelevant: the close companionship of two independent women was enough of an offence to received wisdom in itself.

Such things remained scandalous in the 1950s. Gay members of the US Communist Party then were asked to leave, or even expelled. Officially, the party was afraid their sexuality could be used to blackmail them and obtain information. Communists likely felt they had a hard enough job defending their own existence against all the witch-hunts without having to defend gays and lesbians too—not unlike the Irish Socialist Federation’s fear of admitting a Jewish member. But there was also a strong view—found elsewhere on the left, too—that homosexuality was an unfortunate deviation caused by capitalism.

Flynn was imprisoned for two years by McCarthyism, and the book she wrote about that experience paints a negative picture of lesbians on the inside warped for lack of male partnership. There is some evidence that she originally wrote far more sympathetically of her lesbian fellow inmates, only to rewrite the chapter under pressure from the CPUSA who published the book. An FBI report claimed that Flynn had a relationship with another prisoner—but such a source is of course very suspect. A biographer examining the issue was originally denied access by the CP to Flynn’s papers, and when those papers became available, writings on her time with Equi were missing.

“There were no hard and fast lines drawn between one good freedom cause and another and no such fears of reprisal as there are today”, Flynn writes of the 1920s. “People were not afraid they would hurt one cause by identifying themselves with another.” The Rebel Girl testifies to the power of that quest for all-round liberation, to the inspiring movements and struggles it gave rise to. But it speaks also—both in what it says and what it leaves out—of the tragedies that follow when that quest is fettered by what is fancied to be acceptable or popular.