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Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: Labor Activist and ‘Rebel Girl’ of the Village

It is no surprise that social movements for workers’ rights and freedom of speech were propelled by activists from Greenwich Village. The neighborhood in the early twentieth century was a meeting ground for a heterogeneous collection of people who sometimes shared little in common except for their passion for justice. Yet they argued with each other anyway, and often found that their movements were stronger when they included dissenting voices. Feminist, labor organizer, and unabashed communist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was certainly one such voice. 

Flynn was born in Concord, New Hampshire in 1890 to an Irish Catholic family. She learned her politics at a young age from her parents, who were working class and favored the ideas put forth by socialism. When she and her family moved to the South Bronx in 1905, she was further radicalized by the disturbing working and living conditions of her neighbors, many of whom worked at the roundhouse of the New Haven Railroad. Although the family struggled to make ends meet, they did what they could to help their neighbors. Flynn later recalled her mother acting as a midwife for women who had no access to proper care while giving birth. 

A commemorative historical marker in Flynn’s hometown with the moniker she would later earn, ‘Rebel Girl’ (removed in 2023 due to public controversy). Image: New Hampshire Public Radio

Songwriter Joe Hill reputedly wrote his 1915 song, ‘Rebel Girl,’ about Flynn. Whether or not this is actually true, the moniker suited her perfectly. Flynn was intelligent and outspoken, and became a public speaker for the growing labor rights movement when she was just fifteen years old. She was a compelling speaker, known to provide energy and hope to discouraged workers. In fact, she was so compelling that her speeches infamously led to riots; the first time she was arrested for one of her speeches, she was only sixteen. Her run-ins with the police would continue throughout her life.

While her labor organizing activism took her around the country, Flynn forged some of her strongest alliances in New York City. She was a member of the New York City chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as the ‘Wobblies,’ who at different times had their headquarters at 115 East 10th Street and 27 East 4th Street.

The IWW’s non-hierarchical structure and unifying vision for all workers appealed to Flynn, as it allowed her to reach laborers regardless of background, gender, or skill level. She believed that all workers should own the means of production, and that collective, equal ownership of companies would allow women, immigrants, and people of color to gain autonomy.

She helped organize the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike, in which she was once again arrested for allegedly inciting violence through a public speech. Flynn was also an active member of Greenwich Village’s Heterodoxy Club, and worked closely with Margaret Sanger on her birth control campaigns in Greenwich Village and beyond.

Flynn giving a speech during the Paterson Silk Strike in 1913.

Because she was so radical, freedom of speech was very important to Flynn. Most of her arrests were due to things that she had said, which she argued were protected by her First Amendment rights. In 1919, then-Attorney General Mitchell Palmer ordered raids on institutions he deemed to be ideological threats, such as the IWW, as part of the “Red Scare” which followed World War I and the Russian Revolution. Flynn and fellow activists joined forces with Village-based lawyer Arthur Garfield Hayes to protect the constitutional rights of everyday people from such abuses of power. Together they founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920. Roger Baldwin, Crystal Eastman, Walter Nelles, Morris Ernst, Albert DeSilver, Jane Addams, and Felix Frankfurter were among the other founding members. The first ACLU headquarters was located at 70 Fifth Avenue.

70 Fifth Avenue, photographed by Dylan Chandler.

In the 1930s, Flynn turned toward communism as a potential solution to the Great Depression and the failure of the U.S. government to protect its citizens from poverty. She joined the Communist Party in 1937. Although the ACLU was and still is a nonpartisan organization, many members took issue with Flynn and other far-left colleagues who had joined the party. Three years later, facing public pressure, the ACLU expelled all of its communist board members, including Flynn.

Flynn was not to be stopped by this ouster. She led an incredibly prolific career, which included a run for Congress from New York in 1942, championing women’s issues like birth control and labor rights for female workers. She earned 50,000 votes. In 1944 she supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president––a rare exception to her otherwise anti-establishment politics, as she shared FDR’s desire to improve the lot of workers.

During the McCarthy Era, Flynn served a two-year prison sentence (1952-1954) for an alleged attempt to overthrow the government under the Smith Act. Her sentence followed a lengthy trial in which she represented herself. She defended her protest tactics before the court, arguing that it was not communists, but rather police, who incited violence. Imprisonment did not deter her from her principles, and she continued to serve on the boards of several labor organizations after her release. On March 13, 1961, she was elected as the leader of the Communist Party of the United States of America, a position she held until she passed away in 1964. When she died, Flynn left her small estate to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker house in the East Village. Flynn and Day first met in the 1910s and Flynn regularly sent old clothing and blankets to the Catholic Worker house.

In 1976, the ACLU issued a posthumous reversal of their decision to expel Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, stating that it did not align with their support of freedom of expression for all.

To learn more about women’s history and labor history in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and Noho, check out our Women’s Suffrage History Map and our Civil Rights and Social Justice map. To learn more about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and other free speech activists in the Village, you can watch our October 2022 webinar, Radical Social Movements in the Village and the Battle for Free Speech.

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