Women’s history: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Rebel Girl


In honor of Women’s History Month, the seventh article in our series on the Communist Party’s 90th Anniversary will survey a few documents written by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, one of the most prominent women Communists in U.S. history.

Flynn was a labor leader, activists and feminist. At 16, she gave her first speech, “What Socialism Will Do for Women.” For her political activities, Flynn was expelled from high school.

By 1907, Flynn had become a full-time organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, where she helped organize union campaigns among garment workers, silk weavers, restaurant workers and textile workers. In 1920, Flynn helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU, where she helped organize the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, among other union and labor activists.

Flynn was also concerned with women’s rights. She supported access to birth control and women’s suffrage, and criticized some unions for being male-dominated. In 1936, Flynn joined the Communist Party and started to write for the Daily Worker. By 1938, she was elected to the CP’s National Committee. (It was due to her Party membership the ACLU kicked her off of their board of directors.)

During WWII, Flynn played an important role in the campaign for equal economic opportunity and pay for women workers. In 1942, Flynn ran for Congress in New York and received 50,000 votes. By 1948, McCarthyism had become the law of the land and top leaders of the CP were thrown in jail. In 1951, Flynn was arrested under the provisions of the Smith Act and thrown in jail for two years.

Flynn was elected as the national chair of the Communist Party in 1961. She visited the Soviet Union many times, where she died on September 5, 1964. Her remains were flown to the United States. She is buried at Waldheim Cemetery near the graves of Eugene Dennis, Bill Haywood and the Haymarket Martyrs. She wrote two autobiographical books, “The Rebel Girl” and “The Alderson Story: My Life As a Political Prisoner.”

The first document we will look at is titled “Women in the War,” published in 1942. Flynn starts her document by making very clear her stance in the struggle against fascism.

She writes, “We cannot live complacently in a world where homes are destroyed, children starved, women raped, religion violently suppressed, democracy stamped out, minority group’s exterminated, human dignity degraded. There can be no peace and happiness for all people until Nazi-Fascism is destroyed.

“Our security, honor, self-respect, humanity, demand that we win this just war. There can be no compromise with savagery and slavery.”

Flynn quickly connects the struggle for women’s rights and African American equality, and demonstrates how both can lead to greater national unity on the war front. “The Negro people and women must have access to all jobs and professions. This is democracy. To deny it is to disrupt national unity and cripple production in a critical war period. Victory is at stake.”

Flynn also makes the point that the fight for equality in war production will have a long-term impact on women and African American rights long-after the war is over. “Women’s role in industry, like that of the Negro people, is not of a temporary nature…there were ten million women employed in 1930, two and a half million more than in 1920. Many more will remain in industry after this war…”

Additionally, Flynn writes, “Work is the right of all, regardless of sex, color, creed or language. A lack of clarity on this creates discord in families and shops, indifference in unions, and insecurity among women workers, just as discrimination causes the deepest resentment among Negro workers.”

Flynn concludes the pamphlet with, “The voice of women must be heard in the highest councils of the trade union movement and the government. Let us overcome our past shortcomings now in the white heat of a war for human liberation.”

The second document is titled “Stool-pigeon,” and was written in 1949, just after the top leaders of the Communist Party were thrown in jail. Written in the heat of the moment, the document reflects the emotion and anger of the McCarthyite times.

Flynn starts the document by questioning the right of the government to indict the leaders of the Communist Party based on a warped notion of what they are supposed to think, rather than what they actually think.

“This is a trial of a political party’s right to advocate its principles of socialism as it defines them, not as they are set forth falsely in the indictment…It is the first trial of a political party in our country, not for what it does, but for what it thinks.

“Here is an ideological frame-up, built on books, pamphlets, papers, school outlines, speeches, as a motley crew of stool pigeons interprets them.”

Flynn them defines what a stool pigeon is. “Stool pigeons,” she writes, ” are usually private detectives hired by employers or company agents, despised as ‘finks,’ tools of the bosses, by all honest workers…Throughout human history there has been scorn and contempt for one who betrays what he pretends loyally to support, and by shamming sincerity gains the confidence of his fellows. Judas Iscariot is the best known example.”

Flynn also put the trade union movement on notice and warns them that the stool pigeon will be used against them as well. “Some trade unionists, whose experience in the class struggle may be limited, say: ‘Let the Communist worry!  What does it got to do with me?’ Well, brother, better take your head out of the sand…Any worker could be their [stool pigeon] victim…When they were spying against Communists they were doing it against the labor movement…”

Flynn concludes her impassioned plea with the following: “In this three-ringed circus a fair and impartial hearing is impossible. The contempt technique is used to jail men and women who refuse to be informers…Remember in Germany and all fascist countries – the Communists were outlawed, but so were all people’s parties, the unions, the women’s organizations. All democratic rights and institutions disappeared. Act now – before fascism is upon us.”

Eventually Flynn was herself indicted under the infamous Smith Act and served two years in prison. Stool pigeon testimony was used to deny her constitutional rights.

The text of Flynn’s opening statement to the court, where she acted as her own defense, was printed in July 1952 under the title “Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Speaks To The Court.”

Flynn said, “Our ideas may be new and strange to you. Probably you have never seen or met a Communist before. We don’t ask you to agree with us but to listen with an open mind and not to accept as gospel truth the sensational tales of stool-pigeons and planted agents who will be the government’s chief, if not sole, witness.”

Flynn took on the charge that the Communist Party intended to over-throw the U.S. government by force and violence. “I came to the conclusion that socialism could be achieved, not by one splurge of violence, but by the persistent political activities of the workers and the people. And so in order to participate in political activities in the effort to achieve socialism, I joined the Communist Party.”

Flynn also outlines her life’s work, her childhood and upbringing, as well as many of the struggles she and other communist led and participated in.

In closing she quotes Abraham Lincoln: “This country with its institutions belongs to the people who inhabit it.”

And then she adds, “We are asking you [the court] to decide this case on the evidence, or, more correctly, may I say, on the lack of evidence which we are confident will be glaringly revealed long before this trial is over…”

Ultimately, the Smith Act was declared unconstitutional and Flynn and the other Communist Party leaders were freed.

Photos: CPUSA archives, Tamiment Library, NYU



Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.