Biography of an important early-20th-century labor and human rights activist known as the East Side Joan of Arc, now sadly neglected. This is the latest in the Lives of American Women series.
A radical agitator and later devoted member of the U.S. Communist Party, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964) was notorious in her day, stretching from 1906, when she first began speaking publicly against the capitalist exploitation of the working class at age 16, until her death in the Soviet Union at age 74. Vapnek (History/St. John’s Univ.; Breadwinners: Working Women and Economic Independence, 1865-1920, 2009, etc.) sketches Flynn’s radical activity within the context of ongoing labor struggles and the rise and fall of sympathy for the socialist cause in the first half of the century. Indeed, Flynn had gotten arrested and imprisoned numerous times in her career. Her longest incarceration occurred during the fraught McCarthy era of the early 1950s, when she served more than two years at West Virginia’s Alderson Female Penitentiary for “conspiracy” as a CP leader. Flynn’s Irish immigrant parents fostered her early free-thinking radicalism; members of the Knights of Labor, they moved from New England to the Bronx to find work, lived among the struggling poor and were compelled by the revolutionary message of socialism. From her first public speech, “What Socialism Will Do for Women,” Flynn gained the notice of leaders like anarchist Emma Goldman and Bill Haywood of the Industrial Workers of the World. Becoming a first-rate Wobbly “jawsmith,” Flynn traveled widely for the IWW, dropped out of high school, got married and had a child, whom she deposited with her family in the Bronx while she pursued her trailblazing work for the right of free speech and the strikers. Flynn denounced the violence that beset the struggle and did not work for women’s suffrage, although she believed fiercely in women’s equality, free love and birth control.
A brief encapsulation of the fury and disillusionment that characterized the career of this significant American activist.