Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: rebel women and radical unionism

Erima Dall continues our series on revolutionary women with a look at the life of a US union radical and her struggle to help organise women workers

When Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was 15 years old she was asked to give a speech at the Harlem Socialist Club in New York, which she regularly attended with her father. She chose the topic “What can socialism do for women?”

Flynn grew up at the turn of the 20th century, surrounded by women in poverty who worked for a dollar a day while single-handedly raising children. Yet women were excluded from most unions and often had no control over their wages, which were paid to their husbands and fathers. Nor did they have the vote.

In her speech Flynn, “stressed the possibility, at least under socialism, of industrialising all the domestic tasks by collective kitchens and dining places, nurseries, laundries and the like.”

She recognised that women’s liberation could not be achieved simply through the vote. Women also needed economic liberation—from poverty, from the compulsion to marry, from the burdens of housework and wage work.

But in order to collectivise all domestic tasks, working men and women would need to have control over how society was organised—and for this a socialist revolution was necessary.

Flynn got invitations to speak all around the city. The newspapers referred to her as the “girl orator” and she was offered a part in a labour play, which she promptly turned down. “I don’t want to be an actress!” she said, “I’m in the labour movement and I speak my own piece!” So at age sixteen she joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Founded in 1905, the IWW was a revolutionary trade union. It stood in direct opposition to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a union that excluded blacks, women, migrants and unskilled workers. At the IWW founding conference its leader Bill Haywood declared that the organisation “recognises neither race, creed, color, sex, or previous condition of servitude.”

This promise was fulfilled. The IWW ranks were filled with itinerant workers who roamed from job to job in the West, as well as many immigrant workers.

In 1907 the IWW helped organise prostitutes to strike in New Orleans, something previously unheard of. And in 1912 they led the Lawrence textiles strike, where over 25 nationalities were represented.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was a key organiser of this strike. Her rise into the leadership of the IWW had been swift. At age 17 she was elected delegate of her local IWW branch, and shortly after she attended her first strike in Connecticut, where she participated in the strike committee meetings.

After that she stormed from strike to strike, helping to organise and lead workers at Masabi Iron Range, the Passaid textile factory, the Paterson silk weavers and many more.

The Lawrence “Bread and Roses” strike was the most spectacular of these. In 1912 the IWW led 23,000 workers, mostly women, who went on strike for better wages and conditions. They invented new strike methods like mass parades and the moving picket line, and they sought to break down racial and gender divisions among workers.

They held strike meetings in multiple languages, and encouraged women—both workers and housewives—to be active in the strike.

Flynn understood the dangers of leaving women at home, isolated from the political discussions and the thrill of the strike activity. “Women can be the most militant or the most conservative element in a strike, in proportion to their comprehension of its purposes” she wrote.

“The IWW has been accused of putting the women in the front. The truth is, the IWW does not keep them in the back, and they go to the front.”

Several women were elected delegates to the strike committee. Soup kitchens were set up to aid women’s involvement, and supporters from New York City were called upon to care for the children of striking families. The strikers won their wage demands.

Flynn saw her work in the IWW as inseparable from the fight for women’s equality. Unlike the feminists of the suffrage movement, she saw nothing to celebrate in cross-class alliances of women.

In The IWW Call to Women she wrote “The sisterhood of women, like the brotherhood of men, is a hollow sham to labour… It is to the women who are wage earners, or wives of workers, that the IWW appeals. …The ‘queen of the parlour’ has no interests in common with the ‘maid of the kitchen’.”

When men and women unite in the class struggle—on the streets and in the workplaces—narrow prejudges about gender begin to dissolve. Flynn and the IWW did everything they could to speed up this process, and the wider struggle to liberate working women.


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