Background

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (July-August 2013), Volume 21

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speaking in Paterson (‘Silk City’), New Jersey, in May 1913.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speaking in Paterson (‘Silk City’), New Jersey, in May 1913.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was born in 1890 in New Hampshire. Her mother, Anne Gurley, emigrated from Loughrea to Boston in 1877; her father, Thomas Flynn, was born to Irish immigrants living in Maine in 1859. Her father was an itinerant cartographer during her youth, bringing her into contact with the everyday brutalities of America’s industrial centres. In The rebel girl, her 1955 autobiography, Flynn recalled the dangers of the New England mills—‘Safety devices were still unheard of . . . A girl’s long hair had been caught in the unguarded machine and was literally scalped.’ The family settled in a grim cold-water flat in the South Bronx in 1900. Her parents imbued her with a devotion to Irish separatism and an appreciation for Irish participation in American labour organisations, including the Knights of Labor and the Western Federation of Miners. Flynn read Marx, Upton Sinclair and Edward Bellamy, and attended meetings organised by local German socialists eager to attract their English-speaking neighbours. At sixteen she delivered her first lecture to the Harlem Socialist Club (on women and socialism) and was first arrested (for lecturing without a permit and blocking traffic on Broadway). She also joined the IWW that year. After her encounter with radical socialism in the tenements, her horizons broadened beyond the South Bronx and the struggle for Irish freedom. But Irish separatism still motivated Flynn and inspired her commitment to leading a diverse, polyglot labour movement through the shared language of industrial unionism.

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