Review: Rebel Girl: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn's Autobiography

Though born in the US, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was of Irish descent and came from a long line of rebels and revolutionaries. She begins her autobiography describing the exploits of some of her ancestors who joined the French when in 1798 they landed in Killalla Bay to help free Ireland from British rule and set up an Irish Republic.

Growing up in New York around the start of the 1900s she describes how from an early age she was aware of social injustice and had a keen hatred of poverty. In her family "ideas were our meal and drinks and sometimes a substitute for both.

It is not strange, therefore, that in such a household our minds were fertile fields for socialism, when the seeds finally came". The first seeds came in the form of leaflets distributed door to door advertising a Socialist Sunday night forum which she and father began to regularly attend.

She quickly read as much radical literature as she could get her hands on and was greatly influenced by anarchist Peter Kropotkin as well as the writings of Marx and Engels.

"Socialism was a great discovery &endash; a hope, a purpose, a flame within me, lit first by a spark from anthracite".

In 1906, when still only 15 years old, she gave her first public speech entitled "What Socialism Will Do For Women" and from then went on to give speeches regularly at mass meetings. She threw herself into the labour movement and was too impatient to finish school "With the Revolution on my mind I found it difficult to concentrate on Latin or geometry." At the age of 16 she already had a great reputation as a passionate socialist orator and as one of the most active workers for the cause in New York City.

She gives a fascinating account of New York around this time: how the East side was a hotbed of radical ideas &endash; with "the Revolution" on everybody's lips; full of immigrants from all over the world, living in dire poverty and working in sweatshops for starvation wages. In mass meetings speeches were given in all different languages "Jewish, Russian, Polish, Italian, German and others".

It was around this time she met James Connolly who was living in New York at the time and was an IWW organiser. He became a family friend and she was one of those to form the Irish Socialist Club &endash; with Connolly as chairman and Gurley-Flynn's sister as secretary.

Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn joined the (The Industrial Workers of the World) IWW in 1906 and the bulk of the autobiography describes the various, often bitterly fought struggles she was involved in as an IWW organiser. She describes the IWW as "a militant, fighting, working class union. The employing class soon recognised this and gave battle from its birth. The IWW identified itself with all the pressing, immediate needs of the poorest, the most exploited, the most oppressed workers."

Gurley-Flynn gives a great account of the culture of the IWW and of how they organised, the battles for free speech, of the strikes they won and lost. She also writes of the various well known figures from US labour history she knew such as Big Bill Hayworth, Joe Hill, Mother Jones (originally from Cork!) as well as famous anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.

This books ends around the time of the state murder of Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. There is another part to her autobiography which details her life after having joined the Communist Party.

Already a communist party member when she wrote this autobiography she unfortunately dismisses some of her early activity &endash; in particular for example her famous pamphlet on workplace sabotage.

Nevertheless the book is a passionate and inspiring account of a life dedicated to a revolutionary ideal from a remarkable woman. Before Joe Hill was executed he wrote a fairwell letter to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn where he writes "you have been more to me than a Fellow Worker. You have been an inspirationÉ..locate a few more Rebel Girls like yourself because they are needed and needed badly." This book, already 50 years old, will certainly continue to inspire and encourage others to follow in her footsteps.

by Deirdre Hogan

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This edition is No88 published in Sept 2005

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