How I Became a Rebel: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
Originally uploaded by Tobias Higbie

How I Became a Rebel. A Symposium. Part 2. The Labor Herald, July 1922, pp. 23-24.

By Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

It is difficult to say how, when or where our rebellious spirits were born! Possibly we are but fortunate inheritors of a rich legacy. Undoubtedly countless generations of wild Irish ancestors who fought and fled into the hills and died for Irish freedom, contributed much to mine. One great grandfather lay all night in the ditch near his little house, watching for a light in the window which meant his wife came safely through childbirth. Another went to join the French when they landed at Calala Bay and never returned. My grandfather came to Maine to escape hanging. But life in the land of the free was not easy in those days for the Irish. They were foreigners to the Yankees and had to fight their way to economic and political equality. It is strange that the same historical background has not produced more rebels of Irish blood in this country! Many of the second and third generation are policemen and politicians, causing a race that should symbolize freedom to be hated and feared as tools of tyranny. But America seems to have a similar disintegrating effect on the second generation of other races, as well.

Sympathy plays a large part in molding the child mind. I remember little episodes which left indelible impressions. A woman who had lost all the fingers of one hand in an unguarded machine went by our house daily. I could not understand why this poor woman must still work. I saw an old man weeping as he was put in the little town lock-up at Adams, Mass., for vagrancy. What a torment of questions stirred my mind then! Nor will I ever forget my childish horror when a girl’s hair was torn off by the belting in a mill across the street from our school and the mill stopped for only a few minutes. Imperceptibly my thought processes began to question poverty which was obviously the explanation of these tragedies.

My father had worked his way through college, studying civil engineering. But he had been burdened by his mother’s large family and had commenced late, a real handicap in competition with younger men. The result was that although he is exceptionally talented, it was not easy to secure continuous employment and the actual pinch of poverty was brought home to us more than once. This visualized the problem as no amount of abstract reading could have done.

So I was in a receptive state of mind for radical thought when I joined a school debating society. We grappled with the problem of capital and labor, woman suffrage, the trusts, etc. During the big anthracite strike of 1902 one of our favorite topics was “Shall the Nation Own the Coal Mines ?” A strike of the elevated roads in N. Y. brought the questions of municipal ownership of transit systems before us. I began to see that message of hope, that comes to all of us, “Socialization of industry.”

I heard Tom Lewis at a Socialist street meeting, and many other excellent speakers at the old Harlem Socialist Club. Sometimes when I get low-spirited about the value of speeches, I recall how inspired and thrilled I was by them. Finally I thought I too could speak. I was not yet sixteen and I chose the ambitious topic “Woman and Socialism.” While I still am intensely interested in how to reach women, I fear I know far less today than I did then. I went into the East Side. I met the garment workers, then in the throes of great struggles and learned of the idealism and fighting spirit of the Russians and Jews. I plunged into street speaking and loved it intensely. I was “converting the masses!” How the fresh idealism and enthusiasm of youth carries us along. But it is a stream that refreshes and revivifies our movement. Intolerant and uncompromising, it is rebuffed and chilled by older “practical” people! The creation of a sympathetic understanding and appreciation of those who must tread this stormy path would save much precious force for our movement.

One night I was arrested on 39th St. and Broadway, by an apolegetic policeman, bailed out by a saloon keeper and given some fatherly advice by the Irish magistrate on the futility of preaching Socialism to Broadway. Of course this was a dreadful shock at high school and eventually resulted in my enlisting actively in the labor movement.

It must have been about this time that I heard Debs and DeLeon speak together on “Industrial Unionism.” It was immediately after the launching of the I. W. W. and it certainly worked a turning point for me. I really began to place my feet on the ground and tread a definite path. Out of the first flush of youthful emotion, I passed into a second stage-based on a firm conviction which I still hold to, that the union movement is the real and lasting labor movement. I saw a new society built by the organized workers-not along geographical but industrial lines. Regardless of differences of opinions on forms, methods, and tactics; the fact remains that it is the movement of power, it is at grips with capitalism in the strategic place, the point of production. It speaks the worker’s language. I have no faith elsewhere than in the industrial organization of the workers, and I have unlimited faith in the promise of life and liberty it holds out for the future and the eventual ability of the workers to put it across. So I remain like my Irish ancestors, a rebel!


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One Response to How I Became a Rebel: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

  1. Tim Lacy says:


    It’s great that Ms. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote for this. [Aside: I’ve always loved her poetic name.]

    Flynn said: “But America seems to have a similar disintegrating effect on the second generation of other races, as well.” …Actually, it is ~integration~ into the mainstream of consumerism.

    Aside: Who is DeLeon?

    – TL

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