Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Irish Women Activists Trilogy: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
speaking at a silk workers'
strike in Patterson, New Jersey,
1913  Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
Wikimedia Commons

By Adrian McGrath

Editor's Note: This is the second of a trilogy on Irish women activists. Find the first article on Mary Harris "Mother" Jones here.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: The Rebel Girl (1890 to 1964)

An example of child labor in 1914 in North Carolina.
Nannie Colson, 11 years old, earned $3 per week
as a "looper" in the clothing factory
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, working conditions in industrialized Europe and America were often brutal and dangerous. The laws offered little protections for workers then; and capitalism -- although successful in many ways -- was typically unbridled, exploitative, and hostile towards workers. It was a difficult time for the working man, and women and children had few rights and protections. When economic times got rough, workers became desperate.

Because of these dreadful conditions, some political activists became more extreme, seeking solutions out of the mainstream. Some became socialists or anarchists. Others followed the new philosophy of the day proposed by Karl Marx -- Communism.

Today we know Communism is a totally failed system. It made lofty promises such as the ability to create "a workers' paradise." It had idealistic slogans like, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." It asked the workers of the world to unite for they had nothing to lose but their chains.

Garment Workers' strike in Chicago, 1910
Wikimedia Commons

In reality Communism, where ever it appeared resulted in oppression by a new ruling class -- the Communist Party elites -- who simply replaced the old ruling class of Capitalist elites.

Communism where ever it appeared -- in Russia, China, and elsewhere -- resulted in tyranny and a loss of civil liberties, including a loss of fundamental freedoms such as freedom of speech, the press, and of religion. Furthermore, it failed to accomplish its main objective -- economic justice for workers.

Nevertheless, considering the terrible oppression workers lived under in the early 20th century, some economic and political activists tried socialism and communism as a solution to their problems. One such activist was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Her heart was in the right place; but her solution was wrong.

Eventually nicknamed "The Rebel Girl" because of her revolutionary ideas, fiery speeches, and political activism, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was born in New Hampshire to Irish immigrants. Her mother was Annie Gurley from Galway, Ireland; her father was Thomas Flynn from County Mayo, Ireland. In typical Irish fashion, she was a rebel. There was even a song about her called "The Rebel Girl; and this was the name of her autobiography too.

Lawrence, Massachusetts textile workers strike in 1912
State militia with rifles and fixed bayonets against unarmed
striking workers, led by the IWW  Wikimedia Commons
Her Irish father instilled upon Elizabeth the importance of rebelling against tyranny by teaching her Irish history. Elizabeth once wrote that "when one understood British imperialism, it was an open window to all imperialism." Elizabeth thus developed a hatred of oppression in general, in a sense, comparing any oppression, political or economic, to the oppression Britain forced upon Ireland for centuries.

She became knowledgeable of Irish history, and came to believe that each generation of her ancestors had played a role in a rebellion against British tyranny in Ireland. She saw herself as a continuation of Irish rebellion against oppression, anywhere and everywhere.

When the family moved to the Bronx in New York, her father, Thomas Flynn, became active in socialism and politics. He, along with Elizabeth's mother, taught their daughter about these topics.

Because of the family's poverty and the awful conditions workers lived under then, socialism was seen as the best solution to the problem. Instead of having the means of production owned by a few big shot capitalists, the means of production should be controlled by the people, or the state which in theory represented the people.

Elizabeth came to believe, as she later stated, that "scientific socialism made it clear that it was not a poor man's fault if he was out of work." She felt people could be poor because they simply did not want to exploit their fellow man or woman, the way capitalists did.

Workers of the Lane Cotton Mill in New Orleans,
Louisiana from 1913, original photo by Lewis Hine,
from the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.
Note how young some of the workers look.
Elizabeth began to educate herself on politics by reading on the subject including the works of Peter Kropotkin, a Russia political activist who believed in anarcho-communism; and she extended her education to feminist politics. She developed impressive public speaking abilities, and in fact made her first public speech at the Harlem Socialist Club at only 15 years of age. Her topic was "What Socialism will do for women."

(Here is a youtube link to a reproduction of a speech she gave in Union Square in New York City in 1914. This is related to the Tenement Museum in New York City.)

"Rebel Girl"
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn making a speech,
circa 1910
Photo from the Library of Congress and
Wikimedia Commons

An interesting anecdote about Elizabeth states that a Broadway producer once proposed to make her an actress. She had such a tremendous public speaking ability and commanding stage presence, he figured crowds would love it. But Elizabeth refused saying she did not want to act; she wanted to speak ... her own words.

She was electrifying as an extemporaneous speaker and motivator; some people compared her to Saint Joan of Arc. She was clearly very intelligent and became a first class orator. She did not, however, graduate from high school, leaving Morris High School in the Bronx. She regretted this move later but nevertheless continued to educate herself.

Elizabeth married J.A. Jones in 1907, an activist with an economic political organization called the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). She and her husband had two sons, one of whom died shortly after birth; and the other son only lived to be 30. Despite being in love, her marriage also did not last. We must wonder to what extent these tragedies affected her later behavior.

Flynn worked for the IWW and continued to make rousing speeches against capitalism and advocating workers' rights and women's rights. She fought for economic rights for laborers as diverse as garment workers, textile workers, restaurant workers, and coal miners. He relationship with the IWW became strained over time, however, for various reasons. (IWW members were nicknamed "Wobblies.")

Amazingly, in 1920 she played a key role in creating a new political and legal organization -- the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She is recorded as being one of its founders.

She was a strong advocate for the women's right to vote (which became American law with the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920) and was an advocate for the legalization of birth control (which was not legalized even for married couples in the USA until the US Supreme Court decision of Griswald v Connecticut.) In this way Elizabeth showed that she was way ahead of her time, anticipating fundamental societal, political, and legal changes in America.

Flynn was involved in many workers' strikes and was arrested several times for various reasons relating to her activism, which were always non-violent, though very vocal.

In 1936, however, Elizabeth made a critical move in her life; she joined the Communist Party of the USA. This radical move resulted in her expulsion from the leadership of the ACLU. In 1940 she was removed from the governing board.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn at the Patterson
Silk Workers Strike, 1913
Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth became a journalist for the newspaper of the Communist Party USA called the Daily Worker. In 1942 she even ran in an election for Congress, but she lost. She did, however, get almost 50,000 votes.

Elizabeth was arrested in 1951 under the Smith Act, for advocating the violent over throw of the US government, largely because of her membership in the Communist Party. She was not involved in any violence, just accused of "advocating" a violent overthrow.

Despite the argument that she was exercising her right of free speech, protected under the US Constitution's First Amendment, she was found guilty and sent to jail.

Elizabeth served two years at a federal prison at Alderson, West Virginia. She considered herself to be a political prisoner and wrote an account of her experience called The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner.

When she got out of jail, she simply picked up where she left off. Elizabeth made speeches and advocated Communism. She ran for public office, for New York City Council, and lost.

Flynn became the chairwoman the Communist Party USA in 1961 and traveled to the Soviet Union. In 1964, however, at age 74, she died while visiting the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Cover page to sheet music written
for a song called "Rebel Girl"
about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, 1915
Wikimedia Commons

The Russians held a state funeral for her in Moscow, and reportedly 25,000 people attended. Her remains where sent back to the USA, and she was buried in Chicago. (Here is a link to a video of her state funeral in Moscow.)

It is interesting to note that Elizabeth donated her belongings (consisting mainly of personal items like books, clothes, and some furniture) to another Irish American woman activist (the third subject of our trilogy) named Dorothy Day, the founder of the newspaper Catholic Worker.

Dorothy and Elizabeth became friends in New York around 1910, and both shared an interest in helping the poor and the working class. Elizabeth would send needed supplies sometimes to help Dorothy at the Catholic Worker House, a social services center Dorothy operated in New York.

Dorothy Day, though a socialist, found salvation for the poor through Catholicism, charity, and spiritual aid, while Elizabeth advocated Communism.

Dorothy Day, friend of
Elizabeth's and head
of the Catholic Worker
House, journalist and social
activist, 1916
Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, among the many noteworthy people Elizabeth befriended during her life's work in activism were the Irish revolutionary and socialist James Connolly, who was executed by the British in the famous Easter 1916 Rebellion in Dublin, and also Mary Harris "Mother" Jones (the first woman of our trilogy on women activists.) She also knew John Reed, the Harvard-educated, socialist journalist, who wrote about the Bolshevik Revolution in his book Ten Days that Shook the World (and who was portrayed by Warren Beatty in the film Reds.)

How can we asses the life of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn? Different people will see her in different ways, of course. As for me, she was clearly an intelligent and talented person who initially and generally advocated for good causes -- workers' rights, equal rights, women's rights, and social justice. She was right in that social and economic reforms were definitely needed at that time.

She was misguided, however, to think socialism would solve the economic problems of the poor. And she was tragically mistaken to join the Communist Party and be fooled into believing that Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, or any ism that sprang from the communist philosophy could do anything but result in more tyranny and more oppression.

We need only look to the many millions of innocent people who died under Communist regimes to see the tragic error Elisabeth made. Some historians believe the number of people who were killed under communism to be around 100 million.

Despite the mistakes Elizabeth made in her life, she was a remarkable woman; and a study of her life (with both the good and bad things she did) is worthwhile.

Sources and Further Reading: See's article on Flynn; "The Story of the Rebel Girl" by Benjamin Silverman at; speech by Elizabeth with the Tenement Museum at youtube  ; Weekly Comment: The Irish of Labor History from 

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Irish Women Activists Trilogy: Mary Harris Jones, "Mother Jones"

Mary Harris Jones,"Mother Jones"
Photo from Library of Congress
and Wikimedia Commons

By Adrian McGrath

(Editor's Note: The Irish, it seems, have always been involved in politics. This is almost certainly the result of 800 years of occupation and oppression in Ireland by a foreign and hostile power. For 800 years Great Britain occupied Irish lands and oppressed Irish people, mainly for religious and ethnic reasons. But there were other reasons, including economic ones. The British exploited Ireland and its people for money and the equivalents of money.

It is no wonder that the Irish produced over the centuries not just rebels for a political cause, but rebels with an economic cause.

James Connolly, Irish Rebel and
socialist who was executed
by the British after the
Easter 1916 Rebellion
Photo from Wikimedia Commons 

Many Irish men became famous for struggling for economic justice, not just for the Irish, but for all people. We can think of James Connolly  who fought in the bloody 1916 Easter Rebellion in Dublin who also was an advocate of socialism and economic equality.

We can think of men who advocated economic justice by the pen rather than the sword such as Eugene O'Neill, the Irish American author of famous plays about people who lived on the fringes of life. (See more about Eugene O'Neill at my article on him.)

Eugene O'Neill,
Irish American playwright and
Nobel Prize recipient who
wrote about social injustice
Photo from
  Wikimedia Commons
and Library of Congress

But it was not just Irish men who advocated and took great risks for economic and social justice; it was also Irish women. will now look at three Irish and Irish American women who took a stand against overwhelming odds and faced great difficulties to help other people in need. The next three articles, a trilogy, will be about Irish women activists and the impact they had not just on the Irish but on all people worldwide. We will examine Mary Harris Jones (Mother Jones), Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Dorothy Day.

Women have always played a major part in Irish and Irish American history. There are many more fine examples besides these three above; but it is hoped that by studying the lives of these three significant women, readers will be encouraged to learn more about the subject.

The article below is about Mary Harris Jones, a school teacher, an advocate for proper child labor laws, and a labor organizer who became famous and beloved as "Mother Jones." The next will be about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn -- a feminist, a socialist labor leader, and a leader of the political union called the International Workers of the World. The third and final article will cover the life of Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper and social activist who was praised by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.)

Mary Harris Jones, "Mother Jones"

Mother Jones, circa 1912
Photo from Library of Congress
and Wikimedia Commons 

Mary Harris was born in the city of Cork in Ireland in 1837.
Her parents were poor Irish Catholic farmers who rented their land. She and her family fled Ireland for North America when she was young because of the potato blight and the Great Hunger (Potato Famine of 1845 to 1850.) The horrors of the Famine forever scarred the psyche of Mary Harris. One million Irish people died of starvation and disease in Ireland from 1845 to 1850, while another one million sailed away into permanent exile from Ireland. Most, like Mary's family, eventually came to the United States. (Read more about the Great Hunger at my article here.)

Skibbereen, Ireland during the Great Hunger
(Potato Famine) Illustrated London News, 1847
by James Mahony from Wikimedia Commons

In permanent exile Mary first lived in Canada and was educated in Toronto. After completing her schooling in her early 20s, she moved to Michigan and worked as a teacher in a Catholic convent school. She eventually moved on, first to Chicago and then to Memphis, TN. In 1861 she married a man named George Jones who was a labor leader.

She and her husband had four children, but tragically the husband and all the children died from an epidemic of yellow fever in Memphis. Mary had abandoned teaching and began making dresses and women's clothing for a living, eventually moving back to Chicago.

Tragedy again fell upon Mary when in 1871 the Great Chicago Fire destroyed her dress shop and home, as it destroyed much of the city.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871
which destroyed the home and dress shop
of Mary Harris Jones
Photo by Currier and Ives, Wikimedia Commons

Much like the story of the Irish philanthropist in New Orleans (also discussed on this blog, see Margaret Haughery), Mary Harris Jones, instead of being destroyed by tragedy, responded by doing positive things for her community.

She became a member of the Knights of Labor and advocated for fair treatment of workers. She led strikes and put herself into dangerous situations when riots occurred sometimes mixed with violence and police brutality. She eventually joined the United Mine Workers and advocated for a fair wage.

It is significant to note that some labor protests at this time became very dangerous and even deadly, such as the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886. At Haymarket, Workers protested police abuse and advocated an eight-hour working day. A bomb was thrown from the crowd at the police; the police opened fire; and there were many casualties. Such was the nature of protest in those days.

The Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886.
Workers were demanding an eight hour working day
Photo from Harper's Weekly and Wikimedia Commons

Mary Harris Jones seemed to have a philosophy of social justice which had a mixture of Christian beliefs from her Roman Catholic background (indeed, her brother became a Catholic priest) and socialism. She became active with the Socialist Party of America. She was in fact one of the first organizers of the Industrial Workers of the World, a Leftist political/economic labor organization and union.

Mary would organize protests made up not just of striking men, but also of their wives and children. This made the protests very strong and persuasive. But it was also in keeping with Mary's strong belief in the importance of the family unit.

Child workers at a cotton mill in 1911
Photo from the Library of Congress and
Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons

The elites of society and their political representatives, of course, feared and detested Mary Harris Jones. One politician, a district attorney called Reese Blizzard, who strongly opposed Mary called her "the most dangerous woman in America." Mary was on trial in 1902 before this man after being arrested for disregarding a judicial decree which banned a strike for miners in West Virginia.

Interestingly, Mary was not an advocate for the women's right to vote. Rather she stressed workers' rights and fought for laws protecting the working class -- composed of men, women, and children. Some suffragettes criticized her for not openly supporting the women's vote.

Children working in a textile mill in
Georgia in 1909, instead of going to school
Photo from the Library of Congress
and Wikimedia Commons

Mary, as a big supporter of the family unit, always included protecting the rights of children as well as adult workers. In 1903 she famously led a protest march from Philadelphia to Long Island, NY to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt to bring awareness to the problems facing working children. This was called the "march of the mill children."

Children as textile workers in Georgia, 1909
Photo from the Library of Congress and
Wikimedia Commons

By the late 1890s, now with national and international fame, Mary Harris Jones became known openly as "Mother Jones," partly because of her age, being over 60, and her demeanor. She treated the working men she represented as a mother treated her children. She also supported humane child labor laws which allowed for children to go to school rather than go to work at an early age.

Children in a workers' protest in New York City
in 1909. The sign says "Abolish Child Slavery" in English
and in Yiddish. Photo from Wikimedia Commons and
the Library of Congress

In 1912 Mary participated in a strike in West Virginia. The United Mine Workers were literally at war with a force of private security guards controlled by the mine owners. Fights and gunshots were involved. Mary was arrested and charged with attempted murder. Although she was given a long sentence from an ad hoc military court, of questionable legitimacy, she was let go after about three months. She had developed a case of pneumonia while being under arrest. This incident resulted the an investigation by the US Senate.

It was common at that time for some large businesses, like coal mine companies, to hire virtually small armies of armed security guards who roughed up striking workers.

Mother Jones by this time had become a simultaneously beloved and despised well-known figure. She had been arrested time and again and appeared in court time and again because of her advocacy for social justice.

She was loved by the working class and the oppressed, and she was hated by the ruling class. She was once denounced in the US Senate as the "grandmother of all agitators."

Mother Jones lived an incredible life -- born in impoverished and occupied Ireland, a survivor of the Great Hunger (Great Famine) in Ireland, a woman who lost her husband and four children to an epidemic, a woman who lost her career and home to the Great Chicago Fire, and a woman denounced by powerful politicians as "a dangerous woman" and "grandmother of agitators," but a woman who was heroic, caring, and bold who significantly influenced American society and American history.

As a true Irish Rebel, Mother Jones lived by her own war cry -- a mix of religious mercy from her Catholic upbringing and boldness from her troublesome Irish nature. Her motto was: "Pray for the dead and fight like Hell for the living."

Mary Harris Jones, "Mother Jones," lived to be 93 years old and left a significant impact on all labor movements since her death in 1930. She is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois.

Mother Jones lives on as a hero who spent her life trying to help oppressed workers and poor children and create a more civilized society.

Note: There is today a magazine in the USA named Mother Jones. It is named in honor of Mary Harris Jones. See more about it here and its discussion of Mary's life and works.

Sources and Further Reading: Mother Jones magazine, discussion of Mary Harris Jones' life and works; Wikipedia article on Mary Harris Jones.