International Women’s Day has radical working class origins. Jacqueline Mulhallen reveals the extraordinary story of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and the militant struggles in which she played a leading role

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

At the 1910 International Working Women’s Conference, preceding the meeting of the Socialist International, Clara Zetkin of the German Socialist Democratic Party proposed an international women’s day. This was partly inspired by a strike in America by workers usually considered un-organisable. Among them were women workers, mostly immigrants, in the textile and garment trades, who earned half a man’s pay or less.

In 1909 there was a strike in the New York garment workshops led by Clara Lemlich, a 17 year old immigrant. The police beat the young women and even sent them to the workhouse, but there was great solidarity from other workers and the women were successful.

Shortly after the first International Women’s Day had been celebrated, there was a terrible tragedy involving these same young workers. In 1911 a fire swept through the Triangle building. The internal doors were locked to prevent union leaders getting in. The women, some of them as young as 13, jumped out of top floor windows, holding hands, to their deaths on the pavements. People watched, weeping, in the streets.

On International Women’s Day 1917, women workers in Russia went out to demonstrate for peace and bread, against the advice of their male comrades who considered it ‘too dangerous’ – and the Russian Revolution began. Unfortunately, by the time I went to the USSR on International Women’s Day 1978, women had lost the gains of the Revolution such as free crèches and restaurants – and the day was marked by men bringing home flowers for their wives.

The making of a radical young agitator

In the USA in 1912, there was another famous strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, involving garment workers, also mostly women and immigrants, which became known as the Bread and Roses Strike. The cotton mills employed different nationalities – Italians, Poles, Belgians, Germans, Lithuanians, Syrians, Greeks. When Massachusetts passed a law reducing the working hours for women and children from 56 to 54 (!) the mills reduced their pay. They were already on starvation wages and the dirty overcrowded mills bred tuberculosis and other diseases.

The link between these two strikes was a young woman organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. She was born in 1890. Her Irish American father worked as a mapmaker for the railroad and so was often away from home. Her mother had emigrated to America from Galway in Ireland and worked as a tailor.

Elizabeth had two sisters and a brother. She remembered some comfort in her early childhood in New England, but later they lived in the Bronx New York near the railroad in what was described as a cold water flat. Elizabeth describes huddling round the kitchen stove, the only heat, and all the children in the same bed with coats over them to keep warm. But she didn’t think she was as badly off as some of her neighbours, who only had a piece of bread to eat.

It was a multi-racial area: Germans, Polish, Irish, Italians, Jewish immigrants. Her mother forbade the children to use racist names. Children worked in sweatshops and adults worked in the mill, where the machinery had no guards. They lost fingers and one girl was scalped when her hair was caught in the machinery.

Elizabeth’s parents brought their children up with books and she got good grades at school. She was interested in socialism from an early age. She used to attend debating societies. When she was just 15 the Harlem Socialist Club asked her to speak, so she spoke on What Socialism Will Do For Women. Some of the statements she made included:

“The state should provide for the maintenance of every child so that the individual woman shall not be compelled to depend for support on the individual man.”

“The one system of economics that gives every human being an equal opportunity is socialism.”

“The barter and sale that goes on under the name of love is highly obnoxious.”

When she was asked if she believed in ‘free love’ she responded with characteristic quickness: ‘What’s the alternative? Slave Love?’

She became a brilliant speaker and was asked to speak all over New York and in other cities like Philadelphia and Boston. When she spoke at street corners, she stopped the traffic. David Belasco, a famous New York impresario, wanted to engage her as an actress. She replied, ‘I am in the Labour movement. I speak my own piece’.

Although she was still a 16 year old schoolgirl, the union the International Workers of the World approached her to become an organiser. They promised her parents to take good care of her and she was so eager they let her. She went to the IWW convention and visited mills, factories, mines. On a speaking tour in Montana, the local organiser persuaded her to marry him but it only lasted a couple of years.

US socialism and the workers’ movement

The IWW had been founded in 1905 by active trade unionists and socialists, among them Big Bill Haywood, Secretary of the Western Federation of Miners, Eugene Debs, the leader of the American Socialist Party, and Mother Jones, who was 75 and had organised workers for years. (She would live to be 100). At the time, most of the unions in America were craft organisations which did not admit unskilled workers. This excluded women who were in the majority in the textile mills, black workers, the vast number of workers newly arrived from Europe, maritime, construction, agriculture and mining workers and itinerant workers travelling from camp to camp in the west.

Conditions in the mines and lumber camps were atrocious – for example, they provided no bedding for the workers. Bosses hired private detectives and gunmen to oppose strikers. The workers were considered un-organisable. The IWW decided to organise them – and they succeeded. There was even a Cowboys and Bronco Busters’ local (i.e. branch) of the IWW!

Employment agencies got workers jobs for a fee, but once they had earned enough to pay it they were sacked so the agency could send another worker. In Missoula, Montana, the IWW held protest meetings outside the agencies. The city council banned street speaking. Six IWW activists were in jail.

The organisers, Elizabeth and Jack (her husband), sent for ‘all footloose rebels to come at once to defend the Bill of Rights!’ They came in their hundreds, riding the freight cars like in westerns. As soon as one speaker got arrested, another would take his place and soon the jail was overcrowded. They had to set up temporary facilities. These were so bad that the IWWs sang and shouted and woke up the local residents. The meetings were arranged so that the speakers would be arrested in time for supper, which meant that the town was feeding hundreds of prisoners. The IWW got a lot of support locally, and finally they won.

Elizabeth was asked to go to Spokane where the authorities used the same tactics. This time the treatment they received was more brutal. The police kicked out teeth, blacked eyes, broke jaws. 28 men were forced into a 7 x 8 cell, steam was turned on till they nearly suffocated, then they were removed to ice cold cells.

The food was so poor that they developed scurvy and three men died. The IWW would not let Elizabeth speak because she was pregnant – pregnant women were not seen in public in those days. But she was arrested on the way to a meeting and spent a night in jail with a couple of prostitutes. Elizabeth found out that the jailers brought men in for them to carry on their trade, so she wrote an article about it which embarrassed Spokane and got women warders in the jail. The IWW won.

Elizabeth went home to New York to have her baby. Jack had not visited her in the 6 months she was at Spokane but once the baby, Fred, was born he wanted her to go back to him and lead a conventional married life. She was only 19. She did not want to.

Members of the Massachusetts State Militia approach strikers during 1912 ‘Bread and Roses’ strike at the Lawrence textile mills. Photo: Library of Congress‘Besides’, she told him, ‘I don’t love you any more and you bore me’. She preferred her work with the IWW, and this led to the Bread and Roses strike. It was called that because of a poem written by James Oppenheim:

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,

A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,

Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,

For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!


As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,

For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;

Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.


As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead

Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.

Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.

Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.


As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,

The rising of the women means the rising of the race.

No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,

But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.

Workers’ militancy

The strikers said, ‘Better to starve fighting than to starve working!’ Two young Italians from the IWW, Ettor and Giovannitti, organised the strike, with a strike committee for each mill and open air meetings in the park. One day a woman, Anna LoPizzo, was killed on the picket line. Although 19 people saw a militiaman shoot, the authorities arrested a striker and Ettor and Giovannitti as accessories because they had advocated picketing.

That kept them out of the strike for eight months. But they sent for Elizabeth, and the man with whom she fell deeply in love and was to live with for ten years, Carlo Tresca. He arranged a mass funeral for Anna.

The IWW had pamphlets translated into all languages and made speeches easy to understand. The strikers went on speaking tours and collected thousands of dollars. They set up a soup kitchen and distributed food. A nearby town gave them a cow.

The IWW arranged for children to be sent to sympathetic families in New York. They came back at the end of the strike with toys and clothes and presents for the families. A young teacher was sent to escort a group to Philadelphia. When the mothers arrived at the railroad station with the children, they were surrounded by police who tore the children away from their mothers and clubbed them.

Some were taken to the Lawrence Poor Farm. It was a reign of terror. Writers, senators and clergymen denounced the police. Reporters came to investigate the conditions at the mills and there was a hearing in Washington. Fifty striker witnesses came and showed their pay packets. A couple of weeks later, the strike was over.

The strikers had won a 5 – 20% wage increase; increased overtime pay; reduction of a trial period from 4 weeks to 2; no discrimination against any striker; a promise to get Ettor and Giovannitti speedily released – the strikers said they would come out again if not. They did – in September.

A leader of struggle

Women mill workers in the 'Bread and Rose's strikeThe famous journalist John Reed described Elizabeth like this: “She was sitting at a lunch counter on a mushroom stool, and it was as if she were the spirit of this strike that had so much hope and so much beauty. She was only about twenty-one, but she had gravity and maturity. She had gone on strike, bringing with her her mother and her baby.

He explained that her work that winter was ceaseless. ‘Speaking, sitting with the strike committee, going to visit the prisoners in jail, and endlessly raising money, taking trains only to run back to the mills. The striking women would wait around for a word with her. In the midst of this excitement Elizabeth moved calm and tranquil. It was as though she reserved her tremendous energy for speaking’.

Other successful strikes in mill towns followed. Elizabeth was a key organiser at a silk mill in Paterson, New Jersey. She practically lived there and knew many of the 25,000 strikers. She spoke at outdoor meetings continually.

The strikers were harassed by wrongful arrests. Pickets and spectators were beaten and even killed. Elizabeth herself was charged for incitement to riot (as with Ettor and Giovannitti) to keep her away from the strike. She was speedily acquitted when it came to trial, but unfortunately the strikers did not win this time.

Elizabeth said she was never in such a hectic strike as the New York cooks and waiters’ strike. Again, they were mainly immigrants. When there were conflicts between police and pickets in front of the hotels, strikers went round to back, the kitchens, and pulled out workers. Well-dressed sympathisers went as diners into hotels, blew a whistle and the cooks and waiters walked out. Unsanitary kitchen conditions, the tipping system, the poor clothes the waiters wore under their fronts, all were exposed during the strike which was soon won.

When Elizabeth was travelling, she always stayed at the homes of workers, sometimes sharing the children’s bed or sleeping on a couch. She preferred this to lodging in a hotel as she got to know the workers and their living conditions. By 1914, she said, the iron was driven into her soul and she became ‘a mortal enemy to capitalism’. ‘Private guards, armed thugs, sheriffs, police, state troopers, militia, judges from justice of the peace to the Supreme Court were at the command of the employers – north, south, east and west’.

In July 1915 she wrote about women in the unions. She pointed out that women are accused of being selfish, over-emotional, devoted to fashion, disinclined to study, which can equally apply to men. If these faults are more common in women, it is because they have been denied all social rights and are economically dependent. She asked for women to organise ‘side by side with their men folks’ in the IWW and take an active role. ‘The IWW has been accused of putting women in the front. The truth is the IWW does not put them in the back and they go to the front’.

In 1916 Elizabeth went back to the west, to Mesabi Range where the miners were waging a bitter strike. The mining company employed a gang of gunmen. The journalist Mary Heaton Vorse described them as exactly like the plug uglies in the movies. They came to raid the home of a striker, Nick Masonovich, and in a scuffle in which they knock Mrs. Masonovich to the ground, a bystander was killed.

The authorities jailed the whole family, including the baby, the lodgers and 15 IWW organisers – on the same grounds as in Lawrence, they were responsible for the shooting because they had ‘incited picketing’. The family kept no guns. One of the children saw a ‘plug ugly’ shoot the bystander, but they were not going to get a fair trial.

Once again Elizabeth was most concerned to keep Mrs. Masonovich out of jail. She got a famous lawyer who defended workers, Judge Hilton, who suggested plea bargaining. Three of the miners pleaded guilty of manslaughter and were to go to prison for 3 years at most, while Mrs. Masonovich and the 15 organisers were released.

At the trial the miners were sentenced to 25 years. Bill Haywood accused Elizabeth of saving the organisers at the expense of the miners, although they were released after 3 years as promised. Elizabeth’s biographer, Helen C. Camp, has documentary evidence to back up Elizabeth’s version, but it was the end of her career in the IWW.

Decline of a movement

After the US joined the war, Elizabeth was indicted along with 160 others for conspiring to impede the war effort: in other words, campaigning for better conditions and higher wages. It was a trumped-up charge. The IWW, along with many other organisations, had opposed the war, but once the US had entered they stated they would do so no longer.

All but one of the men in the Chicago indictment had registered for the draft. Elizabeth opposed the war, but she refused to go to Chicago for a mass trial. Her defence was that she had not been working with the IWW between April and September. She was tried separately and acquitted.

Others who did go were jailed, even if they had already left the organisation. They were fined a total of 25 million dollars, and received prison sentences of 10 or 20 years. The IWW, as a huge force, was shattered.

Elizabeth went on to take part in campaigns to defend workers from wrongful arrest, but in 1927 she became ill and exhausted and for ten years she took a break from politics. When she returned to activity, it was as a member of the Communist Party.

She suffered persecution and imprisonment in the McCarthy era, but in 1962 she was invited to speak about the IWW at Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb. Elizabeth declared she was proud to be one of the IWW, and she compared them to the Civil Rights Freedom Fighters activists in the South. They certainly shared the same courage.