In the early hours of Monday, May 15, 2023, the historical highway marker recognizing the birthplace of a renown feminist, anti-racist labor organizer and defender of reproductive rights was taken down.
The marker was formally approved and erected by the State, following years of community effort on behalf of this locally-born female hero.
It stood for two weeks before being removed by the governor.
No, dear reader. This is not yet another example of Florida’s perverse persecution of those raising histories outside of white nationalist narratives. It did not happen in Florida.
The marker did not stand in Texas, which boasts laws prosecuting women, trans folx, and youth seeking life-saving medical assistance, and the locals who support them.
This is not from Alabama, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, or any of the other states which, like Florida, recently passed structural legislation naming sexism, racism, and discrimination “forbidden” or “divisive” concepts within schools and workplaces, while criminalizing those who acknowledge the existence of structural inequities.
This is not a tale from Mississippi, where schools require abstinence-only education, and minors are now banned from accessing so-called “sexually oriented” library books, defined as those mentioning sexual intercourse, nakedness, homosexuality, or urination.
It didn’t happen anywhere in the U.S. South.
It also did not take place in one of the 21 U.S. states—such as Arizona, Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, or South Dakota—where legislators joined southern neighbors (including Florida) in mandating doctors to deny potential mothers full standard care following 2021’s Dobbs decision. Or in Indiana, which does this and further taxes women’s reproductive realities by requiring cremation or burials for miscarriage, which occurs naturally in one out of every four pregnancies. Or in Ohio, where politicians are overriding voters’ decision to constitutionally protect abortion rights.
The marker was not taken down from any of the 27 states, including Nevada, Wyoming, Wisconsin, and, yes, Florida, with Orwellian-named “right-to-work” laws siding the state with profit over people in depriving workers the right to union representation and other basic labor protections. Not even the one where prison officials allegedly encouraged inmates to murder the union organizers among them.
This happened in New Hampshire, the birthplace of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the original rebel girl. This is a story of America, and, as such, of gender, power, right-wing extremism, propaganda, human rights, and resistance.
The Original Rebel Girl
A founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was born in Concord, New Hampshire on August 8, 1890. She grew up poor as a child of working- class Irish immigrants. She opposed white supremacy and all forms of discrimination, identifying the KKK as fascist.
“Why did good hard-working people suffer so? Why were men who were willing, able, and anxious to work, denied jobs? Why was there so much unemployment? I hated poverty,” Flynn stated.
I was determined to do something about the bad conditions under which our family and all around us suffered.
With dreams of becoming a constitutional lawyer, Flynn spent her life as a non-violent labor organizer standing with workers who, in her words, faced “lawless, aggressive, brutal and ruthless capitalism which garnered profits for a few at the expense of the many.”
At 15, Flynn joined the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.), a social justice-based, cross-industry union of exploited workers, many of whom were immigrants. She found solidarity with those seeking rights promised by their country, and soon became an I.W.W. organizer building community around shared struggle. It was here that Flynn earned the nickname “the Rebel Girl” as she led strikes challenging robber barons’ Gilded Age hoarding through denied pay, benefits, regulations, and rights, and as she delivered inspiring speeches demanding egalitarian access to birth control, wages, dignity, and justice.
In 1937, while the Great Depression raged and anti-democratic, white nationalist forces gained power under Mussolini and Hitler, Flynn accepted the call to join fascist resistance efforts unifying through communism. For this, she was kicked out of the ACLU (an action they reversed in 1976 for belying their core principles). As she reached 60, she became an officer within the Communist Party, welcoming women, Black people, and other marginalized neighbors into collective resistance, and publishing pamphlets such as “The Rights of Negro People,” “Women’s Place in the Fight for a Better World,” and “The Struggle Against the Taft-Hartley Law.”
Italy and Germany’s fascist dictatorships were defeated in World War II. And, in 1951, due to her standing in the Communist Party, Flynn was among the 11 officers charged with conspiring to advocate violent overthrow of the government under the 1940 Smith Act, federal legislation weaponized against anti-capitalists by McCarthyism.
That same year, building on Edward Bemays’ (1928) framing of propaganda as “regimenting the public mind” (p. 27), political theorist Hannah Arendt (1951) wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism that the ultimate goal of propaganda in the hands of totalitarians “is not persuasion but organization” (p. 361). In the aftermath of war, amid radical right-wing push-back against the New Deal, the U.S. used the Smith Act in this way, socially directing fear and blame. This effectively deflected attention away from home-grown corporate fascism by criminalizing socialists, communists, union leaders, academics, laborers, allies, and others who held beliefs collectively opposing totalitarian subversion of human rights.
Then, as now, right-wing forces in the U.S. aligned to stigmatize and silence non-conformist resisters of crony capitalism. Attorneys were not willing to accompany party members in court. Corporate media focused shame and blame on the accused, encouraging the public to see them as outsider enemies. Fearing retaliation and ruin, civil rights organizations abandoned them. Antidemocratic U.S. injustice was delivered through the well-worn traditional pathway merging structural legislation with vigilantism.
At her trial, Flynn lacked representation, yet she refused to cower. She defended herself, calling on Americans to denounce the scapegoating of capitalist tyranny:
Our country is a rich and beautiful country, fully capable of producing plenty for all, educating its youth and caring for its aged. … I have seen textile workers who wove beautiful woolen fabrics shivering for lack of warm clothing, and coal miners living in cold shacks in company towns, and steel towns that were armed camps. I saw men blacklisted, driven from town to town, forced to change their names because they had dared to try to organize a union.
We will prove to you that it is not the Communists who have advocated or practiced force and violence but that it is the employing class which has done both…
We will prove that we are fighting here for our constitutional and democratic rights, not to advocate force and violence, but to expose and stop its use against the people.
Despite her innocence, Flynn and all her comrades were found guilty. Flynn was sentenced to two years in federal women’s prison, where she stayed until age 66. At 71, she became the first woman to lead the Communist Party of the USA. She died three years later in 1964 on a visit to Moscow. As Flynn requested, she is buried in Chicago’s Forest Home Cemetery near Lucy Parsons. Emma Goldman, the Haymarket Martyrs, and Jolie Rickman. She donated her belongings to New York City’s Dorothy Day Catholic Workers’ House.
And the country she loved continues to call her un-American.
Claiming the Rebel Girl
Historian Mary Lee Sargent, 83, has been a New Hampshire resident for 20 years.
This long-time feminist, lesbian, educator-activist is another of our nation’s “rebel girls.” Bom in McAllen, Texas, Sargent lived in Champaign, Illinois from 1968 to 2003 where she was a professor of history and women’s studies, and Director of the Women and Gender Studies Department at Parkland College. She continues to teach.
Carrying on Flynn’s spirit, Sargent’s fiery words and actions have advanced democracy throughout her decades of organizing. She helped to establish numerous organizations challenging gender, racial, and sexual discrimination in Midwestern communities, and she volunteered and served on boards of others. In the 1980s, as a co-founding member of the Grassroots Group of Second Class Citizens, she was sent to jail with fellow feminist activists after protesting at the Illinois Statehouse as Illinois refused to sign-on in support of the Equal Rights Amendment. Long before the passage of federal law, she championed same-sex marriage rights, going door to door with neighbors and staging direct actions, including as co-director of 85% Coalition.
In writing, speech, and presence, Mary Lee, like Flynn, is powerfully compelling. She has worked with students, with community members, with political leaders. Throughout it all, she leads with fierce love, inspiring community and collective action while forwarding civil rights.
Now, New Hampshire benefits.
In 2020, Sargent and fellow activist Arnie Alpert co-sponsored Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s historical highway marker following state guidelines. New Hampshire approved and, pending COVID) delays, constructed the marker near Flynn’s birthplace last May. Shortly after, Republicans on the state’s powerful five-member Executive Council condemned the marker for recognizing a communist. Within days, snubbing law and official procedures, the marker was gone upon Governor Sununu’s decree. And New Hampshire quietly changed their historical marker policy to eliminate cross-party deliberation of applicants, and, instead, leave final decision-making to a governor-appointed apparatchik.
Mary Lee Sargent is mad as hell about the state’s decision to unilaterally censor Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from New Hampshire history.
Lucky for us, fire unlocks powerful seeds.
Since the marker’s destruction, Sargent has hosted Saturday “Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Sit-Outs” at its original location. Young and old, progressives joined in from across the state, bringing chairs, signs, and flowers. Intergenerational groups spent hours talking with one another about Flynn and about their own lives, struggles, and interests. “It was like consciousness-raising groups,” Sargent exclaims. “They were learning from us, we were learning from them.” People of all walks of life now stand together supporting one another and opposing the state’s forsaking of Flynn.
The Rebel Girl Lives On
This past August, Sargent and Alpert teamed with civil rights attorney Andru Volinsky to file a lawsuit charging the State of New Hampshire with violating their rights to due process, and with breaking the state’s Administrative Procedures Act and historic marker program guidelines.
Sargent sponsored the historical marker to educate locals about Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s role in New Hampshire history. The state’s decision to, again, unjustly criminalize and silence Flynn has erased the marker, but has it also freed Flynn from the annals of history to be known well beyond her hometown.
The historical marker has multiplied on to yard signs and t-shirts throughout the Northeast. Articles covering the lawsuit are being published across the country and around the world, from New York to Taiwan, retelling Flynn’s legacy and this shameful new chapter of the American imperialist witch hunt.
Political economic systems based upon inequity rely upon witch hunts, as experienced by Flynn, in promoting profit over people. In her masterful book Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, political historian Silvia Federici (2018) reminds us that witch hunts “served to deprive women of their medical practices, forced them to submit to the patriarchal control of their nuclear family, and destroyed a holistic concept of nature” (p. 11). And, as Federici writes, this structural component of U.S. society is commonly suppressed and denied:
[L]ike the slave trade and the extermination of the indigenous populations of the ‘new World,’ the witch hunt stands at a crossroad of a cluster of social processes that paved the way for a rise of the modern capitalist world, (p. 12).
Indeed, from Florida to California, the U.S. has historically demonized those marginalized within racist, sexist, anti-democratic profiteering, discrediting justice-seekers like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn by calling them unlawful, barbaric, and un-American. This is a well-honed tactic of imperialism. And it is fed by shaming silence.
Witch hunts abound within today’s Gilded Age, as in the past. They censor America’s history while fomenting and justifying violent hatred toward oppressed people who dare acknowledge white nationalism’s breeding of inequity.
They protect the greedy, powerful few and allow them to cry victim even as they profit from subverting democracy and due process.
They fuel social fear, division, distrust, and isolation to further corrode justice.
They target socialists, communists, union leaders, critical academics, laborers, teachers, antiracists, LGBTQ people, feminists, progressives, allies, and others who hold beliefs collectively opposing totalitarian subversion of human rights.
They criminalize us for seeking basic rights.
As winter falls, the seeds of knowledge needed to defend U.S. democracy from rising fascism spread. They blossom in flames of collective consciousness-raising.
Do not give in to fear. Do not abandon democracy by discrediting those fighting for it. Add your fire to the struggle.
Stand proud with your neighbors, rebel girls.
We need you. We have always needed you.