Agnes Smedley was born in Osgood, Missouri on 23 Feb. 1892, the second of five children. In 1901, at the age of nine, she and her family moved to Trinidad, Colorado, where she witnessed many of the events in the 1903-04 coal miners' strike. At the age of 17, Smedley took the county teacher's examination and taught in rural schools near her home for a semester.
From 1911 to 1912 Smedley enrolled in Tempe Normal School, Arizona. She published her first writings as editor and contributor to the school paper, Tempe Normal Student. At Tempe, she became friends with a woman named Thorberg Brundin and her brother Ernest Brundin. Both Brundins were members of the Socialist Party and gave Smedley her first exposure to socialist ideas. When the Brundins left Tempe for San Francisco, they invited Smedley to come stay with them, and in August 1912 Smedley married Ernest. After six years of marriage Smedley divorced and moved to New York City, where, among other new activities, she worked with Margaret Sanger at the Birth Control Review.
During World War I, Smedley grew close with Lala Lajpat Rai and a number of Bengali Indian revolutionaries then in United States. She agreed to serve as a communication center for Indian revolutionaries then in United States. Later, she became involved in a relationship with an Indian communist, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, and moved to Germany with him. She spent several years there, involved with various left-wing causes.
In 1929, she finished her great autobiographical novel Daughter of Earth. She left Chattopadhyaya and moved to Shanghai, initially as a correspondent for a liberal German newspaper.
In China, Smedley served as a correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung and the Manchestger Guardian, covering the Chines Civil War as well as other events of the times. On mainland China she traveled first with the 8th Route Army and then the New Fourth Army, as well as visiting some of the non-Communist Chinese army.
Smedley left the field in 1937; she organized medical supplies and continued writing. Between 1938 and 1941 she visited both Communist and Guomindang forces in the war zone; it is recorded that this is the longest tour of the Chinese war front conducted by any foreign correspondent, male or female.
She relocated to Washington, DC to advocate for China and authored several works on China's revolution. During the 1940s she lived at Yaddo, a writer's colony in upstate New York. In 1947 she was accused of espionage. Feeling pressure, she left the U.S. in the fall of 1949. She died in the UK after surgery for an ulcer. Her final book, a biography of Zhu De, was complete but unpublished at the time of her death. It was published in 1956. In the United States, the upsurge of the Women's Movement in the 1970s brought Smedley's writing to the attention of a broad U.S. public, and she began to be recognized as an important witness to great historical events as well as a profound and sensitive writer.
Her ashes were buried at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in Beijing in 1951.