Emma Goldman (1869-1940) is a major figure in the history of American radicalism and feminism. In a period when the expression of controversial ideas was itself dangerous, Goldman insisted on her right to challenge convention. Goldman devoted her life to asserting the individual's potential for freedom that otherwise was obscured by a system of social and economic constraints. She was among America's most prominent advocates of labor's right to organize, reproductive rights, sexual freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of the individual.
As passionate in her personal life as in her political life, Goldman left an intriguing body of personal papers, including correspondence and writings; and her activities generated extensive newspaper coverage, government surveillance reports, and legal papers. The documents in this curriculum unit are drawn from a massive archive collected by the Emma Goldman Papers Project. They are linked to the following standard social studies and humanities curriculum themes:
Art and literature--Social change reflected through creative expression
First Amendment rights--Legislative restraints against individual expression and privacy, free speech campaigns, free speech organizations, vigilante violence, legal challenges defining the right to dissent, analysis of federal vs. state and local authorities' jurisdiction over First Amendment rights
Labor--Factory conditions, labor unrest, violence against strikers, the Industrial Workers of the World, syndicalism, organizing for the eight-hour work day
Progressive Politics--Definition and appeal of anarchism, McKinley assassination, similarities and differences between reformers, socialists, anarchists, communists, and liberal progressives
Red Scare--Government investigation of radicals and raids of their offices and organizations, arrests and deportation, particular vulnerability of aliens to political repression
Rise of industrialism--Conditions of industrial workers, workers in conflict with industrial capitalists, impact of women entering the labor force, industrial unionism
Immigration--Motives for immigration; immigrants' aspirations and expectations; the realities of working life for immigrants
Women's Rights--Critique of suffrage, women's liberation, birth control movement, motherhood and rearing of children, free love, sexuality, domestic inequality, discrimination in the workplace
World War I--Resistance to President Wilson's "preparedness" program, anti-conscription, conscientious objectors, economic analysis of the war effort, repression of dissent
Yellow Journalism--News coverage, political cartoons, identifying bias, popular fears of anarchism and women
Goldman was part of a blossoming culture of dissent. Her anarchism was one of many political philosophies of her time, including socialism, communism, utopianism, populism, and progressivism, that challenged and influenced the evolution of the dominant social and political culture. As an anarchist, Goldman maintained that social justice and individual freedom could not be legislated by the state. Instead, she argued that a complete transformation of social values and economic relations was needed.
In nationwide lecture tours, Goldman took her message to the people and in the process tested a democratic society's tolerance for dissent. Goldman believed that "the most violent element in society is ignorance." The government and most newspaper reporters responded fearfully to Goldman's iconoclastic ideas as well as to her confrontational style. She was shadowed by police and vigilantes determined to suppress her talks and was arrested frequently. In 1919, after spending a year and a half in prison for her open opposition to conscription and to U.S. entry into World War I, Goldman was deported.
Standard school texts often ignore Goldman and other challenging voices, or only briefly mention them. This absence of an historical record of controversy in the curriculum not only denies students access to a full range of ideas but also ultimately limits their ability to understand and analyze the past. Recent educational reforms encourage classroom use of primary sources as the best way to present opposing points of view. For example, the documents from the Emma Goldman Papers on free speech are compelling because they expose the student to firsthand accounts of a long struggle to affirm the right to disagree. The immediacy of the issues of the period are experienced through newspaper accounts, political cartoons, speeches, pamphlets, and autobiographical narratives rather than through synthesized historical texts.
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