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A Curriculum for Middle and High School Students

Biographical Essay on Emma Goldman

Brief Biographical Introduction

Emma Goldman was born in the Jewish quarter of a small Russian city in modern Lithuania on June 27, 1869. Her painful recollections of childhood include witnessing violence against women and children, peasants brutalized by landlords, Jews ghettoized and frequently forced to move in search of work, and endless streams of corrupt petty officials extorting fees from a relatively powerless constituency. Her family life was difficult. Goldman's father, whom she referred to as "the nightmare of my childhood," made her the special object of his frequent rages. Her mother, who could plead eloquently and persuasively on behalf of young men about to be drafted into the Russian army, was nonetheless emotionally distant from her children and frequently depressed.

At thirteen, Goldman moved with her family to the Jewish ghetto in St. Petersburg where ideas of revolution filled the air. The Russian populists and nihilists sparked Goldman's imagination and reinforced her faith that injustice could and must be confronted. An avid reader, Goldman devoured forbidden novels and political tracts and found role models in the young women of the revolution. Goldman desperately wanted to help create a new world of equality, justice, and family harmony.

Goldman's father had no such public vision of his daughter's future, instead he was determined that she marry young and live a conventional life. His attempts to secure her engagement at age fifteen precipitated her flight from home. She and her older sister fled Russia for America. Full of optimism, Goldman entered a new country where she assumed that she had escaped the traditional barriers to women's freedom so pervasive in the old world. She settled with relatives in 1885 in Rochester, New York. Sadly she discovered that family life in the Jewish ghetto of Rochester and piecework in the textile factory did not differ significantly from what she had left behind in Russia. Asserting her new freedom in intimate life in America, Goldman soon fell in love with a co-worker and chose to marry him.

In 1886, a shocking political event changed her life. To protest the brutal suppression of a strike at the McCormick Harvester Company, labor and radical activists held a mass rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square. A bomb exploded, killing seven police officers and injuring many protestors in the crowd. Anarchist leaders were blamed for the incident. Tried on flimsy evidence, four of the accused were sentenced to death and executed. When Goldman learned of the political trial and conviction of the anarchists, she immediately recognized the similarity between their ideas and those of the Russian populists. She began reading everything she could find on anarchism. Goldman consciously decided to devote her life to the ideal of anarchism to prove that the message of the Haymarket martyrs had not died with them.

With the crystallization of Goldman's political ideas came changes in her personal life. Risking the stigma of divorce, Goldman left her husband and headed for a new life, first in New Haven, then in New York City. Within a year she was living in a commune with other Russian-born anarchists, including her first great love and eventual life-long comrade, Alexander Berkman. The twenty-year-old idealist soon became a prominent member of New York City's immigrant anarchist community.

Her newfound stability was undermined in 1892 when Henry Clay Frick of the Carnegie Steel Company provoked a bloody confrontation with workers during a strike at Carnegie's plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Berkman and Goldman decided to retaliate; Berkman went to Homestead to shoot Frick to demonstrate to the world that violence begets violence and that workers would no longer accept the brutality of the capitalist factory owners. The act backfired; Berkman wounded Frick but did not kill him; he served a fourteen-year prison term, not as a hero of the working class but rather as the catalyst for the resurgence of nationwide fear of anarchists. Insufficient evidence of collaboration in the attempt on Frick's life allowed Goldman to escape indictment, but her widely known intimate association with Berkman inspired the press to sensationalize its portrayal of "Red Emma" as the fearsome demon of unharnessed sexuality and violence.

This violent image was reinforced in 1901 when President William McKinley was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz, who claimed to be an anarchist acting under Goldman's influence. Although she did not know the young man who evidently had attended one of her lectures, she was immediately arrested as an accomplice to the crime. The stigma of this association was so great that even after she was set free for lack of evidence against her, it was several years before she could safely appear in public under her own name. Even so, she tempted the fates by continuing to address select meetings. By the time she re-emerged fully, her lectures were prefaced by a disavowal of the efficacy of the tactics of individual acts of political violence with one caveat to the public: she asked them to resist the inclination to abandon political prisoners whose tactics may differ from their own. Based on her growing conviction that "the most violent element in society is ignorance," she founded a political and literary magazine, Mother Earth, which ran from 1906 to 1917. It was not only a forum for anarchist ideas and news of international movements but also an opportunity to publish poetry and drama criticism. It introduced its subscribers to dramatists like Ibsen, Strindberg, and Shaw, and to political cartoonists and artists like Man Ray. The magazine's circulation was not limited to the United States. Gradually its influence and readership spread to Europe as Goldman's international reputation grew.

Goldman expanded her audience in the United States through national lecture tours on behalf of the magazine. For almost ten years, from 1908 until 1917, she was assisted in her tours by an amorous and flamboyant road manager, Dr. Ben Reitman. Emma and Ben crisscrossed the country, appearing before ever widening audiences, curious about Goldman's political and social challenge and appreciative of the support she gave to each locality's current labor and political battles. On their 1910 tour, for example, Goldman spoke 120 times in thirty-seven cities in twenty-five states to 25,000 people.

Her talks were varied and expansive. It was not unusual for Goldman to speak on "The Intermediate Sex: A Discussion of Homosexuality" one night and "The Social Value of Modern Drama" the next. Appreciating literature and drama as powerful vehicles for awakening social change, particularly on sex and gender issues, Goldman welcomed the challenge of alerting and educating the American public to the importance of modern European and Russian drama. She believed that education was a lifelong process and that public schools often excluded open-ended discussions and provocative challenges to the status quo from the curriculum. As a proponent of the Modern School movement which fostered independence and creativity, she often asserted that a state-run school "is for the child what the prison is for the convict and the barracks for the soldier a place where everything is being used to break the will of the child, and then to pound, knead, and shape it into a being utterly foreign to itself."

This belief in the importance of widening the experience of the individual had specific ramifications for women. Goldman will be remembered for her pioneering work for the liberation of women, identifying birth control as an essential element in the larger battle for women's sexual and economic freedom. Goldman believed that the law that denied women access to birth control information was symptomatic of general social and economic injustice as well as the particular oppression of women. She was a political mentor to the young Margaret Sanger, though Sanger eventually parted ways with Goldman and shifted her focus to the single, more pragmatic goal of winning the legal right to distribute birth control information. Goldman continued to insist that the battle for woman's control over her body should be part of a broader struggle against the social, economic, and political conditions that fostered and reinforced inequality.

This was not the only time Goldman broke with the other feminists of her day; she criticized the women's suffrage movement for its claim that the vote was the best vehicle to secure the equality of women, pointing out that it would not adequately address the issue of the liberation of working-class women, nor ensure a gentler form of government.

Goldman spoke eloquently on the political dimension of personal life, and women, from within and outside of the suffrage movement, crowded into Goldman's lectures. Of particular interest was her lecture on "Marriage and Love" in which she articulated the liberating potential of free love in contrast to the stifling aspects of marriage for women. As an anarchist, she hoped to be the living example of her ideal. Yet privately she agonized over whether her own failure in love made her unworthy of delivering this message. Throughout her ten-year love affair with her road manager Ben Reitman, her passionate letters reveal dark feelings of jealousy written at the same time she spoke eloquently on the platform about the corrosive effect of possessiveness in love; similarly she wrote to Ben with a longing for security and rest, just as she became the symbol and the harbinger of the total independence of women. Her inner doubts and anguish prompted her to write to Ben that if she remained "an abject slave to her love" she would stand "condemned before the bar of [her] own reason."

Goldman's eloquence on the themes of personal life as they related to political and social forces was in part the key to her popularity. Threatened by her anarchist politics, her persuasive powers, and her discussion of topics often considered taboo, the police and local authorities frequently banned her lectures. Inevitably a debate over the rights of free speech would follow. Goldman's relentless assertion of the critical importance of the right to freedom of speech in a democratic society ultimately blazed the trail for the enforcement of First Amendment rights in America. Braving the mounting obstacles to free speech, Goldman paid dearly for her principles. Under surveillance most of her adult life, she was arrested and jailed countless times and spent her last eighteen months in the United States imprisoned on federal charges.

Her longest jail sentence was the direct result of her organizing efforts against the involuntary conscription of young men into the military. Within weeks of America's entry into World War I, Goldman and her old friend Alexander Berkman helped launch the No-Conscription League to educate and encourage conscientious objection to the war. In the past, Goldman had condemned U.S. expansionism during the Spanish-American War and denounced British imperialism during the Boer War, but the patriotic fervor surrounding World War I bred a more severe intolerance for dissent, considering such opposition to war a "clear and present danger" to the nation. The government had Berkman and Goldman arrested on the charge of conspiracy against the draft. They were convicted and sentenced to two years in prison with the possibility of deportation upon their release.

Alarmed by the post-World War I labor turbulence and by recurring bombing incidents, the Wilson administration retaliated against the most vulnerable radical and progressive organizations. Just after her release from prison on September 27, 1919, Goldman was re-arrested by the young J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Justice Department's General Intelligence Division. Writing the briefs and building the case against Goldman himself, Hoover quietly worked behind the scenes to persuade the courts to deny her citizenship claims and to deport her. On December 21, 1919, Goldman, Berkman, and 247 other foreign-born radicals were herded aboard the S.S. Buford and sent to the Soviet Union.

With the exception of a brief ninety-day lecture tour in 1934, Emma Goldman spent the remaining twenty-one years of her life in exile from the United States. During this period she lived in Russia, Sweden, Germany, France, England, Spain, and Canada, never finding a political "home" outside the United States.

In no country did Emma Goldman feel more estranged than in her native Russia. She was shocked by the ruthless authoritarianism of the Bolshevik regime, its severe repression of anarchists, and its disregard for individual freedom. Among the first vocal opponents on the left to criticize the Soviet Union, she alienated many of her peers in Europe and America. In a face-to-face meeting with Lenin in 1920 she questioned the Soviet leader on the lack of freedom of speech and the press in Soviet Russia. Disillusioned with the direction of the revolution, Goldman and Berkman eventually left Russia.

Exiled, wandering from country to country, Goldman felt constrained and often depressed. In the 1920s and 1930s, while struggling to survive economically, she engaged in a variety of literary projects. The most enduring product of this period of self-reflection is her moving, one-thousand-page autobiography, Living My Life (1931).

Goldman was sixty-seven years old when the Spanish civil war erupted in July of 1936. The promise of an anarchist revolution in Spain revived her broken spirits. When Spanish comrades asked Goldman to direct their English propaganda campaign, she visited collectivized towns and farms in Aragon and the Levante and was electrified by what seemed to her to be the beginnings of a true anarchist revolution. Dismayed but not vanquished by Franco's triumph in early 1939, Goldman moved to Canada where she devoted the last year of her life to securing political asylum for women and children refugees of the Spanish war, publicizing legislative dangers to free speech in Canada, and campaigning on behalf of foreign-born radicals threatened with deportation to fascist countries.

After Goldman's death on May 14, 1940, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service allowed her body to be readmitted to the United States. She is buried in Waldheim Cemetery, Chicago, near the Haymarket anarchists who so inspired her.

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