Berkeley Digital Library

A Curriculum for Middle and High School Students

Brief Introduction to Emma Goldman

Detailed Biographical Essay

Emma Goldman was born in the small city of Kovno in czarist Russia on June 27, 1869. As a child she and her family experienced blatant anti-Semitism and observed peasants beaten, government officials bribed, and young men dragged off to serve in the army. Hating the injustices she saw, she welcomed the idea of revolution that promised to change Russia. She hoped for a new world of equality and justice.

Goldman's family life was hard. Goldman felt that her father found fault with everything she did. He sent her out to work at an early age and wanted her to get married to someone of his choosing when she was only fifteen. To avoid such a future, Goldman and her older sister Helena fled Russia for America.

Full of optimism, she arrived in America in 1885 expecting to find the freedom she was denied back in Russia. Relatives in Rochester, New York, offered her a place to live and helped her find work in a clothing factory. Unhappily, she discovered that working conditions in America were not so different from those she had left behind.

Life changed dramatically for Goldman in 1886 when she read in the newspaper about an event at Haymarket Square in Chicago. It made her angry to learn that the police there had attacked striking workers who were asking for an eight-hour workday. At a rally a bomb had exploded killing seven police officers. The city blamed anarchists for the bombing. A trial was held; eight men were found guilty, of whom four were executed in 1887. Goldman believed in the men's innocence. She began to read everything she could find on anarchism. Determined to make her adopted country live up to the ideals of freedom, harmony, and prosperity for all, Goldman left her sweatshop job in Rochester and went to New York City where she hoped to meet other people who shared her ideas. There she learned that anarchism had many definitions and strategies which spanned from philosophical to militant. She was attracted to those anarchists who lectured about the challenge and the promise of their political ideas. Yet, the press often stereotyped the anarchist movement as "bomb-throwers" because some anarchists believed that political violence was a justifiable means for bringing about revolutionary change. Goldman found herself between these two poles.

Within New York City's anarchist circle, Goldman befriended Alexander Berkman and was eventually associated with his attempt in 1892 to kill Henry Clay Frick, manager of a Carnegie Steel plant, after Frick had ordered an armed attack on striking workers. The newspapers sensationalized the event. Later, in 1901, when President William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist, Goldman was suspected even though she was not involved. After this, Goldman briefly changed her name, led an underground life, and from then on was watched carefully by agents of the government. When it became safe for her to appear in public, she distinguished her conception of anarchism from the characterizations of it by the press. In 1906, she started the anarchist magazine Mother Earth. It gave writers, artists, and political thinkers with radical ideas a place to express themselves.

Among her many challenges to convention was Goldman's distrust of the institution of marriage. She thought that marriage restricted the freedom of both men and women and, at the same time, gave them a false sense of security. During her lifetime, she fell in love many times and had a ten-year love affair with her lecture tour manager, Dr. Ben Reitman. Even though she believed in the principle of free love, her letters to Ben show that she could not rid herself of her own feelings of jealousy when he followed his attraction to other women.

Goldman was a talented public speaker. She toured the country several times a year lecturing about politics, drama, birth control, economic freedom for women, education, anti-militarism, and other vital issues of her day. Goldman believed that anarchism would bring total social, economic, political, and spiritual emancipation without government control. Because of a common fear of anarchism, she faced constant threats from policemen and vigilantes determined to suppress her message. She was arrested countless times and spent over a year and a half in jail.

She spoke out against U.S. participation in World War I because she believed the war was being fought first and foremost to promote the economic interests of the very rich. In addition, she encouraged young men to resist compulsory military service. Arrested and convicted of conspiracy to obstruct the draft, she went to prison. During that time, her citizenship was invalidated by a government eager to rid the country of her influence. On December 21, 1919, Emma Goldman and 248 other foreign-born radicals were rushed aboard the ship S.S. Buford at dawn and deported to Soviet Russia.

Emma Goldman stayed in her native Russia for only twenty-three months. Despite the overthrow of the czar by a revolutionary government, Goldman was shocked by its continuing disregard for political freedom. She met with V. I. Lenin, the Soviet leader, and questioned him about the lack of free speech. Unhappy with his response that free speech at that point in Russian history was a luxury not a right, Goldman eventually left the country in disgust and disappointment. She was determined to alert the world to what she saw as the Bolsheviks' betrayal of the ideals of the revolution.

For the rest of her life Goldman felt like "a woman without a country," moving from place to place, and allowed to return to the United States only once in 1934 for a brief lecture tour. In 1936, she visited Spain and witnessed the optimism of the Spanish anarchists and their hope that a real revolution would occur in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. When the dictatorship of Francisco Franco triumphed, a defeated Goldman went to Canada to help raise funds for the refugees of the Spanish war and to be closer to the country in which she had felt most at home.

Emma Goldman died on May 14, 1940. The United States government permitted her body to be returned to America. She is buried in Chicago near the anarchists who were executed for the Haymarket incident.

Throughout her life Emma Goldman wrote many letters, articles, speeches, and a number of books. The most notable of her writings is her autobiography, Living My Life.

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