Goldman was a Lithuanian-born anarcho-communist known for her anarchist
writings and speeches. Adopted by First-wave feminists, she has
been lionized as an iconic "rebel woman" feminist. Goldman
played a pivotal role in the development of anarchism in the US
and Europe throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
immigrated to the United States at seventeen and was later deported
to Russia, where she witnessed the results of the Russian Revolution.
She spent a number of years in the South of France where she wrote
her autobiography, Living My Life, and other works, before taking
part in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 as the English language
representative in London of the CNT-FAI.
and early years
Emma Goldman grew up in a petit-bourgeois Jewish family in Kaunas,
Lithuania (then under the control of Russia, and called Kovno
by the Russians), where her family ran a small inn. In the period
of political repression after the assassination of Alexander II,
she moved with her family to St Petersburg at the age of thirteen.
There, after a revolutionary sentiment had spread across the area,
she decided to work in a factory as a corset maker. It was in
that workplace that Goldman was introduced to revolutionary ideas;
she obtained a copy of Chernyshevsky's What Is To Be Done, which
sowed the seeds for her anarchist ideas and her independent attitude.
At the age of 17 she immigrated with her elder sister, Helene,
to Rochester, New York, to live with their sister Lena. Goldman
worked for several years in a textile factory, and in 1887 married
fellow factory worker Jacob Kersner. The hanging of four anarchists
after the Haymarket Riot drew the young Emma Goldman to the anarchist
movement, and at twenty she became a revolutionary. Following
the uproar over the hanging, Goldman left her marriage and her
family and traveled to New Haven, Connecticut, and then to New
York City. Goldman and Kersner were divorced.
In New York City she met and lived with Alexander Berkman, who
was an important figure of the anarchist movement in the United
States at the time. Her defense of Berkman's attempted assassination
of Henry Clay Frick in July 1892 made her highly unpopular with
the authorities. Berkman (or Sasha as she fondly referred to him)
was jailed for fourteen years, and was released from prison in
also became friends with Hippolyte Havel at this time. Goldman
traveled widely giving speeches on behalf of the libertarian socialist
movement, often funded by the IWW.
She was imprisoned in 1893 at Blackwell's Island penitentiary
for publicly urging unemployed workers that they should "Ask
for work. If they do not give you work, ask for bread. If they
do not give you work or bread, take bread." (The statement
is a summary of the principle of expropriation advocated by anarchist
communists like Peter Kropotkin.)
was convicted of "inciting a riot" by a criminal court
of New York, despite the testimonies of twelve witnesses in her
defense. The jury based their verdict on the testimony of one
individual, a Detective Jacobs. Voltairine de Cleyre gave the
lecture In Defense of Emma Goldman as a response to this imprisonment.
While serving her one year sentence, Goldman developed a keen
interest in nursing.
to assassinate the President
She was arrested in Chicago, with nine others, on September 10,
1901, on charges of conspiracy to assassinate President McKinley.
Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, had shot the President several days
before. The authorities' arrested her and nine other anarchists,
including Abe and Mary Isaak, for suspicion of conspiracy in a
plot with Czolgosz. The assassination of McKinley stained the
cause of Anarchism and discredited it in American popular opinion,
making its association a slur.
causes with which Anarchists had championed (such as the labor
movement) sought afterward to disassociate themselves from self-identifying
anarchists. Goldman had met Czolgosz, briefly, several weeks before,
where he had asked Goldman's advice on a course of study in anarchist
ideas. Goldman was released on September 24 after authorities
were unable connect her and the others directly to Czolgosz's
crime. Leon Czolgosz was found guilty of murder and executed.
On February 11, 1916, she was arrested and imprisoned again for
her distribution of birth control literature. She, like many contemporary
feminists, saw abortion as a tragic consequence of social conditions.
In 1911, Goldman wrote in Mother Earth:
custom of procuring abortions has reached such appalling proportions
in America as to be beyond belief...So great is the misery of
the working classes that seventeen abortions are committed in
every one hundred pregnancies."
World War I
Her third imprisonment was in 1917, this time for conspiring to
obstruct the draft: Berkman and Goldman were both involved in
setting up No Conscription Leagues and organising rallies against
World War I.(illustration, right) She was imprisoned for two years,
after which she was deported to Russia. At her deportation hearing,
J. Edgar Hoover, directing the hearing, called her "one of
the most dangerous anarchists in America."
This deportation meant that Goldman, with Berkman, was able to
witness the Russian Revolution first hand. On her arrival in Russia,
she was prepared to support the Bolsheviks despite the split between
anarchists and statist communists at the First International.
But seeing the political repression and forced labour in Russia
offended her anarchist sensibilities. The Bolsheviks, however,
argued that in times of revolution, violence is required in order
to depose the previous power holders.
led Goldman to write My Disillusionment in Russia and My Further
Disillusionment in Russia. She was also devastated by the massive
destruction and death resulting from the Russian Civil War, in
which counterrevolutionary elements, aided by foreign governments
such as the United States and Japan, attempted to throttle the
young communist state. Goldman was friends with Communists and
New Yorkers John Reed and Louise Bryant, both of whom were also
in Russia at this time (during a period when it was impossible
to leave the country); they may even have shared an apartment
(see also the film Reds).
two years, she and Berkman left Russia. She stayed with old friends
in England and France, until Peggy Guggenheim raised funds for
a cottage for Goldman, in the small fishing village of San Tropez.
They called her house "Bon esprit." There she could
write and receive correspondence, but was isolated.
Her experiences in Russia helped change her ideas on the use of
violence: after the Red Army was used against strikers, Goldman
began rejecting violence except in self-defense.
In 1936, Goldman went to Spain to support the Spanish Revolution
and the fight against Francisco Franco's fascism, known as the
Spanish Civil War. During this time she wrote the obituary of
the prominent Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durruti in a piece
of vibrant prose entitled Durruti is Dead, Yet Living, which echoes
Percy Bysshe Shelley's Adonais.
Emma Goldman died of a stroke in Toronto on May 14, 1940. The
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service allowed her body to
be brought back to the United States, and she was buried in German
Waldheim Cemetery (now part of Forest Home Cemetery) in Forest
Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, close to where the executed
Haymarket Riot defendants are interred. Her tombstone reads "Liberty
will not descend to a people, a people must raise themselves to
urban legend in Toronto holds that Goldman's ghost haunts the
union hall on Spadina Avenue, now a Chinese restaurant, where
she often spoke and where her body was displayed after her death.
Goldman in fiction
1. Emma Goldman appears as a fictional character in E.L. Doctorow's
Ragtime, where she plays an important part in allowing the characters
of Evelyn Nesbit and her lover, Younger Brother, to examine their
own lives in a new way. The book combines fiction with history.
2. Emmanuel Goldstein, a character in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four
by George Orwell, may refer to Emma Goldman.
3. The meeting between Emma Goldman and Leon Czolgosz is featured
in Sondheim's Broadway musical Assassins.
4. Emma Goldman appears in the 1991 Origin Systems computer RPG
Martian Dreams. In the game's alternate reality, Goldman is an
ally of the Martian-possessed Grigori Rasputin.
5. Emma Goldman is played in the Warren Beatty film Reds by Maureen
Stapleton, who won an Academy Award for the role.
6. Emma Goldman's life is the subject of Howard Zinn's play "Emma"
7. Emma Goldman and Leon Czolgosz appear in Rhys Bowen's "Death
of Riley". While they are acknowledged to be true historical
characters, the rest of the book is fiction.
8. Emma Goldman is the protagonist in an unpublished book called
"Red Emma" by Norwegian author Jens Bjørneboe.
The book is illegal to publish in Norway, due to a conflict with
the author's family.