October 28, 2015

Women of Doubt: Emma Goldman never stopped raising hell

It's 1915 in Portland, Oregon. Three days earlier, a woman had given a talk on Friedriech Nietzsche. Word had spread quickly that birth control pamphlets had been illegally distributed at that event, and so police infiltrated the crowd--eventually, carrying the woman off of the stage before her lecture could even conclude.

What was a woman, an immigrant, to do?

If the apocryphal tales can be believed, this woman, Emma Goldman, after a few too many times being pulled off of the stage, took heavy lock and a long, heavy chain, wrapped it around herself and the podium several times, and threw it out the window to be attached to a pole, arguing that it would take the police so long to get her loose and carry her away that they couldn't possibly interrupt her lecture before its conclusion this time.

There's no source to prove the story, no date that it took place on, but Goldman's theatrics are indisputable--as is their indelible effect on our society that can still be seen today.

How did this woman, a poor Jewish immigrant from Russia, come to chain herself (reputedly) to the stage that day? What happened to leave such a tattoo on our own civil rights today?

That's a long story.

The Girl

On June 27, 1869, little Emma was born in the city of Kovno, a small habitation in imperial Russia, today located in Lithuania.  Like many Jewish residents in Russia and other nations, Goldman's family suffered from rampant anti-Semitism. They lived in Jewish ghettos and moved frequently in search of better opportunity. 2

Goldman's father was often violent towards the family:

His often violent assertion of authority over them led young Emma, perhaps more acutely aware than he of the injustice of their situation, to imagine instead directing violence outward against the enemies of the Jewish people, in the manner of Judith, the Biblical heroine with whom she identified.2

Goldman and her family moved to St. Petersburg when she was 12, and the young girl found a glimpse of hope in the assassination of Czar Alexander II on March 13, 1881. 2

It was here and now that the seeds of Goldman's future radicalism were solidly planted:

Excited by the ideas of the Russian Populists and Nihilists, Emma eagerly devoured Chernishevsky's What Is to Be Done? and promptly replaced her childhood heroine Judith with Chernishevsky's modern Vera, a political organizer and cooperative worker. 2

Goldman soon left Russia to pursue her education in Germany, but she quickly "rejected the rote learning and authoritarian teaching methods she encounter in her school" there. Despite her issues, she developed a love for literature, opera, and classical music during her time there. 2

The Immigrant

After her issues at school and arguments with her German relatives, Goldman returned home to Russia, where she worked in a factory to help earn money. She left in in 1885, however, at age 16, after rejecting an arranged marriage demanded by her father. Like many immigrants, Goldman dreamed of a new life in America. 2

Immigration was no sure thing for people during this time. The trips were often fraught with danger and illness from and on the seas, and when they reached American shores, their future still wasn't sure:

Immigrants entering the United States who could not afford first or second-class passage came through the processing center at Ellis Island, New York. Built in 1892, the center handled some 12 million European immigrants, herding thousands of them a day through the barn-like structure during the peak years for screening. Government inspectors asked a list of twenty-nine probing questions, such as: Have you money, relatives or a job in the United States? Are you a polygamist? An anarchist? Next, the doctors and nurses poked and prodded them, looking for signs of disease or debilitating handicaps. Usually immigrants were only detained 3 or 4 hours, and then free to leave. If they did not receive stamps of approval, and many did not because they were deemed criminals, strikebreakers, anarchists or carriers of disease, they were sent back to their place of origin at the expense of the shipping line. 10

Still, immigrants had high hopes, and this is reflected in Goldman's reflections on her own experience:

Helena and I stood pressed to each other, enraptured by the sight of the harbour and the Statue of Liberty suddenly emerging from the mist. Ah, there she was, the symbol of hope, of freedom, of opportunity! She held her torch to light the way to the free country, the asylum for the oppressed of all lands. We, too, Helena and I, would find a place in the generous heart of America. Our spirits were high, our eyes filled with tears.

Goldman quickly settled into a life of factory work in Rochester, New York. However, factory work, too, was a difficult enterprise in the United States at the time:

Factory workers had to face long hours, poor working conditions, and job instability. During economic recessions many workers lost their jobs or faced sharp pay cuts. New employees found the discipline and regulation of factory work to be very different from other types of work. Work was often monotonous because workers performed one task over and over. It was also strictly regulated. Working hours were long averaging at least ten hours a day and six days a week for most workers, even longer for others. For men and women from agricultural backgrounds these new conditions proved challenging because farm work tended to be more flexible and offered a variety of work tasks. Factory work was also different for skilled artisans, who had once hand-crafted goods on their own schedule. 15

Goldman found these conditions much more demanding than those of the Russian factory she had worked in, leading her to "[join] in the growing militance against the inequality and inhuman working conditions that characterized industrializing America". 12

During this time, despite the stigma agaisnt divorce, Goldman opted to end an unhappy marriage. As she became more involved in politics, she would meet a new partner, Alexander Berkman, also from Russia. Berkman would play a large role in Goldman's immediate future. 11

The Anarchist

Undeniably, Goldman's radical roots lie in her history in Russia. However, her shift to anarchist is yet another aspect of her American experience, beginning with the Haymarket Square incident in 1886.

Labor and radical activists held a mass rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square on the evening of May 4 to protest the police's brutal suppression of a strike at the McCormick Harvester Company against a union lock out the previous day. Towards the end of an otherwise peaceful demonstration, a bomb was thrown at police after they attempted to stop the meeting, injuring people in the crowd and killing a police officer. In the chaos that followed an unknown number of demonstrators were killed by the police, and another six police officers were fatally injured (primarily by their own gunfire), and died during the ensuing weeks, their condition avidly followed by the public. Afterwards, the police and the press blamed Chicago's anarchist leaders, and in this climate of hysteria a jury condemned them despite a dearth of evidence. Seven were sentenced to death, one was given fifteen years. Of those who received the death penalty two had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, and another committed suicide the night before the execution. The remaining four were executed on the 11th of November 1887. 11

Goldman was convinced of their innocence, and she became active in the anarchist cause in defending them. She and Berkman were of one mind: "Together, they vowed to dedicate their lives to anarchism." 11

Berkman and Goldman were by no means entirely nonviolent protestors:

In 1892, when Henry Clay Frick of the Carnegie Steel Company provoked a bloody confrontation with workers at the company's plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania (June 30-July 6), Berkman and Goldman decided to retaliate. On July 23, Berkman went to Frick's office in downtown Pittsburgh and shot Frick, but failed to kill him. Berkman was convicted and sentenced to twenty-two years in prison. Though Goldman was involved in the plot, she escaped the indictment because of insufficient evidence. 11

Her reputation remained tarnished by this:

When President William McKinley was shot in 1901 by Leon Czolgosz, the police immediately tried to implicate Goldman, noting that Czolgosz had recently attended one of her lectures in Cleveland. Consequently Goldman and other anarchists were arrested. Eventually, though, disappointed by the lack of evidence against her, the authorities were forced to order Goldman's release. Goldman temporarily withdrew from public life to avoid harassment. When she re-emerged she entered one of her most politically active periods, speaking around the country, writing on a wide range of topics, and editing her free-spirited journal, Mother Earth from 1906 to 1917. Many, however, remained convinced that she was a dangerous killer, thanks in large part to the anti- anarchist agitation of the press.11

The Free Speech Activist

In 1893, Goldman was arrested for urging a crowd of workers to rely on street demonstrations instead of the electoral process. She based her defense on free speech, but lost:

She spent ten months in jail, a reminder that in nineteenth century America the right of free speech was still a dream, not  a reality. 4

For Goldman, then, it's easy to see that free speech was as much a matter of self-preservation as it was of principle, as "[s]he herself was frequently harassed or arrested when lecturing--if her talks were not banned outright." 12

After President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, free speech was endangered yet further, eventually culminating in the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918. Like most governmental crackdowns, this move towards restricting free speech faced a backlash:

At the same time, liberal and radical Americans became more vocal in their opposition to the abridgement of first amendment rights. The government's attempts to suppress Goldman's unconventional views actually led many who disagreed with her to support nonetheless her right to express her ideas freely. 4

In 1903, Goldman began working with the newly formed Free Speech League, and this is without a doubt one of her lasting impressions on American society. During the course of her work with the FSL, Goldman would irreversibly impact Roger Baldwin, who would go on to help found the American Civil Liberties Union:

Baldwin heard Goldman speak in 1908 at a working class meeting hall in St. Louis, and what he heard led him to dedicate his life to the cause of freedom. 4

Also in 1908, Goldman was offered the use of a "hobo hall" by one Ben Reitman. Their attraction was instantaneous, and Reitman became her road manager for a series of successful cross-country lecture tours. 4

Goldman would continue to emphasize the importance of free speech even after her own outcry against World War I was used to justify her deportation:

Undaunted, Goldman risked further political isolation by becoming one of the Left's most vocal and eloquent critics of political repression in the Soviet Union. 4

The Birth Control Activist

Another undeniable impact of Goldman was her work as a mentor to Margaret Sanger on the subject of birth control as "she brought the young Sanger into the campaign against the 1873 Comstock Law which prohibited the distribution of birth control literature, thus forging an indelible link between free speech and reproductive rights." 1

Goldman did not view birth control as a single issue, but "always insisted that birth control be viewed in the context of the broad social, economic, and political forces that led to its suppression." 1

For Goldman, the cause of birth control was a deeply personal one:

Goldman first became convinced that birth control was essential to women's sexual and economic freedom when she worked as a nurse and midwife among poor immigrant workers on the Lower East Side in the 1890s. 1

She personally smuggled contraception into the United States from France, and she, as noted in the introduction, distributed birth control pamphlets at her talks.

Goldman herself was arrested and charged with violating the Comstock Law twice, including one trial in 1916 that she turned into a national conversation on birth control garnering the support of many writers, artists, intellectuals, and progressives. 1

The Atheist

Goldman was an avowed atheist despite her cultural Jewish heritage, but the point must be acknowledged that her heritage--and the oppression she faced because of it--deeply shaped her beliefs and activism throughout her life:

Although Goldman was hostile to religion in general, her core beliefs emerged in part from a Jewish tradition that championed the pursuit of universal justice. Her early experiences in Russia and as an immigrant to the United States laid the groundwork for her later analyses of political and economic problems, and she understood that her own ideals had their roots in a Jewish historical experience shaped by longstanding oppression. Goldman's career stands as an important chapter in the history of Jewish activism in America. 3

Still, as Jennifer Michael Hecht notes, Goldman's atheism was beyond a simple hostility towards religion:

She hated seeing workers, especially women, still saddled with ideas of self-denial and penance. For her, doubt was a source of happiness. 9

You can see this very clearly in Goldman's own writings, especially her "The Philosophy of Atheism", where she wrote:

The philosophy of Atheism represents a concept of life without any metaphysical Beyond or Divine Regulator. It is the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world, which with its spirits, oracles, and mean contentment, has kept humanity in its helpless degradation. 8

Indeed, Goldman produced one of my personal favorite thoughts on atheism in that same essay:

Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty. 8

Not unlike some vocal nonbelievers today, Goldman believed that religion was a chain, and that mankind needed to overcome it:

Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion out of his reawakened and illumined consciousness a new world upon earth. 8

The Exile

Goldman was no pacifist--you may have already determined that by her past violent actions--but she held tightly to the anarchist principle that the state had no right to make war. She also felt that most wars took advantage of the working class for the benefit of capitalists. 14

As it became clear that the United States was moving towards war in 1916, Goldman and a coalition of liberals, socialists, anarchists, and progressive unionists participated in a broad antiwar effort. Goldman used her own magazine, Mother Earth, as a medium. 14

Perhaps needless to say, this effort did not go over well with the government at the time:

Ultimately, however, the federal government crushed this movement and repressed its elements in an almost hysterical patriotic prowar and antiradical crusade orchestrated by President Woodrow Wilson. Mother Earth was banned, along with other periodicals opposing the war. Hundreds of foreign-born radicals were deported. 14

On June 15, 1917, Goldman was arrested and charged with conspiring against the draft. Her conviction resulted in a sentence of two years in prison, with the possibility that she would be deported after serving her time. She appealed to the Supreme Court, but they ruled against her, and she began serving her sentence at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. 14

Her sentence ended with her release on September 27, 1919, but she was quickly arrested again. This time, J. Edgar Hoover personally oversaw efforts to "[persuade] the courts to deny Goldman's citizenship and to deport her." 14

Hoover was successful. On December 21, 1919, Goldman was packed onto a ship with more than 200 other foreign-born radicals, including Alexander Berkman, bound for the Soviet Union. 14 She would spend the next 20 years bouncing between Russia, Sweden, Germany, France, England, and Canada, never again connecting to a place in the way that she did her American home. 6

Despite her youthful hope at the Czar's assassination, Goldman found the reality of the Soviet Union disappointing:

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. But she continued to defend the revolution, which she distinguished from the subsequent Bolshevik regime. She argued forcefully in My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) that the emergence of the Bolshevik party-state actually crushed the revolution. 6

Goldman did not give up on free speech while in exile:

During her exile, Emma Goldman continued to apply her principles of free speech not just to the United States, but to the Soviet Union as well. Angered by the suppression of anti-Bolshevik dissent in Russia, Goldman registered her protest with Lenin himself and left the country within two years hoping to alert the world to the injustice she had witnessed. Her courageous position left her vulnerable to criticism from the Left as well as from the Right and isolated her even further. 6

In 1936, Berkman committed suicide. Goldman was broken, but quickly engaged herself in the Spanish Civil War that erupted that July:

Goldman thought the Spanish Civil War was not only crucial to the international struggle against fascism, but also a great moment in the history of Spain and the world. It was in her view the only peasant and working-class revolution ever to be inspired by anarchist ideals. 5

Despite her advancing age and the loss of her cause, Goldman continued her activism:

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 and financial support for the women and children refugees of the Spanish war and to publicizing legislative dangers to free speech in Canada.5

On May 14, 1940, Goldman died in Toronto. The United States Immigration and Naturalization Service did allow her body to be interred at Chicago's Waldheim Cemetery, where she rests near both the Haymarket anarchists whose deaths had brought her to the anarchist cause and fellow feminist-anarachist-immigrant Voltarine de Cleyre.

The Many Faces of Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman refused to backdown. She boldly resisted the "natural order" in a time when doing so was simply unconscionable for many women. While I don't recommend shooting any business moguls, I do think there are many good lessons that can be drawn from Goldman's life--especially the fervor with which she clung to her principles, applying them equally to both the United States and the Soviet Union at a time when many in her intellectual circles would not do so.

Overall, Goldman's importance can't be overstated, although she was probably overlooked when your history classes touched on the early 20th century in America:

Goldman's impassioned advocacy of politically unpopular ideas and causes like free love, anarchism, and atheism earned her the title "Red Emma" and led many of the powerful to fear and hate her. Attorney General Caffey wrote in 1917, "Emma Goldman is a woman of great ability and of personal magnetism, and her persuasive powers make her an exceedingly dangerous woman." But others stressed Goldman's role as an educator, one who in nationwide lecture tours spread modern ideas and practices to a young and provincial country. One newspaper editor described her as "8,000 years ahead of her time." 12

She was an impressive Woman of Doubt, but I'd like to leave you with on parting thought, in Emma's own words:

I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things. 7

It's a moving thought, indeed.


(1) "Birth Control Pioneer" <http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/goldman/MeetEmmaGoldman/birthcontrolpioneer.html> Accessed October 28, 2015

(2) "Early Life" Portrait of an Anarchist as a Young Woman". <http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/goldman/MeetEmmaGoldman/earlylife-portraitofananarchistasayoungwoman.html> Accessed October 28, 2015

(3) "Emma Goldman". Jewish Women's Archive. <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/goldman> Accessed October 28, 2015

(4) "Emma Goldman and Free Speech". <http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/goldman/MeetEmmaGoldman/emmagoldmanandfreespeech.html> Accessed October 28, 2015

(5) "Emma Goldman and the Spanish Civil War". <http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/goldman/MeetEmmaGoldman/emmagoldmanandthespanishcivilwar.html> Accessed October 28, 2015

(6) "Emma Goldman in Exile". <http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/goldman/MeetEmmaGoldman/emmagoldmaninexile.html"> Accessed October 28, 2015

(7) Goldman, Emma. Living My Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), 56.

(8) Goldman, Emma. "The Philosophy of Atheism". The Portable Atheist. Ed. Christopher Hitchens. De Capo Press, 2007. 129-133. Print.

(9) Hecht, Jennifer Michael. Doubt; A History. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

(10) "Immigration in the Early 1900s". Eyewitness to History. <http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/snpim1.htm> Accessed October 28, 2015.

(11) "Life and Conflict in the New World". <http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/goldman/MeetEmmaGoldman/lifeandconflictinthenewworld.html> Accessed October 28, 2015

(12) "Meet Emma: Online Exhibit" <http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/goldman/MeetEmmaGoldman/index.html> Accessed October 28, 2015

(13) "The Emma Goldman Papers". <http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/goldman/> Accessed October 28, 2015

(14)"War Resistance, Anti-Militarism, and Deportation, 1917-1919" <http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/goldman/MeetEmmaGoldman/warresistance-antimilitarism-deportation1917-1919.html> Accessed October 28, 2015.

(15) "Working Conditions in Factories (Issue)". <http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3406401046.html> Accessed October 28, 2015

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