Emma Goldman (1869 - 1940)

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Emma Goldman

After organizing against the draft during the First World War, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and 247 others were deported from the United States in 1919. That repressive measure was a project of an ambitious young lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover, who regarded Goldman and Berkman, her lover, as “two of the most dangerous anarchists in this country.” Their principal “crime” was in regarding themselves—as Thomas Paine and William Lloyd Garrison did before them—as “citizens of the world.” In her commitment to the common good, Goldman followed the dictates not of the State, but of her conscience. She took seriously the advice of Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass: “Resist much, obey little. Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved.”

In message and tone, Goldman’s introduction to her autobiography (1913), “In Appreciation,” is representative. Acknowledging her gratitude to those who came into her life for several hours or several years, she wrote, “Their love, as well as their hate, has gone into making my life worthwhile.” In demonstrations, speeches, and vigorous, readable essays, she warned against the dangers of highly centralized power, including the violence and oppression resulting from a managerial elite. As she said in the popular pamphlet “What I Believe” (1908), anarchists were the only ones calling a halt “to the growing tendency of militarism, which is fast making of this erstwhile free country an imperialistic and despotic power.” With Eugene Victor Debs, the Industrial Workers of the World, and similar militants in the worker’s struggle, Goldman helped to make the period before the First World War perhaps the most vibrant era in American political history. During her adventurous life and since her death, her example has helped to make other lives “worthwhile,” as various tributes suggest.

In his One Man Revolution in America (1970), Ammon Hennacy named her one of the eighteen greatest Americans, and Dorothy Day, who “longed to walk in the shoes of Mother Jones and Emma Goldman,” made Goldman’s anarchist principles central to the Catholic Worker movement. Theodore Dreiser regarded Goldman’s writings as “the richest of any woman’s of the century,” and John Dewey and Bertrand Russell thought her an important and attractive personality, as did many European anarchists. The playwright S.N. Behrman wrote affectionately about her in his memoir The Worcester Account, and Stanley Kunitz, in the poem “Journal to My Daughter,” brags of belonging to “a flinty maverick line,” that welcomed Goldman, Ingersoll, and other radicals to the family table, also in Worcester. Howard Zinn, the historian, wrote a successful play about her in the 1970s, and feminist critics regard her as a forerunner of the women’s movement. In 1970, young members of the Emma Goldman Brigade marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City chanting: “Emma said it in 1910. Now we’re going to say it again,” according to Alix Kates Shulman.

Born June 27, 1869, in Kovno, Lithuania, Emma Goldman was the third child of Taube Bienowitch, and the first of three children by her second husband, Abraham Goldman. Emma Goldman attended a Jewish elementary school where she excelled academically before moving to St. Petersburg, where the family’s poverty forced her to take a full-time job in a factory at age thirteen. Two years later, partly because of her father’s threat to marry her off, she fled with her sister to America.

At her first job in the United States, in Rochester, New York, Goldman sewed overcoats for ten hours a day at $2.50 a week. In the U.S., as in Russia (where she had seen peasants beaten), she was appalled by the horrible conditions of workers. In 1886, she was deeply affected by the unjust conviction and eventual hanging of four Chicago anarchists in the famous Haymarket Square trial, writing later:

I had a distinct sensation that something new and wonderful had been born in my soul. A great ideal, a burning faith, a determination to dedicate myself to the memory of my martyred comrades, to make their cause my own.

After a brief marriage to another Russian immigrant and still only twenty years old, she moved to New York City and became the protegée of Johann Most, the anarchist editor of Freiheit. Working later as a seamstress, Goldman became a leading organizer of workers during a cloak-maker’s strike in 1889. Like many anarchists of the time, she thought that the masses could be aroused to revolt against their masters by some dramatic, polarizing event. In 1892, when Pinkerton guards shot into striking steelworkers at the Carnegie plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, Alexander Berkman resolved to assassinate the chairman of the company, Henry Clay Frick. When the attempt failed and Berkman went to prison for fourteen years, Goldman defended him. She became a major spokesperson for anarchism and spent a year in prison for “inciting a riot” that never occurred; in actuality, in an argument resembling that of medieval theologians, she had merely justified the stealing of bread by starving people.

Following a period of repression at the turn of the century (after an anarchist killed President McKinley), Goldman returned to public life again in 1906, the year she launched Mother Earth, a monthly supporting feminism, free speech, and similar issues. She published essays on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Shaw, whose plays she regarded as powerful dramatizations of the plight of women, as well as anarchist classics by Kropotkin and Bakunin, writings by Oscar Wilde, and her own essays on anarchism and literature.

While giving herself tirelessly to various campaigns for workers’ rights and women’s rights, she was also a success on the lecture circuit, speaking 120 times in thirty-seven states during 1910 for example. “Combative by nature,” Alix Kates Shulman says, Goldman “talked up free love to puritans, atheism to churchmen, revolution to reformers; she denounced the ballot to suffragists, patriotism to soldiers and patriots.” In 1915, she spent fifteen days in jail for giving a public lecture on methods of birth control in support of Margaret Sanger.

When America entered the war against Germany in 1917, Goldman and Berkman—now out of prison—formed the No-Conscription League, which led to their arrest for conspiring to obstruct the draft. The League maintained that “the militarization of America is an evil that far outweighs, in its anti-social and anti-libertarian effects, any good that may come from America’s participation in the war.” In a characteristically witty and courageous speech to the judges, Goldman described the methods of the arresting officer and “his host of heroic warriors” as being “sensational enough to satisfy the famous circus men, Barnum & Bailey....

A dozen or more heroes dashing up two flights of stairs prepared to stake their lives for their country, only to discover the two dangerous disturbers and trouble-makers, Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, in their separate offices, quietly at work at their desks, wielding not a sword, nor a gun or a bomb, but merely their pens! Verily, it required courage to catch such big fish.

(The arresting officers’ behavior resembled that of the F.B.I. harassing and arresting draft resisters during the Vietnam war; on Block Island in 1970, for example, Daniel Berrigan was arrested by F.B.I. agents disguised as birdwatchers.)

During the Red Scare of 1919, J. Edgar Hoover, later head of the F.B.I., directed hearings for Goldman’s deportation, after revoking her citizenship. Under the 1918 Alien Exclusion Act, he shipped Goldman, Berkman, and 247 other radicals on the Buford, an old army transport, to the “new” Soviet Union.

Initially enthusiastic about the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Goldman became one of its fiercest critics when she realized that in the U.S.S.R., as in many other countries, anarchists were treated as enemies of the State. Moving to France in the early 1930s, then England, during the Spanish Civil War she moved to Spain and directed the anarchist press there. Rising to speak in a crowded hall, amid anarchist cheers, fascist boos, and communist cat-calls, she countered them by announcing “that she had had fifty years of dealing with mobs and no one could shout her down. And by God she was right,” says Ethel Mannin, an English novelist, who adds that the crowd sat “enchanted under the attack, and when she had finished applauded wildly.”

Traveling to Canada to raise money for Spanish anarchists in 1939, Goldman suffered a stroke and died some months later in Toronto, on May 14, 1940. Karl Shapiro, in “Death of Emma Goldman,” has pictured her in her final moments, surrounded by officials who had hounded her during her adventuresome life:

Triumphant at the final breath
Their senile God, their cops,
All the authorities and friends pro tem
Passing her pillow, keeping her concerned.

In actuality, she never bowed before authorities and adversaries who denounced, exiled, and imprisoned her; as a great advocate for social justice, loyal to her values and her radical friends, she seldom faltered.

Only in death was Goldman finally allowed to re-enter the United States to be buried in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery, near the graves of her beloved Haymarket martyrs. Once asked for details about her life, Goldman suggested that the person consult “any police department in America or Europe.”

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material by Emma Goldman
  • Red Emma Speaks: Selected Writings and Speeches of Emma Goldman. Ed. Alix Kates Shulman, ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.
  • Living My Life. 2 vols. New York: Dover Publications, (1931) 1970.
Selected material about Emma Goldman
  • Drinnon, Richard. Rebel in Paradise. A Biography of Emma Goldman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.
  • Falk, Candace S. Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman: A Biography, Rev. ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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