(1869 - 1940)
Emma Goldman was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1869
into a religiously traditional household. As a teenager, she was
deeply influenced by the Russian anarchist writers Chernyshevsky and
Bakunin. When she expressed a desire for further education, her
father told her, "Girls dont have to learn much! All a Jewish
daughter needs to know is how to prepare gefilte fish, cut noodles
fine and give the man plenty of children." Rebelling against
such limits, in 1885 the strong-minded 16-year-old Goldman left home
and boarded a boat for America, the land of freedom. By the 1890s,
Goldman won a reputation as "Red Emma," perhaps the most
notorious radical lecturer in the United States.
Goldman spent a lifetime agitating for universal
values such as an end to war, racism, religious differences and
ethnocentrism; for social justice for working people; for the
abolition of capitalism; and for freedom of spiritual and
intellectual expression – including free love. However, she never
forgot her Jewish identity. While she was still a child, Goldmans
family was driven from Kovno to Konigsburg, Germany and then to St.
Petersburg, Russia by anti-Semitic violence. Biographer Candace Falk
notes that the Biblical Judith, who cut off the head of Holofernes to
avenge the wrongs done to the Jewish people, was Goldmans female
role model. Her experience of Russian violence against Jews informed
her lifelong advocacy for social justice.
When she arrived in America, Goldman settled in
Rochester, NY, where she worked in the garment industry and married
Jacob Kersner. A year later, Goldman was outraged by the hanging of
seven political anarchists who were convicted, on flimsy evidence, of
planting a bomb in Chicagos Haymarket Square that killed seven
police officers. After tolerating near-starvation wages and marital
strife, in 1889 Goldman divorced Kersner, packed her sewing machine
and personal effects and moved to New Yorks Lower East Side in
search of greater freedom and a larger platform for her anarchist
In New York City, anarchist newspaper editor
Johann influenced Goldman Most. Recognizing her charisma, Most
encouraged the fiery Goldman to agitate among Yiddish speaking
workers for general strikes and the overthrow of the state. Beyond
the usual anarchist protest against economic inequality, Goldman also
called for "freedom, the right to self-expression [and]
everybodys right to beautiful things." Goldman invoked the
love of beauty and higher instincts that, she believed, are shared by
all humans regardless of cultural background or economic status.
At this time, Goldman met and became involved with
Alexander Berkman, a fellow anarchist. In 1892, the pair became
incensed by the repression and killing of strikers at Carnegie
Steels Homestead plant, near Pittsburgh. Goldman funded
Berkmans purchase of the gun with which he wounded Henry Clay
Frick, manager of Carnegie Steel, in a failed assassination attempt.
Berkman was sentenced to life in prison and the United States
government launched a crackdown on other anarchists. One year later,
Goldman was imprisoned for violating laws that prohibited anarchist
speech. Goldman proclaimed that the government "can never stop
women from talking."
After her release from prison in 1895, Goldman
ceased advocating for direct action such as assassination and general
strikes and proclaimed instead that "the key to anarchist
revolution was a revolution in morality … a conquest of the
‘phantoms that held people captive" such as racism and
religious intolerance. Goldman avoided arrest until 1917, when she
was jailed for 18 months for speaking out against conscription in
World War I. In 1919, the U. S. government deported her to Russia.
Expecting to find freedom in the "workers paradise,"
Goldman instead found communist repression and lingering anti-Semitism.
She openly criticized Lenin for his anti-democratic policies.
Disillusioned, Goldman departed and spent her remaining days as a
self-described "woman without a country." She lived for a
time in Republican Spain but fled when Francos fascists triumphed,
moving to France. She spoke out against Stalin, Hitler and all forms of totalitarianism.
In 1906, Goldman wrote optimistically, "Owing
to a lack of a country of their own, [Jews] developed, crystallized
and idealized their cosmopolitan reasoning faculty … working for
the great moment when the earth will become the home for all, without
distinction of ancestry or race." After her Soviet experience,
however, she wrote: "When I was in America, I did not believe in
the Jewish question removed from the whole social question. But since
we visited some of the pogrom regions I have come to see that there is a Jewish question, especially in the Ukraine. … It is almost
certain that the entire Jewish race will be wiped out should many
more changes take place." Writing in 1937 after the rise of Hitler,
Goldmans Jewish identity found renewed expression: "While I
am neither Zionist nor Nationalist,
I have worked for the rights of the Jews and [against] every attempt
to hinder their life and development." According to biographer
Falk, before she died in 1940 in Toronto, Emma Goldman - wandering
Jew and anti-state radical - reluctantly acknowledged that her fellow
Jews needed refuge somewhere in the world – a place of their own.
Goldmans speeches and writings have inspired
(for better or worse) a range of individuals from Leon Czolgosz, the
1901 assassin of president William McKinley; to Roger Baldwin,
founder of the American Civil Liberties Union; to libertine novelist
Henry Miller. In the 1960s and 1970s, her autobiography and her
magazine, Mother Earth, inspired a new generation of New
Leftists and feminists. Goldmans legacy lives on.
Jewish Historical Society (AJHS); Library
of Congress photo