Emma Goldman

From Academic Kids

Emma Goldman, c. 1910
Emma Goldman, c. 1910

Emma Goldman (June 27, 1869May 14, 1940) was a Lithuanian-born anarchist known for her anarchist writings and speeches. Adopted by Second-wave feminists, she has been lionized as an iconic "rebel woman" feminist. However, Goldman played a pivotal role in the development of anarchism in the US and Europe throughout the first half of the twentieth century. She immigrated to the United States at seventeen and was later deported to Russia, where she witnessed events 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.


Birth and early years

Goldman was born to a Jewish family in Kaunas(known then as Kovno), Lithuania, 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.

Immigration to America

At the age of 17 she emigrated with her elder sister, Helene, to Rochester, NY, 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, CT, and then to New York City. Goldman and Kersner remained legally married, allowing her to retain her American citizenship.

Goldman and Alexander Berkman
Goldman and Alexander Berkman

New York City

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 made her highly unpopular with the authorities. Berkman (or Sasha as she fondly referred to him) was jailed for fourteen years.

She also become friends with Hippolyte Havel at this time.


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.) She was charged with "inciting a riot" by the criminal courts of New York, despite the testimonies of twelve witnesses that came to her defense. Instead the jury based their verdict off of the testimony of one invididual, a Detective Jacobs. Voltairine de Cleyre gave the lecture In Defense of Emma Goldman as a response to this imprisonment. While serving the one year sentence, she developed a keen interest in nursing.

Conspiracy 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, a reclusive anarchist sympathizer, had shot the President several days before. The authorities' attempt to associate her and the other nine anarchists with the death of McKinley had an ideological purpose: to discredit Anarchism as much as possible due its ties with the surging labour movement of the early 1900's. She was one of its fiercest organizers, and had already achieved public notoriety by the time of the accusations. After undergoing intense cross-examining in confinement for several weeks, they were released due to the complete lack of evidence to connect her and the others with Czolgosz's actions. Goldman had met Czolgosz only once, briefly, several weeks before, where he had asked Goldman's advice on a course of study in anarchist ideas. Leon Czolgosz was found guilty of murder and executed.

Birth control

On February 11, 1916, she was arrested and imprisoned again for her distribution of birth control literature. She, like many other early feminists, saw abortion as a tragic consequence of social conditions. In 1911, Goldman wrote in Mother Earth:

"The 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."
Emma Goldman, 1917
Emma Goldman, 1917

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, left) 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, bureaucracy and forced labour in Russia 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. 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).

Rejection of violence

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.

Spanish Civil War

In 1936, Goldman went to Spain to support the Spanish Revolution and the fight against 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.

Death and burial

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 Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago, close to where the Haymarket Riot martyrs are interred.


  • Methods and means cannot be separated from the ultimate aim...No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the means used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the purposes to be achieved...the period of the actual revolution, the so-called transitory stage, must be the introduction, the prelude to the new social conditions...it must be of the spirit of the new life, harmonious with the construction of the new edifice." - My Disillusionment in Russia
  • I do not believe in God, because I believe in man. Whatever his mistakes, man has for thousands of years past been working to undo the botched job your God has made." Living my Life, p. 207.
  • As to killing rulers, it depends entirely on the position of the ruler. If it is the Russian tsar, I most certainly believe in dispatching him to where he belongs. If the ruler is as ineffectual as an American president, it is hardly worth the effort. There are, however, some potentates I would kill by any and all means at my disposal. They are Ignorance, Superstition, and Bigotry ? the most sinister and tyranical rulers on earth." Living my Life, p. 207.
  • America had declared war with Spain.... It did not require much political wisdom to see that America's concern was a matter of sugar and had nothing to do with humanitarian feelings. Of course there were plenty of credulous people, not only in the country at large, but even in liberal ranks, who believed in America's claim. I could not join them. I was sure that no one, be it individual or government, engaged in enslaving and exploiting at home, could have the integrity or the desire to free people in other lands." Living my Life, p. 226.
  • But the people are asleep; they remain indifferent. They forge their own chains and do the bidding of their masters to crucify their Christs." Living my Life, p. 304.
  • Nothing would prove more disastrous to our ideas, we contended, than to neglect the effect of the internal upon the external, of the psychological motives and needs upon existing institutions." Living my Life, p. 402.
  • "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution" - widely attributed, actually a paraphrase from her autobiography Living My Life - view what she actually wrote at The Anarchy Review (http://www.upsaid.com/elderbear/index.php?action=viewcom&id=1) blog.
  • We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all human beings, irrespective of race, color, or sex, are born with the equal right to share at the table of life.
  • The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people is the greatest and only safety in a sane society.

Emma Goldman in fiction

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.


  • Falk, Candace, et al. Emma Goldman: A Documentary History Of The American Years, Volume 1 - Made for America, 1890-1901. Berkeley: U of California P, 2003. ISBN 0520086708
  • Falk, Candace, et al. Emma Goldman: A Documentary History Of The American Years, Volume 2 - Making Speech Free, 1902-1909. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004. ISBN 0520225694
  • Goldman, Emma. My Disillusionment in Russia. London: C. W. Daniel Co., 1925. ISBN 048643270X
  • Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1931. ISBN 0486225437
  • Moritz, Theresa. The World's Most Dangerous Woman: A New Biography of Emma Goldman. Vancouver: Subway Books, 2001. ISBN 0968716318

See also


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