Goldman, Emma (1869–1940)

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Goldman, Emma (1869–1940)

Russian-born labor organizer, leading anarchist writer and lecturer, as well as an early advocate of birth control, who was deported from America for her antiwar activities during World War I. Name variations: (nicknames) Red Emma, Mother of Anarchy. Born on June 27, 1869, in Kovno, Lithuania; died on May 14, 1940, in Toronto, Canada; daughter of Abraham Goldman (an innkeeper and small businessman) and Taube Goldman; married Jacob Kershner, in 1886 (divorced 1889); no children.

Family lived in province of Kurland, part of western Russia, then moved to St. Petersburg; immigrated to the U.S. (1885); became involved with anarchists (1889); was first jailed (1893); studied nursing in Vienna (1895 and 1899); arrested several times for anarchist activities; published Mother Earth, an anarchist magazine (1906–17); became active in the birth-control movement (1915); arrested for antiwar activities (1917), deported (1919); obtained British passport (1925); wrote her autobiography, Living My Life (1931); lectured against Nazi policies (1932–40); moved to Canada and lectured and wrote until her death.

Emma Goldman was one of the most radical women in the history of the United States; she was also one of the most controversial and, perhaps, one of the most courageous. She was a woman ahead of her time, a fiery advocate of personal freedom, and a supporter of the anarchist movement. Anarchists believe that any government, by its very nature, forces people to conform. Only by doing away with all types of government will people be able to achieve their full potential. As part of a small but active group of anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Emma Goldman was viewed as dangerous and subversive. Because anarchists and communists were often linked together, Goldman was labeled "Red Emma."

The American authorities did their best to curtail anarchist activities. As a result, Goldman and her associates were jailed repeatedly and ultimately deported back to Russia which had recently become a communist state. However, she quickly became disillusioned with the new Russian communism, as she had with American capitalism, and before that, with the tsarist government of her childhood. In fact, from her earliest years Goldman rebelled against every authority.

Emma Goldman was born on June 27, 1869, in Kovno, Lithuania, then a province of Russia. Her traditional Russian-Jewish parents struggled to make a living, moving from one city to another throughout Kurland, in western Russia. Her father Abraham Goldman earned a living at various jobs. He ran a stagecoach line, worked as an innkeeper, then owned a grocery store, but failed at every endeavor. Her mother Taube Goldman had been born into a more educated family than Abraham. Taube spoke German, considered the language of high culture, and had enjoyed a childhood of relative prosperity. She had already given birth to two daughters, Lena and Helena, and had been widowed and remarried.

By the time Emma was born, Taube was disappointed with her second marriage and disillusioned with her life. She had little interest in yet another daughter, whom the family could hardly support, and Emma always felt unloved. As a little girl, she remembered being subject to her father's fits of temper and violent emotions. He beat her when she disobeyed, but otherwise she was ignored. It was her half-sister Helena, nine years her senior, who gave her the only love she knew in those early years.

In 1875, Emma was sent to Königsberg, capital of Eastern Prussia, to live with her grandmother and an uncle while attending school. But this situation proved disastrous. The small amounts of money sent by her father for her schooling often ended up in her uncle's pocket, while Emma was expected to earn her keep by doing household chores. Rebellion always came easily to Goldman, and, after a few years, a final clash with her uncle ended her stay there. He pushed her down a flight of stairs and left her to be rescued by neighbors, then sent her back to her parents' home.

In 1882, with the Goldman family's move to St. Petersburg, 13-year-old Emma's life changed. She now had two younger brothers, but it was her half-sister Helena, intelligent and well-read, who became her role model and introduced her to revolutionary literature and social activism. Goldman was exposed to all the political movements of a big city in ferment and was especially attracted to nihilism, a form of anarchy popular in Russia at that time.

Emma, like Helena, loved books, music and school, but her independent spirit made it difficult for her to accept authority, and she had many disputes with her teachers. In addition, her father begrudged any time she spent on education. Women only need to know how to cook and produce babies, he insisted. It was good to have a trade, in case she needed to support a scholarly husband, but scholarship, in his opinion, was reserved for men. Partly because of this attitude and partly out of financial necessity, Goldman left school at 15 and went to work in a glove factory in St. Petersburg. But she hated factory work. She felt strangled sitting with 600 other women in a single room all day. She tried her hand at other jobs, at home and in factories, and found each situation too confining for her free spirit.

True emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts. It begins in women's souls.

—Emma Goldman

During those years, important events were occurring in Russia. Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated in 1881 by a few members of a radical terrorist group. This led to the imprisonment of many Russian revolutionaries. A few were executed, including Sonia Perovskaya , and others were exiled, including Vera Figner . At the same time, pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) were organized and the May Laws of 1882 were issued by the new tsar, Alexander III. These laws reimposed the restrictive legislation against Jews which Alexander II had lifted.

Many Jews were leaving Russia in the 1880s. Emma's oldest sister, Lena, was already in America, living in Rochester, New York. Helena was preparing to join her, and Emma begged to be allowed to go along. Although her parents wanted Emma to remain in Russia and marry, she finally prevailed and arrived in Rochester at the end of 1885. She was 17 years old.

Despite all her hopes, Goldman was quickly disillusioned. Her job in an overcoat factory subjected her to long hours and oppressive conditions, sometimes even worse than they had been in St. Petersburg. She later wrote about that experience, explaining: "The iron discipline forbade any free movement… and the constant surveillance of the foreman weighed like a stone on my heart." Nevertheless, she was earning $2.50 a week and was safe from anti-Jewish riots. Her parents and younger brothers soon joined her and her sisters in Rochester, and Emma finally gave in to their pressures and married.

The man was Jacob Kershner, a young Russian-Jewish immigrant who courted her with talk of books and culture. He seemed to Goldman a better alternative to the pressures of her family and her oppressive father. However, the marriage proved disastrous. Her first disappointment was the wedding night itself. Jacob was impotent. Her new husband imperiously insisted that, like all good American wives at that time, Emma must not work outside the home. Goldman, only 18 years old, soon realized that she had simply exchanged one oppression for another. She demanded a divorce. As soon as it was granted in August of 1889, the young woman picked up her sewing machine and fled, first to New Haven and then to New York City. Though she was 20 years old, with no money and no job, she was independent at last.

Emma Goldman knew no one in New York City, but she knew about someone: Johann Most, editor of Die Freiheit (Freedom), an anarchist newspaper. While living in Rochester, she had read Die Freiheit and followed the anarchist perspective on the Haymarket Affair. The Haymarket Affair began at a workers' rally in May 1886 at Haymarket Square in Chicago. During the rally, a bomb exploded amidst a group of police, killing seven and injuring many more. Anarchists were blamed, and eight prominent members of the group were arrested. The men were tried, found guilty, and a year later four of them were hanged.

Just as she had been in Russia, Goldman was drawn to the anarchists and their cause. She vowed to dedicate herself "to the memory of my martyred comrades." With those memories and commitments to bolster her, Emma's first stop in New York City was Sach's Cafe, a meeting place for the embattled anarchist movement. Young, attractive, and dedicated, Emma did not take long to become part of the inner circle. She met Alexander Berkman, one of the leaders of the anarchists, who took her to hear Johann Most speak.

Both Most and Goldman were impressed with each other. Emma was enthralled by the older man's ability to rouse an audience, while Most quickly discovered Emma's potential as a speaker. He instructed her on his ideas about anarchy, explaining that their goal was not to improve wages and working conditions but to overthrow the entire system. He also coached her in public speaking. Before long, Emma herself was an orator at meetings, urging workers to protest the injustices of their capitalist bosses by overthrowing the government. She spoke mainly to audiences of Jewish immigrant workers and her language was Yiddish, or sometimes German which she spoke with a Yiddish accent. Eventually, she learned English in order to reach more workers. Goldman became known throughout the Northeast as Red Emma, a passionate speaker who encouraged rebellion and inspired large crowds.

Yet she was also a realist. She understood that until the revolution could be accomplished, workers needed some improvements in their working conditions. Goldman was tireless in her attempts to organize female garment workers into unions. She also obtained food for the unemployed and set up distribution centers.

The members of Johann Most's circle were aware that Johann was in love with Emma. However, it was Alexander Berkman, nicknamed Sasha, who became her lover. Sasha and Emma maintained their relationship for many years, and although they never married, they lived together and worked in the movement until 1892.

In 1892, Berkman conceived a plan to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, a wealthy businessman and owner of a steel mill in Pittsburgh. The purpose of this plan was to protest Frick's oppression of steel workers. Although Emma later insisted that she opposed violence, she raised the money her lover needed to make the train trip to Pittsburgh and to assemble the bomb. Alexander Berkman's plot failed. Frick was wounded but survived the attack, and Berkman was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison for 22 years. Throughout the trial and his subsequent incarceration, Goldman kept in contact with Sasha, sending him food, letters, and books in prison while she continued speaking and working for the cause.

After one particularly successful speech, Emma was arrested for inciting a riot. She had not advocated any violence, and none had occurred; nevertheless, she was tried, found guilty, and imprisoned on Roosevelt Island (then called Blackwell's Island) for ten months. Prison proved to be an enlightening experience for Emma Goldman. While in the prison hospital, she met a doctor who took a liking to her. He had her transferred to another part of the prison where she was able to learn the skills of practical nursing. She also had time to read and develop her own ideas, separate from those of Most, her early mentor, or Sasha, her lover. It was during these ten months, from 1893 to 1894, that she first conceived of the idea of studying nursing in order to support herself more easily.

Released from jail, Goldman continued lecturing, with a tour through the Midwest. On her return, she met and fell in love with Edward Brady. Twenty years older than Emma, Brady was an anarchist, a journalist, and an intellectual, and Emma credited him with introducing her to the sexual pleasures of love. However, those pleasures were not enough to keep Goldman home, acting the role of dutiful wife as Brady would have preferred. She continued lecturing and was jailed once again. After her release, she moved into a small apartment with Brady and worked as a practical nurse. The couple also opened a small luncheonette, but this attempt at financial independence failed, and, at age 26, Emma resolved to pursue her old idea and train to be a nurse. With the backing of another male friend, Goldman left for Vienna in 1895, where she not only had the opportunity to take a nursing course but also heard the lectures of Sigmund Freud and the revolutionary philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, one of her political idols.

Back in New York, Goldman was determined to have a nursing career, continue her anarchist activities, and also maintain her love relationship with Ed Brady. Brady had other ideas. Tired of the life of a revolutionary, he wanted to settle down and have a family. After her first disastrous marriage to Jacob Kershner, however, Emma had resolved never to remarry, convinced that marriage prevented women's emancipation. It was merely an economic arrangement, she believed, in which women traded their sexual favors and domestic labor in return for support. In one of her many essays on the subject, she claimed that "marriage condemns [a woman] to life-long dependency, to parasitism, to complete uselessness." She felt that love, "the freest and most powerful molder of human destiny," had nothing to do with marriage. As a result of their differences, Goldman and Brady separated. He claimed that her desire for a career was simply "her craving for applause," while Goldman bitterly accused Brady of being an egotist with "the man's instinct of possession."

By the turn of the century, Goldman had made a second visit to Europe, touring the Continent and briefly continuing her nursing studies in Vienna. Now the most famous anarchist in the United States, she attracted large crowds wherever she appeared. Her name was so controversial that she had to use a pseudonym in order to rent an apartment.

Emma Goldman began to moderate her activities and support less extreme political causes. She even briefly managed a Russian theater group in 1905. The reason for this, however, was not a desire to improve her disreputable and controversial image, but because the state of New York had passed the New York Criminal Anarchy Act. The legislation made it a felony to advocate overthrow of the government. In 1906, she founded and edited a magazine called Mother Earth which included articles by anarchists and other radical authors. This publication continued until her final arrest in 1917. It was in the pages of Mother Earth that Goldman first defined her theories about women. Her article, "The Tragedy of Woman's Emancipation," claimed that the working woman merely exchanged the slavery and restrictions of the home for the restrictions of the workplace. True liberation, she claimed, will not come until women are men's spiritual equals.

Emma Goldman had changed and matured since 1892, the year Alexander Berkman went off to prison. When he was released, 14 years later, Berkman found a very different woman than the one he had left. Goldman had a farm in Ossining, New York, given to her by a wealthy activist. She also had a brownstone at 210 East 13th Street in New York City, from where she published Mother Earth. Her supporters included important people such as Bill Haywood, leader of the International Workers of the World (IWW), and Hutchins Hapgood, a well-known journalist. Goldman had the security of a nursing degree and considerable education. She was an extremely attractive speaker and, at last, had become financially independent. Berkman criticized her, and they fought. Although he joined her to work on Mother Earth, they did not resume their love affair.

Goldman began an affair with Ben Reitman, an interesting and educated man who had once been labeled "King of the Hoboes." With the help of supporters, Reitman had become a physician and then a social activist and protester. Goldman and Reitman traveled together, setting up meetings, arranging publicity, and speaking before large groups. Emma believed that at last she had found someone who would love her as a woman and be able to share her work, too. But Reitman also disappointed her. He had many love affairs with other women, and, despite Emma's espousal of free love, she was hurt by his lack of loyalty to her.

Goldman continued lecturing and working as a nurse, and it was this latter activity which first led to her involvement in the birth-control movement. In the 1900s, it was against the law to distribute any information on birth control to women. Goldman had included this subject in previous lectures, convinced access to birth control was the only way women could begin to be free and to take their proper role as sexual beings. However, she had never dealt with specific methods of birth control until now. Emma herself was not able to have children. She could have corrected this situation with minor surgery but decided in favor of the movement, believing that motherhood and activism were incompatible.

By 1915, she was actively supporting Margaret Sanger , the only other person working to provide women with actual birth-control material and devices. This decision led to a new spate of arrests for Goldman. Emma was condemned for her views on anarchy, for refusing to marry the men with whom she lived, and for demonstrating how to use the diaphragm. This last activity gained her the most notoriety—even more than her criticism of patriotism, capitalism, government, religion, and marriage.

Goldman's final rebellion in the United States was her opposition to World War I. Insisting that America should not send its sons to war, she wrote articles decrying American policy and spoke out repeatedly against conscription. She was joined in this effort by her ex-lover, Alexander Berkman. This position resulted once more in her arrest, and Emma Goldman, now 46 years old, expected to spend the rest of her life in prison. Instead, she was deported to Russia under the Alien Exclusion Act of 1918. This law, promulgated during the war, provided that any foreigner who advocated the overthrow of the government could be sent back to her or his country of origin. Appeals for Goldman went all the way to the Supreme Court, but there was no reprieve. On December 1, 1919, she was deported together with 247 other aliens.

Emma Goldman received a hero's welcome on her arrival in the Soviet Union, but after a tour of the new communist nation she was bitterly disappointed with the suppression of individual freedom there. She fled Russia in 1921, remaining in Europe where she continued writing and lecturing. She wrote two books on her experiences in the Soviet Union. The first, published in 1923, was entitled My Disillusionment in Russia, followed immediately by My Further Disillusionment in Russia in 1924.

After many years of effort, during which Goldman remained stateless, she finally managed to obtain a British passport by a sham marriage to a Welsh miner, James Colton, in 1924. Under this new name, she showed up in Montreal, Canada, two years later. She was never allowed to return to the U.S. except for a brief lecture tour. In 1931, living in St. Tropez, France, she wrote her two-volume autobiography, Living My Life. Even after 33 years in the United States, as well as sojourns in England and Canada, her first language was still Yiddish and her autobiography was written in that language and translated into English.

By 1932, Goldman recognized the threat of Nazism in Germany and was making speeches throughout Europe and North America denouncing Hitler. However, she never resumed her old involvement in politics except for a brief effort in favor of the anarchist group in the Spanish Civil War. Emma Goldman died on May 14, 1940, in Toronto, Canada, just before her 71st birthday and four years after her friend Sasha Berkman had committed suicide. In her obituary, The New York Times called her "an incorrigible revolutionist to the end." Emma Goldman never wavered in her commitments. She continued to believe in the inherent goodness of the working man and the absolute right of women to equality. Above all, she continued to insist on personal freedom.


"Goldman, Emma," in Encyclopedia Judaica. 1972 ed.

Goldman, Emma. Living My Life: The Autobiography of Emma Goldman. Laxton, UT: Peregrine Smith Books, 1982.

Hymowitz, Carol, and Michaele Weissman. A History of Women in America. NY: Bantam Books, 1978, pp. 235–236, 285–289, 293–295.

The New York Times. May 14, 1940, p. 23.

Taitz, Emily, and Sondra Henry. Remarkable Jewish Women: Rebels, Rabbis and Other Women from Biblical Times to the Present. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1996.

suggested reading:

Drinnon, Richard. Rebel in Paradise: A Biography of Emma Goldman. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

——, and Anna Maria. Nowhere At Home: Letters from Exile of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. NY: Schocken Books, 1975.

Morton, Marian J. Emma Goldman and the American Left: "Nowhere at Home." Twayne, 1992.

Emily Taitz , adjunct professor of Women's Studies, Adelphi University, Garden City, New York, co-author of Written Out of History: Jewish Foremothers (Biblio Press, 1990), and other writings on women

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Goldman, Emma (1869–1940)

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