The Revolutionary Life of Emma Goldman – Feminist Frequency

The Revolutionary Life of Emma Goldman

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Anita Sarkeesian

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Once dubbed one of the most dangerous people in America by J. Edgar Hoover, activist and speaker Emma Goldman defied history with her revolutionary support for labor rights, women’s rights and “everyone’s right to beautiful radiant things.”

Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History explores the lives and accomplishments of fascinating women who defied gender stereotypes but often found themselves pushed to the sidelines or erased from history books that weren’t ready to acknowledge them. This series is made possible by generous donations to our Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign for the project.

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Once dubbed one of the most dangerous people in America by J. Edgar Hoover, activist and speaker Emma Goldman defied history with her revolutionary support for labor rights, women’s rights and “everyone’s right to beautiful radiant things.”

Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History explores the lives and accomplishments of fascinating women who defied gender stereotypes but often found themselves pushed to the sidelines or erased from history books that weren’t ready to acknowledge them. This series is made possible by generous donations to our Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign for the project.

← Series Archive

Transcript

Years before her critics dubbed her one of the most dangerous people in America, a young woman named Emma Goldman found herself at a dance. Although she was a political activist attending the event to gain support for her cause, she also just loved dancing — so much so that one of her allies took her aside to criticize her for being “frivolous” and “undignified.” After all, should a serious activist be seen having so much fun?

Furious at the interruption, Goldman told the young man to mind his own business, because the liberty she fought for was not about the “denial of life and joy.” Instead, she said, “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” For Goldman, a revolution without dancing was not a revolution worth having.

She was born in 1869 to Jewish parents in the Russian Empire and raised by a distant mother and an abusive father who tried to force her to marry at age 15. When she refused, he threw her French grammar book in the fire, saying, “Girls do not have to learn much! All a Jewish daughter needs to know is how to prepare gefüllte fish, cut noodles fine and give the man plenty of children.” There are few women of her era who would defy that idea of womanhood quite as much as Emma Goldman.

When she was 16, she escaped her father by emigrating to the United States, where she discovered her true calling: a political rebel and fiery orator who would spend her entire life calling for revolution.

She was horrified by the tragic story of several labor activists who were executed in Chicago, and found herself drawn to the labor movement and eventually to anarchism. Contrary to what the word might suggest, Goldman’s philosophy was not about disorder and chaos. It was about personal freedom and rejecting institutions she believed were repressive: government, religion, war, business interests, and even marriage.

Although she did end up marrying several times out of convenience or for citizenship, Goldman rejected traditional notions of marriage, and chose never to have to children.

Goldman quickly became one of the most famous radical figures in America, whose power with words was sometimes referred to as a “sledgehammer.” She traveled across the country speaking so passionately that the famed reporter Nellie Bly would dub her a “little Joan of Arc.”

Over the years Goldman was sent to prison for her ideas several times: once for promoting birth control; once for discouraging men from registering for the draft; and once for telling unemployed workers to “take bread” from the wealthy if they were deprived of work and food.

Despite her support for female independence, she often found herself at odds with suffragists, believing it less important to get women the vote in systems she viewed as oppressive than to dismantle them entirely.

Emma said “The right to vote, or equal civil rights, may be good demands, but true emancipation begins neither at the polls nor in courts,” she said. “It begins in woman’s soul.” She believed that women needed to reject the sexist rules of societies and governments and assert their rights to make decisions about their lives and their bodies. Only that, said Goldman, would truly set women free.

Although she was heterosexual, Goldman was one of the earliest American advocates for gay rights, as well as birth control and the sexual freedom of women. “I demand the independence of woman, her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases,” she wrote. “I demand freedom for both sexes, freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood.” Many of her ideas about gender, sex and sexuality would be considered controversial even today — and in the late 1800s, they were positively shocking.

Goldman was a thorn in the side of American authorities for many years. In 1919, they finally declared her American citizenship invalid, and deported her back to Russia, which had recently had a people’s revolution of its own. But what she found in the aftermath was not the utopia of her dreams, but rather another repressive regime willing to crush the rights of its own citizens. After meeting with Lenin himself, she became deeply disillusioned with the new communist government.

So she traveled abroad, speaking out about the oppressiveness of the Soviets, which alienated many of her allies and got her ejected from both Sweden and Germany. When she finally returned to America in 1934 (with the permission of the Roosevelt administration) Goldman was a grandmotherly figure in her 60s, but just as stubborn and outspoken as she’d ever been. On her final U.S. speaking tour, her speeches railed against the fascism of Hitler’s Germany and the communism of Stalin’s Russia, angering people on the right and the left.

Even old age could not dampen her revolutionary spirit; at 67, she traveled to Barcelona to support workers and anarchists who had risen up against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. She called them a “shining example” to the rest of the world and told an audience of 10,000 that “your ideal has been my ideal for 45 years and it will remain to my last breath.”

At the end of her life, when the goals of her cause seemed more unpopular and further away from reality than ever, Goldman never wavered in her beliefs, even when the price was deportation, threats of violence, and prison terms. She hoped that her example could light the way for future generations as well. As she wrote to a friend and former lover years before her death, “someday, sometime long after we are gone, liberty may again raise its proud head. It is up to us to blaze its way—dim as our torch may seem today — it is still the one flame.”

Throughout her life, Goldman had a knack for infuriating both friends and foes, but would never compromise her convictions or the way she lived to please either of them. “A trail of bonfires marked Goldman’s rampage through life,” wrote one historian, and indeed, Goldman was willing to burn almost any bridge in the name of her truth.

As she once said (when a young man tried to stop her from dancing) she would never stop fighting for a world where liberty was the birthright of every human being, and where women could live, love, and dance as freely as they wanted.