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date: 26 March 2023

Goldman, Emmafree

(27 June 1869–14 May 1940)

Goldman, Emmafree

(27 June 1869–14 May 1940)
  • Alice Ruth Wexler

Emma Goldman

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1934.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-42504).

Goldman, Emma (27 June 1869–14 May 1940), anarchist and feminist activist, was born in Kovno, Lithuania, the daughter of Abraham Goldman and Taube Zodikoff, innkeepers and, later, small shopkeepers. Emma’s lonely childhood was shaped by her parents’ precarious social status and the contradictory influences of czarist anti-Semitism, the first stirrings of Russian feminism, and a growing revolutionary movement whose young members, especially the women, became Goldman’s lifelong inspiration. After attending a Realschule in Königsberg, she entered a Russian high school in St. Petersburg, where her family moved in 1881, but straitened financial circumstances forced her to leave school after a year to work in a garment factory. In 1885 she immigrated with her sister Helena to Rochester, New York, where the rest of the family soon joined her.

In Rochester, Goldman met a fellow Russian immigrant, Jacob Kersner, to whom she was briefly married. Making shirtwaists in a sweatshop, she lived in an imaginary world of political intrigue, her mind filled with stories about the heroic Russian revolutionists who had been driven underground following the assassination of Czar Alexander II. She began following the trial and execution of the Chicago anarchists accused of setting off a bomb in Haymarket Square in the spring of 1886. A speech by Johanna Greie, a German anarchist, persuaded Goldman of the innocence of the accused men and perhaps also offered her a model of female activism that helped inspire her own flight from Rochester. Hungry for wider horizons and increasingly alienated from her husband, Goldman left for New York City, where she immediately became involved with the anarchist group around the flamboyant German agitator Johann Most. Within a few years Emma Goldman became one of the most controversial and charismatic figures in the international anarchist movement.

From the first, Goldman’s life was entangled with that of Alexander Berkman, another Russian Jewish immigrant whose youthful belief in “propaganda by the deed” inspired his 1892 assassination attempt against Henry Clay Frick, manager of the Carnegie Steel Mills at Homestead, Pennsylvania. Goldman assisted in this attempt, though her complicity was never proven or acknowledged until the publication of her autobiography, Living My Life, in 1931. Berkman alone went to prison for fourteen years. However, the disastrous aftermath of his attempt, which neither killed Frick nor aroused the masses, convinced Goldman to relinquish her support for acts of violent individual protest, though not her admiration for those who were willing to sacrifice their lives for an ideal. She retained her belief in “direct action” as opposed to “political action” to effect revolutionary change but increasingly defined such action in terms of strikes, boycotts, acts of civil disobedience, and propaganda aimed at raising political consciousness.

At the time Goldman entered the anarchist movement, it was composed predominantly of small circles of German-, Russian-, Yiddish-, Italian-, and Spanish-speaking immigrants, most of them skilled workers and craftsmen. The Yiddish-speaking Jewish anarchists who increasingly made up the bulk of the movement after the turn of the century drew heavily on the ideas of Peter Kropotkin with his emphasis on ethics and his vision of a decentralized, stateless, communist society based on voluntary cooperation and mutual aid. Goldman tried to combine the anarchist communism of Kropotkin with the individualism of Max Stirner, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and the American individualist anarchists and midwestern free lovers, with whom she had considerable contact. As she explained in Anarchism and Other Essays (1911), anarchism meant “direct action, the open defiance of, and resistance to, all laws and restrictions, economic, social and moral.” But it also meant a vision of society organized around “the freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual.”

For Goldman, that individual was a woman as well as a man. The originality of her anarchist vision lay in her critique of gender inequality within anarchist theory and practice as well as within capitalist society, and her insistence on claiming for women the freedoms anarchists demanded for men. Though she remained aloof from the movement for woman suffrage, which she criticized as too puritanical and middle-class, she spoke out strongly against the economic and social inequality of women, which made prostitution and marriage equivalent institutions. In Goldman’s words, it was “merely a question of degree whether she sells herself to one man, in or out of marriage, or to many men.” Criticizing the inadequacies of merely legal reform, Goldman emphasized that the emancipation of women required freedom from the “internal tyrants” of repressive social convention as well as from “external tyrannies” of political and economic inequality. Although Goldman extolled the glories of heterosexual love, she also urged tolerance for what she called “the intermediate sex,” linking her very definition of anarchism to her defense of sexual minorities. “To me anarchism was not a theory for a distant future,” she wrote in Living My Life. “It was a living influence to free us from inhibitions, internal no less than external, and from the destructive barriers that separate man from man.”

By the turn of the century, Goldman had become a media star, a demonic figure to some, an inspiration to others. She had already served a year in Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary in New York, for allegedly “inciting to riot” during a hunger demonstration in 1893. She was arrested on charges of inspiring the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 but was released for lack of evidence. “Her name was enough in those days to produce a shudder,” recalled her friend Margaret Anderson, editor of the avant-garde Little Review, in her autobiography, My Thirty Years’ War (1930). “She was considered a monster, an exponent of free love and bombs.” An electrifying presence on the lecture platform, Goldman began making annual coast-to-coast tours, speaking out on a wide variety of subjects, from anarchism, anarchosyndicalism, and trade unionism to birth control and sex as an element of “creative work.” She supported herself by working as a midwife, masseuse, and nurse—skills she had learned during a year of study at the Vienna General Hospital in 1895–1896. Her lectures in English attracted not only anarchists and other radicals but many liberals as well. She maintained ties with the radical wing of the labor movement, particularly the Industrial Workers of the World, whose strikes and free speech fights she often supported.

Upon Alexander Berkman’s release from prison in 1906, the two comrades began publishing an anarchist monthly magazine, Mother Earth, combining cultural criticism and social analysis. With the emergence of bohemian communities in Greenwich Village and in cities around the country, Goldman began courting the intellectual avant-garde, who in turn embraced her as a heroine and inspiration. Emphasizing the need for a transformation of consciousness, she helped create libertarian schools through the “modern school” movement. She also lectured widely on literature, especially on the work of dramatists such as Ibsen, Hauptmann, Strindberg, Shaw, and others whose plays dramatized contemporary social evils. Her Social Significance of the Modern Drama (1914) offered one of the first political analyses of modern theater in English. Friendly with many actors and directors, she supported the “little theater” movement that created experimental regional theaters around the country.

Harassed by police and political officials, Goldman turned persecution into triumph as she organized free speech groups around the country to defend the rights of persecuted radicals and act as a support group for her own campaigns. Though she had long defended the right of women to control their own bodies, the arrest of Margaret Sanger in 1915 mobilized Goldman to more direct involvement in the campaign to legalize birth control. She spent two weeks in jail in 1916 for explaining birth control methods from the lecture platform and giving out free information.

World War I brought Progressivism to a halt in the United States, and Goldman and many of her comrades turned to antiwar activity. Arrested in 1917 for opposing the draft, Goldman and Berkman spent two years in prison. They were released at the height of the postwar Red Scare in 1919 and were promptly deported along with several hundred other immigrant radicals to the newly created Soviet Union. Although Goldman and Berkman had defended the Russian revolution and the fight against czarism, the Bolshevik vision of a highly centralized socialist state remained anathema to them and to most anarchists. Within a few months Goldman had grown alienated from the Bolshevik regime, particularly disgusted by the increasing persecution of anarchist and other left-wing dissidents from Bolshevism. In December 1921 Goldman, Berkman, and other anarchists left Soviet Russia for the West. In Stockholm, Berlin, Paris, London, St. Tropez, and Toronto, Goldman carried on an anti-Soviet campaign, condemning what she considered the Bolshevik betrayal of the masses and calling international attention to the plight of political prisoners in the jails and prison camps.

Finding herself increasingly isolated from all segments of the Left, not only the Communists but also the anti-Soviet socialists and even some anarchists, Goldman spent two years in a beautiful little house in St. Tropez where she wrote Living My Life. The autobiography used a conventional chronological narrative form to show how a lifelong commitment to anarchism opened new worlds of politics and love. Despite criticism from her comrades, she frankly described her tumultuous nine-year passion for a flamboyant Chicago physician, Ben L. Reitman, the only man who knew how “to love the woman in me and yet who would also be able to share my work.”

Following publication of the autobiography, Goldman secured a ninety-day visa to lecture in the United States. But the Roosevelt administration feared alienating support for a more liberal immigration policy and denied her a permanent visa. In exile once again, she briefly realized her dreams in Barcelona in the fall of 1936, shortly after the start of the anarchist revolution and the civil war. The Spanish anarchosyndicalist organization the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo–Federacion Anarquista Iberica (CNT-FAI) appointed her as its agent in London, where she campaigned for aid for her beleaguered comrades. With the small international anarchist movement badly split over the decision of Spanish comrades to enter the wartime government, Goldman attempted to reconcile factions while also criticizing CNT-FAI strategy. After the defeat of the anarchists by the Communists in 1937, and the fall of the republic in 1939, a grief-stricken Goldman traveled to Toronto to work on behalf of all refugees from European fascism. She died in Toronto and was buried in Chicago, in the country she always considered her home.

Emma Goldman’s legacy within the anarchist movement remains controversial. Widely admired for her courage and tenacity in the face of persecution, she was also criticized as dominating and dictatorial. She remained like most immigrant radicals relatively blind to racism. For all her championing of the avant-garde, she preferred nineteenth-century realism and naturalism to twentieth-century modernism. She never succeeded in building an English-speaking movement, as she had hoped, though anarchist ideas had considerable influence within the Industrial Workers of the World and the Jewish trade union movement, as well as among middle-class intellectuals and artists. After 1921 Goldman’s wholesale opposition to Marxism as well as her anti-Communism isolated her, not only from most of the western Left, including the anti-Soviet socialists, but also from much of the cultural avant-garde as well.

No other figure, however, so skillfully dramatized the rebellious social and cultural currents of Gilded Age and Progressive America. Certainly no other woman of her generation used her public persona so effectively to flout bourgeois conventions and taboos, using her own body on stage as a lightning rod for rebellion. Goldman brought keen theatrical gifts to the performance of protest, exploiting the controversy she created while lecturing in cities and towns across the country to educate and mobilize public opinion around a diverse array of progressive causes. Although more an activist than a theorist, she subjected anarchist ideas to a feminist critique, identifying the gender blindness in much anarchist theory and opening the way to the anarcho-feminism of the 1960s. She introduced a more sophisticated notion of psychology into anarchist thought, pointing out the subjective, often unconscious forces that helped maintain authoritarian or submissive attitudes even in those consciously opposed to all authority. Living My Life remains a compelling anarchist critique of America, as well as the record of a woman’s lifelong resistance. Perhaps Emma Goldman’s very originality conspired against the creation of a lasting anarchist movement, for to build such a movement she would have had to sacrifice the iconoclasm that remains her most enduring legacy.


The Emma Goldman Papers are available on seventy reels of microfilm from Chadwyck-Healy, along with an extensive guide and index. All the Goldman biographies include useful bibliographies. Richard Drinnon’s pioneering Rebel in Paradise (1961) stresses Goldman’s identity as an American radical. Candace Falk’s Love, Anarchy and Emma Goldman (1984) focuses more on her erotic life. Alice Wexler’s two-volume biography, Emma Goldman in America (1984) and Emma Goldman in Exile (1989), emphasizes her feminism and offers a more critical perspective. José Peirats, Emma Goldman: Anarquista de ambos mundos (1978), stresses the Spanish Civil War years. There are two Twayne studies of Goldman, one by Martha Solomon (1987) and another by Marion Goldman (1992). Published collections of Goldman’s writings include Alix Kates Shulman, ed., Red Emma Speaks (1972; rev. ed. 1983); Richard Drinnon and Anna Maria Drinnon, eds., Nowhere at Home: Letters from Exile of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman (1975); and David Porter, ed., Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman and the Spanish Revolution (1983). Goldman’s My Disillusionment in Russia (1925) offers an anarchist critique of the civil war years. For a provocative essay on Living My Life, see Blanche H. Gelfant, “Speaking Her Own Piece: Emma Goldman and the Discursive Skeins of Autobiography,” in American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Paul John Eakin, (1991). Alice Wexler considers the process of writing about Goldman in “Emma Goldman and the Anxiety of Biography,” in The Challenge of Feminist Biography ed. Sara Alpern et al. (1992).