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Emma Goldman was a crusader for Anarchism, feminism, and the labor movement. She was also an essayist and is best known as the first editor of Mother Earth, a magazine providing a forum for feminist and anarchist writers.
Goldman was born June 27, 1869, in Kaunas, Lithuania, a province of the Russian Empire, during the early stages of revolt against czarism and the rise in popularity of Communism. The seeds of the Bolshevik revolt were already being sown in the towns and villages throughout the country where discontent with czarist rule was strongest. Goldman, who described herself as a born rebel, came into the world as the third daughter of Abraham Goldman and Taube Goldman. Her parents' marriage, like many Jewish Orthodox unions of the time, had been arranged.
Goldman suffered the fate of being a female in a culture that valued males. When she was young, her father made no effort to disguise his disappointment at having still another daughter instead of the much-prized son he hoped for. He has been described as hot tempered and impatient, particularly with Goldman's rebelliousness, which she showed at an early age. He was a traditional Jewish father, and he planned to arrange a marriage for his daughter when she was 15. Goldman, however, had different ideas: she longed for an education and hoped someday to marry someone she loved. Goldman described her mother as cold and distant, but also strong and assertive, and she may have served as a role model for Goldman's own forthright manner.
After spending her childhood in Kaunas, Königsberg, and St. Petersburg, Goldman emigrated to the United States in 1885 with a sister. They joined another sister who had settled in Rochester, New York, where Goldman found work in a coat factory, sewing ten-and-a-half hours daily at a salary of $2.50 a week. She lived in a crowded apartment with her two sisters and her brother-in-law. Their working and living conditions, as well as those of others even more destitute, sparked her interest in anarchism and the labor movement, which was in its infancy. She joined radical groups agitating for an eight-hour workday and other improvements in factory conditions.
Goldman was intensely interested in the Haymarket Square incident in Chicago in 1886. A labor rally called by a small group of anarchists was interrupted by a bomb explosion and gunfire. When it was over, seven police officers and four spectators were dead and one hundred were injured. Eight anarchists were tried and convicted of inciting a riot. Four of the convicted were hanged, one committed suicide in prison, and the other three served prison sentences. Spurred by her outrage at this alleged injustice, Goldman began attending anarchist meetings and reading the militant anarchist newspaper Die Freiheit (Freedom). She felt herself irresistibly drawn to the movement, and in the summer of 1889, at the age of 20, she moved to New York City to be near the center of anarchist activity.
After arriving in New York, Goldman befriended Johann J. Most, a well-known anarchist and publisher of Die Freiheit. She also met Alexander Berkman, who became her lover and with whom she remained close throughout her life. By this time, she was known as Red Emma, and she was followed by detectives wherever she went. She wrote, traveled, and lectured to promote anarchism and the labor movement. In 1893, she was briefly jailed for inciting workers to riot. After her release from jail, she traveled to Vienna to train as a nurse and midwife. She then returned to New York and resumed her lecturing. In 1901, she was accused of provoking the assassination of President William McKinley, because the assassin had attended one of her lectures. No charges were ever brought against her, but newspapers throughout the United States portrayed her as an evil traitor because of her controversial ideas.
In 1906, Goldman published the first issue of a magazine that was to serve as a platform for feminist and anarchist ideas. She called her venture Mother Earth, and within six months, it became a leading voice for feminism and anarchism. With Berkman, Goldman published the magazine until 1917, while she continued to travel, write, and lecture. During this time, she carried on an eight-year relationship with Ben Reitman, Chicago's King of the Hobos, a wellknown anarchist and labor activist who became her manager. Goldman had long since given up her idealistic notions about marriage. She had been married twice to the same man, both times with disastrous results, and had carried on a number of love affairs. Goldman preferred the impermanence and freedom of short-term affairs and wrote in more than one essay that marriage was women's greatest enemy because it robbed them of their independence.
The entry of the United States into World War I in 1917 precipitated a wave of hostility toward leftists, pacifists, anarchists, and foreigners. Legislation such as the Selective Service Act, the Espionage Act, and the Sedition Act were passed during 1917 and 1918 in order to suppress opposition to the war or the draft and to restrict certain civil liberties. Heedless of the repressive mood of the country, Goldman and Berkman, along with Leonard D. Abbott and Eleanor Fitzgerald, organized the No-Conscription League to oppose "all wars by capitalist governments." In the June 1917 issue of Mother Earth, they declared,"We will resist Conscription by every means in our power, and we will sustain those who … refuse to be conscripted." As a result of their antiwar activities, Goldman and Berkman were arrested and charged with conspiring to prevent draft registration. They were tried and convicted and each received the maximum sentence of two years in prison and $10,000 in fines. In December 1919, in the wake of a Red Scare that led to the arrest and deportation of hundreds of leftists, anarchists, and labor organizers, Goldman and Berkman were deported to Russia.
Goldman was optimistic about resuming life in Russia now that the czar had been toppled by the Bolsheviks, but her hopes quickly dissipated as the realities of the new government became apparent. In her opinion,"the old cruel regime … had simply been replaced by a new, equally cruel one." She and Berkman left Russia in 1921 and eventually went to Germany. During their years in Germany, Goldman lectured and wrote a book, My Disillusionment in Russia (1923), detailing her disillusionment with Bolshevik rule.
"All wars are wars among thieves who are too cowardly to fight and who therefore induce the young manhood of the whole world to do the fighting for them."
In 1924, Goldman moved to England, but she longed to return to the United States. Accepting an offer of marriage to James Colton, a staunch Scottish anarchist she had known for many years, provided her with an opportunity for British citizenship and the possibility of obtaining a British passport. She hoped to make her way to Canada and somehow gain entry into the United States. During the 1920s and 1930s, she traveled through Europe, writing and lecturing, and in 1931, she published her autobiography, Living My Life.
Goldman's wish to return to the United States was granted for a brief 90-day lecture tour in 1934, after which she returned to Europe. In 1940, while on a trip to Canada to enlist support for the anti-Franco forces in Spain, Goldman suffered a stroke. She died several months later, on May 14, 1940, in Toronto. Her body was allowed to be returned to the United States for burial in Chicago near the graves of other anarchists she admired.
The Emma Goldman Papers. Berkeley Digital Library. Available online at <sunsite.berkeley.edu/Goldman> (accessed June 27, 2003).
Falk, Candace, ed. 2003. Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
Forster, Margaret. 1985. Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism 1839–1939. New York: Knopf.
Goldman, Emma. 1982. Living My Life. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books.
Wexler, Alice. 1984. Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life. New York: Pantheon Books.