something strange happened. In a flash I saw it—every incident of my three years in Rochester: the Garson factory, its drudgery and humiliation, the failure of my marriage, the Chicago crime...I began to speak. Words I had never heard myself utter before came pouring forth, faster and faster. They came with passionate intensity...The audience had vanished, the hall itself had disappeared; I was conscious only of my own words, of my ecstatic song.
Goldman pursued an independent education on her own, however, and soon began to study the political turmoil around her, particularly the Nihilists responsible for assassinating Alexander II of Russia. The ensuing turmoil intrigued Goldman, although she did not fully understand it at the time. When she read Chernyshevsky's novel, What Is to Be Done? (1863), she found a role model in the protagonist Vera, who adopts a Nihilist philosophy and escapes her repressive family to live freely and organize a sewing cooperative. The book enthralled Goldman and remained a source of inspiration throughout her life.
When a majority of the nation's newspapers expressed support of the strikers, Goldman and Berkman resolved to assassinate Frick, an action they expected would inspire the workers to revolt against the capitalist system. Berkman chose to carry out the assassination, and ordered Goldman to stay behind in order to explain his motives after he went to jail. He would be in charge of the deed; she of the word. Berkman tried and failed to make a bomb, then set off for Pittsburgh to buy a gun and a suit of decent clothes. Goldman, meanwhile, decided to help fund the scheme through prostitution. Remembering the character of Sonya in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment (1866), she mused: "She had become a prostitute in order to support her little brothers and sisters...Sensitive Sonya could sell her body; why not I?" Once on the street, she caught the eye of a man who took her into a saloon, bought her a beer, gave her ten dollars, informed her she did not have "the knack," and told her to quit the Business. She was "too astounded for speech". She wrote to Helena, claiming illness, and asked her for fifteen dollars.
Emma Goldman was born on June 27, 1869. Her Father used violence to punish his children, beating them when they disobeyed him. He used a whip on Emma, the most rebellious of them. Her mother provided scarce comfort, rarely calling on Abraham to tone down his beatings. Goldman later speculated that her father's furious temper was at least partly a result of sexual frustration.
Goldman's relationships with her elder half-sisters, Helena and Lena, were a study in contrasts. Helena, the oldest, provided the comfort they lacked from their mother; she filled Goldman's childhood with "whatever joy it had". Lena, however, was distant and uncharitable. The three sisters were joined by brothers Louis (who died at the age of six), Herman (born in 1872), and Moishe (born in 1879).
In 1885, Helena made plans to move to New York in the United States to join her sister Lena and her husband. Goldman wanted to join her sister, but their Father refused to allow it. Despite Helena's offer to pay for the trip, Abraham turned a deaf ear to their pleas. Desperate, Goldman threatened to throw herself into the Neva River if she could not go. He finally agreed, and on December 29, 1885, Helena and Emma arrived at New York City's Castle Garden, the entry for immigrants. They settled upstate, living in the Rochester home which Lena had made with her husband Samuel. Fleeing the rising antisemitism of Saint Petersburg, their parents and brothers joined them a year later. Goldman began working as a seamstress, sewing overcoats for more than ten hours a day, earning two and a half dollars a week. She asked for a raise and was denied; she quit and took work at a smaller shop nearby.
Anarchism was central to Goldman's view of the world and she is today considered one of the most important figures in the history of anarchism. First drawn to it during the persecution of anarchists after the 1886 Haymarket affair, she wrote and spoke regularly on behalf of anarchism. In the title essay of her book Anarchism and Other Essays, she wrote:
At her new job, Goldman met a fellow worker named Jacob Kershner, who shared her love for books, dancing, and traveling, as well as her frustration with the monotony of factory work. After four months, they married in February 1887. Once he moved in with Goldman's family, however, their relationship faltered. On their wedding night she discovered that he was impotent; they became emotionally and physically distant. Before long he became jealous and suspicious. She, meanwhile, was becoming more engaged with the political turmoil around her—particularly the fallout of the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago and the anti-authoritarian political philosophy of anarchism.
One of the first political moments that brought Berkman and Goldman together was the Homestead Strike. In June 1892, a steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania owned by Andrew Carnegie became the focus of national attention when talks between the Carnegie Steel Company and the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AA) broke down. The factory's manager was Henry Clay Frick, a fierce opponent of the union. When a final round of talks failed at the end of June, management closed the plant and locked out the workers, who immediately went on strike. Strikebreakers were brought in and the company hired Pinkerton guards to protect them. On July 6, a fight broke out between 300 Pinkerton guards and a crowd of armed union workers. During the twelve-hour gunfight, seven guards and nine strikers were killed.
When the Panic of 1893 struck in the following year, the United States suffered one of its worst economic crises. By year's end, the unemployment rate was higher than 20%, and "hunger demonstrations" sometimes gave way to riots. Goldman began speaking to crowds of frustrated men and women in New York City. On August 21, she spoke to a crowd of nearly 3,000 people in Union Square, where she encouraged unemployed workers to take immediate action. Her exact words are unclear: undercover agents insist she ordered the crowd to "take everything ... by force", while Goldman later recounted this message: "Well then, demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread." Later in court, Detective-Sergeant Charles Jacobs offered yet another version of her speech.
Although she was hostile to the suffragist goals of first-wave feminism, Goldman advocated passionately for the rights of women, and is today heralded as a founder of anarcha-feminism, which challenges patriarchy as a hierarchy to be resisted alongside state power and class divisions. In 1897, she wrote: "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. I demand freedom for both sexes, freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood."
Earlier, Czolgosz had tried but failed to become friends with Goldman and her companions. During a talk in Cleveland, Czolgosz had approached Goldman and asked her advice on which books he should read. In July 1901, he had appeared at the Isaak house, asking a series of unusual questions. They assumed he was an infiltrator, like a number of police agents sent to spy on radical groups. They had remained distant from him, and Abe Isaak sent a notice to associates warning of "another spy".
In 1906, Goldman decided to start a publication, "a place of expression for the young Idealists in arts and letters". Mother Earth was staffed by a cadre of radical Activists, including Hippolyte Havel, Max Baginski, and Leonard Abbott. In addition to publishing original works by its editors and anarchists around the world, Mother Earth reprinted selections from a variety of Writers. These included the French Philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and British Writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Goldman wrote frequently about anarchism, politics, labor issues, atheism, sexuality, and feminism.
Berkman took the helm of Mother Earth in 1907, while Goldman toured the country to raise funds to keep it operating. Editing the magazine was a revitalizing experience for Berkman; his relationship with Goldman faltered, however, and he had an affair with a 15-year-old anarchist named Becky Edelsohn. Goldman was pained by his rejection of her, but considered it a consequence of his prison experience. Later that year she served as a delegate from the US to the International Anarchist Congress of Amsterdam. Anarchists and syndicalists from around the world gathered to sort out the tension between the two ideologies, but no decisive agreement was reached. Goldman returned to the US and continued speaking to large audiences.
At her deportation hearing on October 27, Goldman refused to answer questions about her beliefs on the grounds that her American citizenship invalidated any attempt to deport her under the Anarchist Exclusion Act, which could be enforced only against non-citizens of the US. She presented a written statement instead: "Today so-called aliens are deported. Tomorrow native Americans will be banished. Already some patrioteers are suggesting that native American sons to whom democracy is a sacred ideal should be exiled." Louis Post at the Department of Labor, which had ultimate authority over deportation decisions, determined that the revocation of her husband's American citizenship in 1908 after his conviction had revoked hers as well. After initially promising a court fight, she decided not to appeal his ruling.
Goldman was routinely surveilled, arrested, and imprisoned for her speech and organizing activities in support of workers and various strikes, access to birth control, and in opposition to World War I. As a result, she became active in the early 20th century free speech movement, seeing freedom of expression as a fundamental necessity for achieving social change. Her outspoken championship of her ideals, in the face of persistent arrests, inspired Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union. Goldman's and Reitman's experiences in the San Diego free speech fight (1912) were notorious examples of state and capitalist repression of the Industrial Workers of the World's campaign of free speech fights.
When Margaret Sanger, an advocate of access to contraception, coined the term "birth control" and disseminated information about various methods in the June 1914 issue of her magazine The Woman Rebel, she received aggressive support from Goldman, who had already been active in efforts to increase birth control access for several years. In 1916, Goldman was arrested for giving lessons in public on how to use contraceptives. Sanger, too, was arrested under the Comstock Law, which prohibited the dissemination of "obscene, lewd, or lascivious articles"—including information relating to birth control.
Although US President Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 under the slogan "He kept us out of the war", at the start of his second term he decided that Germany's continued deployment of unrestricted submarine warfare was sufficient cause for the US to enter World War I. Shortly afterward, Congress passed the Selective Service Act of 1917, which required all males aged 21–30 to register for military conscription. Goldman saw the decision as an exercise in militarist aggression, driven by capitalism. She declared in Mother Earth her intent to resist conscription, and to oppose US involvement in the war.
On June 15, 1917, Goldman and Berkman were arrested during a raid of their offices which yielded "a wagon load of anarchist records and propaganda" for the authorities. The New York Times reported that Goldman asked to change into a more appropriate outfit, and emerged in a gown of "royal purple". The pair were charged with conspiracy to "induce persons not to register" under the newly enacted Espionage Act, and were held on US$25,000 bail each. Defending herself and Berkman during their trial, Goldman invoked the First Amendment, asking how the government could claim to fight for democracy abroad while suppressing free speech at home:
Goldman and Berkman were released from prison during the United States' Red Scare of 1919–20, when public anxiety about wartime pro-German activities had morphed into a pervasive fear of Bolshevism and the prospect of an imminent radical revolution. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover, head of the US Department of Justice's General Intelligence Division, were intent on using the Anarchist Exclusion Act and its 1918 expansion to deport any non-citizens they could identify as advocates of anarchy or revolution. "Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman," Hoover wrote while they were in prison, "are, beyond doubt, two of the most dangerous anarchists in this country and return to the community will result in undue harm."
The Labor Department included Goldman and Berkman among 249 aliens it deported en masse, mostly people with only vague associations with radical groups who had been swept up in government raids in November. Buford, a ship the press nicknamed the "Soviet Ark," sailed from the Army's New York Port of Embarkation on December 21. Some 58 enlisted men and four officers provided security on the journey, and pistols were distributed to the crew. Most of the press approved enthusiastically. The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote: "It is hoped and expected that other vessels, larger, more commodious, carrying similar cargoes, will follow in her wake." The ship landed her charges in Hanko, Finland on Saturday, January 17, 1920. Upon arrival in Finland, authorities there conducted the deportees to the Russian frontier under a flag of truce.
In December 1921, they left the country and went to the Latvian capital city of Riga. The US commissioner in that city wired officials in Washington DC, who began requesting information from other governments about the couple's activities. After a short trip to Stockholm, they moved to Berlin for several years; during this time Goldman agreed to write a series of articles about her time in Russia for Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, the New York World. These were later collected and published in book form as My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) and My Further Disillusionment in Russia (1924). The publishers added these titles to attract attention; Goldman protested, albeit in vain.
Goldman found it difficult to acclimate to the German leftist community in Berlin. Communists despised her outspokenness about Soviet repression; liberals derided her radicalism. While Berkman remained in Berlin helping Russian exiles, Goldman moved to London in September 1924. Upon her arrival, the Novelist Rebecca West arranged a reception dinner for her, attended by Philosopher Bertrand Russell, Novelist H. G. Wells, and more than 200 other guests. When she spoke of her dissatisfaction with the Soviet government, the audience was shocked. Some left the gathering; others berated her for prematurely criticizing the Communist experiment. Later, in a letter, Russell declined to support her efforts at systemic change in the Soviet Union and ridiculed her anarchist idealism.
In 1925, the spectre of deportation loomed again, but a Scottish anarchist named James Colton offered to marry her and provide British citizenship. Although they were only distant acquaintances, she accepted and they were married on June 27, 1925. Her new status gave her peace of mind, and allowed her to travel to France and Canada. Life in London was stressful for Goldman; she wrote to Berkman: "I am awfully tired and so lonely and heartsick. It is a dreadful feeling to come back here from lectures and find not a kindred soul, no one who cares whether one is dead or alive." She worked on analytical studies of drama, expanding on the work she had published in 1914. But the audiences were "awful," and she never finished her second book on the subject.
Goldman traveled to Canada in 1927, just in time to receive news of the impending executions of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Boston. Angered by the many irregularities of the case, she saw it as another travesty of justice in the US. She longed to join the mass demonstrations in Boston; memories of the Haymarket affair overwhelmed her, compounded by her isolation. "Then," she wrote, "I had my life before me to take up the cause for those killed. Now I have nothing."
In 1928, she began writing her autobiography, with the support of a group of American admirers, including Journalist H. L. Mencken, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Novelist Theodore Dreiser and art collector Peggy Guggenheim, who raised $4,000 for her. She secured a cottage in the French coastal city of Saint-Tropez and spent two years recounting her life. Berkman offered sharply critical feedback, which she eventually incorporated at the price of a strain on their relationship. Goldman intended the book, Living My Life, as a single volume for a price the working class could afford (she urged no more than $5.00); her publisher Alfred A. Knopf, however, released it as two volumes sold together for $7.50. Goldman was furious, but unable to force a change. Due in large part to the Great Depression, sales were sluggish despite keen interest from libraries around the US. Critical reviews were generally enthusiastic; The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Saturday Review of Literature all listed it as one of the year's top non-fiction books.
Goldman viewed the state as essentially and inevitably a tool of control and domination. As a result, Goldman believed that voting was useless at best and dangerous at worst. Voting, she wrote, provided an illusion of participation while masking the true structures of decision-making. Instead, Goldman advocated targeted resistance in the form of strikes, protests, and "direct action against the invasive, meddlesome authority of our moral code". She maintained an anti-voting position even when many anarcho-syndicalists in 1930s Spain voted for the formation of a liberal republic. Goldman wrote that any power anarchists wielded as a voting bloc should instead be used to strike across the country. She disagreed with the movement for women's suffrage, which demanded the right of women to vote. In her essay "Woman Suffrage", she ridicules the idea that women's involvement would infuse the democratic state with a more just orientation: "As if women have not sold their votes, as if women politicians cannot be bought!" She agreed with the suffragists' assertion that women are equal to men, but disagreed that their participation alone would make the state more just. "To assume, therefore, that she would succeed in purifying something which is not susceptible of purification, is to credit her with supernatural powers."
In 1933, Goldman received permission to lecture in the United States under the condition that she speak only about drama and her autobiography—but not current political events. She returned to New York on February 2, 1934 to generally positive press coverage—except from Communist publications. Soon she was surrounded by admirers and friends, besieged with invitations to talks and interviews. Her visa expired in May, and she went to Toronto in order to file another request to visit the US. However, this second attempt was denied. She stayed in Canada, writing articles for US publications.
In July 1936, the Spanish Civil War started after an attempted coup d'état by parts of the Spanish Army against the government of the Second Spanish Republic. At the same time, the Spanish anarchists, fighting against the Nationalist forces, started an anarchist revolution. Goldman was invited to Barcelona and in an instant, as she wrote to her niece, "the crushing weight that was pressing down on my heart since Sasha's death left me as by magic". She was welcomed by the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and Federación Anarquista Ibérica (FAI) organizations, and for the first time in her life lived in a community run by and for anarchists, according to true anarchist principles. "In all my life", she wrote later, "I have not met with such warm hospitality, comradeship and solidarity." After touring a series of collectives in the province of Huesca, she told a group of workers: "Your revolution will destroy forever [the notion] that anarchism stands for chaos." She began editing the weekly CNT-FAI Information Bulletin and responded to English-language mail.
Delivering lectures and giving interviews, Goldman enthusiastically supported the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists. She wrote regularly for Spain and the World, a biweekly newspaper focusing on the civil war. In May 1937, however, Communist-led forces attacked anarchist strongholds and broke up agrarian collectives. Newspapers in England and elsewhere accepted the timeline of events offered by the Second Spanish Republic at face value. British Journalist George Orwell, present for the crackdown, wrote: "[T]he accounts of the Barcelona riots in May ... beat everything I have ever seen for lying."
On Saturday, February 17, 1940, Goldman suffered a debilitating stroke. She became paralyzed on her right side, and although her hearing was unaffected, she could not speak. As one friend described it: "Just to think that here was Emma, the greatest orator in America, unable to utter one word." For three months she improved slightly, receiving visitors and on one occasion gesturing to her address book to signal that a friend might find friendly contacts during a trip to Mexico. She suffered another stroke on May 8, however, and on May 14 she died in Toronto, aged 70.
Meanwhile, she had begun a friendship with Berkman, whom she affectionately called Sasha. Before long they became lovers and moved into a communal apartment with his cousin Modest "Fedya" Stein and Goldman's friend, Helen Minkin, on 42nd Street. Although their relationship had numerous difficulties, Goldman and Berkman would share a close bond for decades, united by their anarchist principles and commitment to personal equality.
The women's movement of the 1970s that "rediscovered" Goldman was accompanied by a resurgent anarchist movement, beginning in the late 1960s, which also reinvigorated scholarly attention to earlier anarchists. The growth of feminism also initiated some reevaluation of Goldman's philosophical work, with scholars pointing out the significance of Goldman's contributions to anarchist thought in her time. Goldman's belief in the value of aesthetics, for Example, can be seen in the later influences of anarchism and the arts. Similarly, Goldman is now given credit for significantly influencing and broadening the scope of activism on issues of sexual liberty, reproductive rights, and freedom of expression.
Goldman has been depicted in numerous works of fiction over the years, including Warren Beatty's 1981 film Reds, in which she was portrayed by Maureen Stapleton, who won an Academy Award for her performance. Goldman has also been a character in two Broadway musicals, Ragtime and Assassins. Plays depicting Goldman's life include Howard Zinn's play, Emma; Martin Duberman's Mother Earth (1991); Jessica Litwak's Emma Goldman: Love, Anarchy, and Other Affairs (Goldman's relationship with Berkman and her arrest in connection with McKinley's assassination); Lynn Rogoff's Love Ben, Love Emma (Goldman's relationship with Reitman); and Carol Bolt's Red Emma. Ethel Mannin's 1941 novel Red Rose is also based on Goldman's Life.
Paul Gailiunas and his late wife Helen Hill co-wrote the anarchist song "Emma Goldman", which was performed and released by the band Piggy: The Calypso Orchestra of the Maritimes in 1999. The song was later performed by Gailiunas' new band The Troublemakers and released on their 2004 album Here Come The Troublemakers.
Goldman was well known during her life, described as—among other things—"the most dangerous woman in America". After her death and through the middle part of the 20th century, her fame faded. Scholars and historians of anarchism viewed her as a great speaker and Activist, but did not regard her as a philosophical or theoretical thinker on par with, for instance, Kropotkin.
Goldman was also a passionate critic of the prison system, critiquing both the treatment of prisoners and the social causes of crime. Goldman viewed crime as a natural outgrowth of an unjust economic system, and in her essay "Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure", she quoted liberally from the 19th-century authors Fyodor Dostoevsky and Oscar Wilde on prisons, and wrote: