Authors: Emma Goldman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American social and political critic

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Nonfiction:

Anarchism, and Other Essays, 1910

The Psychology of Political Violence, 1911

The Social Significance of the Modern Drama, 1914

My Disillusionment in Russia, 1923

My Further Disillusionment in Russia, 1924

Living My Life, 1931

Red Emma Speaks: Selected Writings and Speeches, 1972

Nowhere at Home: Letters from Exile of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, 1975

Biography

Emma Goldman came to be best known for her participation in the anarchist movement in the United States in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Her radicalism, libertarianism, and uncompromising honesty made her world famous. She worked for a variety of liberal causes and was ahead of her time in many areas, including birth control and free speech.{$I[AN]9810001962}{$I[A]Goldman, Emma}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Goldman, Emma}{$I[geo]LITHUANIA;Goldman, Emma}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Goldman, Emma}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Goldman, Emma}{$I[tim]1869;Goldman, Emma}

Goldman was born into a lower-middle-class Jewish family. Her mother, a widow with children, had remarried for economic reasons and unexpectedly become pregnant with Emma. Her father, who had wanted a son, made sure Emma knew of his disappointment through verbal and physical abuse. The family moved from city to city in search of better living conditions. In consequence Goldman’s education was sporadic. She worked diligently, however, and passed the entrance examination for a medical college in St. Petersburg. Yet she was prevented from entering because her religious instructor gave her a negative evaluation.

Goldman’s rebelliousness began when she started associating with nihilist and populist university students. She worked in a factory by day and read radical literature by night. She and her sister Helena decided to emigrate to America, where she quickly learned English and continued her self-education by reading a vast amount of literature in English.

As a garment factory worker in Rochester and other cities on the East Coast, she experienced at first hand the injustices of capitalism. Adjusting her revolutionary ideas to the New World, she worked toward reform. During this period she met Alexander Berkman, who shared her zeal for social justice and became a lover and lifelong companion.

Chicago’s Haymarket Square killings became a focal event that solidified Goldman’s anarchist convictions and gave her ideological direction. She associated with anarchist leaders and made a strong impression with her zeal and intelligence. Johann Most saw Goldman’s leadership potential, and at first she accepted his mentorship and ideology. Their main objective was economic and social liberation of the immigrants in the American labor force. Goldman’s ideology and revolutionary strategy slowly moved away from Most, who advocated violence, to the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin, who advocated a voluntary federation that abolished private property and provided all social services for the masses. He also advocated artistic and intellectual education for all citizens.

While still under Most’s influence, however, Goldman and Berkman helped plan the assassination of Henry Clay Frick, the owner of Homestead Steel, whose antilabor activities infuriated workers. The attempt was unsuccessful, but as a result Berkman was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison. Goldman, although not convicted for this incident, was sentenced to a year in prison for leading a riot in Union Square. Subsequently she was identified with crimes and disturbances of all kinds, though most accusations were untrue. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, called Goldman “the most dangerous woman in America.”

This reputation followed her for the rest of her life, despite her renunciation of violence. She was falsely linked to many random acts of violence, including an assassination attempt on President William McKinley. In her lectures around the country she talked about atheism, birth control, and free speech. These provocative topics, along with her reputation for advocating violence, resulted in constant harassment by police and private citizens.

During her imprisonment she reevaluated her political and philosophical beliefs and came to believe that ends did not justify means. Her revised philosophy was a blend of Kropotkinian liberal socialism and her own concern for justice for the masses. She records her change of heart in prison and her renunciation of violence in her autobiography, Living My Life.

After going to Vienna to learn to be a midwife, she returned to the United States to serve the poor women of the inner cities. Her experiences were important to her thinking about birth control, women’s issues, children’s health, and male domination and exploitation of women. To create a forum for a dialogue among people of anarchistic and liberal views, Goldman founded Mother Earth, an eclectic and readable journal.

In 1917 Goldman and Berkman were deported to Russia. There they worked with the Bolshevik Revolution, though they were subsequently disappointed with the government’s role in murder and oppression. Goldman chronicled her observations in My Disillusionment in Russia. Critics and supporters have debated about her motivation and ideology at that time. Goldman and Berkman left Russia and traveled to Europe and Canada, giving lectures and supporting an assortment of causes, ranging from local civil liberty organizations to the Loyalist cause in Spain’s Civil War.

Throughout her life, Goldman corresponded voluminously, and her honesty in letters and other writings was admired by her friends and acquaintances. She was also a lover of the arts, especially the theater. She is credited with introducing European theater to America through her book The Social Significance of the Modern Drama. All of her writings are passionate and imbued with honesty and integrity.

BibliographyChalberg, John. Emma Goldman: American Individualist. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. A straightforward biography.Falk, Candace. Emma Goldman: A Guide to Her Life and Documentary Sources. Alexandria, Va.: Chadwyck-Healey, 1995. A useful guide for further research.Howe, Leslie A. On Goldman. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1999. A guide to Goldman’s philosophy, politics, and historical context, intended for students.Moritz, Theresa, and Albert Moritz. The World’s Most Dangerous Woman: A New Biography of Emma Goldman. New York: Subway Books, 2001. A political biography.Morton, Marion. Emma Goldman and the American Left: “Nowhere at Home.” New York: Twayne, 1992. Places Goldman in a revealingly mainstream context within American leftism in order to demonstrate that, while Goldman may have felt “nowhere at home” politically, her brand of anarchism was most representative of American radicalism.Wexler, Alice. Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.Wexler, Alice. Emma Goldman in Exile: From the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. A two-volume biography that emphasizes the relationship between Goldman’s personal life experiences and emotions and her politics.
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