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Great link where I got most of my info:
The Emma Goldman Papers



"Red Emma": A Madwoman and an Inspiration

Teddy Roosevelt called her a "madwoman…a mental as well as a moral pervert." The San Francisco Call referred to her as a "despicable creature," while the New York Times said she was a "mischievous foreigner…apart from the mass of humanity". Others call her an inspiration.

Who was this woman of such descriptions? Her name is Emma Goldman and she was a major player in American radicalism and feminism.

As soon as I started learning about Emma, I was fascinated and decided I wanted to read her autobiography, Living My Life. Unfortunately for this article, the book is two volumes and about 1,000 pages long. And I seem to have misplaced my super speed-reading goggles so there was no way for me to finish it before I start writing. But I will tell you what I know so far.

rochester image
rochester image

Emma Goldman was born in 1869 in a small Russian city of modern-day Lithuania. From even an early age, she chose to live her life in an unconventional way. When she was 15, her father wanted her to get married and attempted to set up her engagement. Emma was not so happy about that, so she and her older sister fled their home and journeyed to America. The young woman assumed that in this new country she would be leaving behind all the oppression that females faced in Russia. But as she settled down in Rochester, New York, she realized that the U.S. was not much better.

Then in 1886, an event happened that changed her life. It was the Haymarket Square incident that Becky covered while she was in Chicago (be sure to check out her article on this shocking story!)

Basically, a bomb went off during a labor rally, killing seven police officers. The public demanded "justice" and a group of anarchists (some of whom were not even at the rally) were tried on very flimsy evidence and then sentenced to death.

When Emma learned of this, she started reading everything she could about the subject. She came to the decision that she was going to devote her life to the ideals of anarchism so that those who were executed would not have died in vain.

Emma became an activist, one of very few women in the male-dominated mix of labor and immigrant activists in New York City. She lectured and wrote about a wide variety of topics-- a few too many controversial topics for the U.S. government, which ended up deporting her. Let's take a quick look at some of the things we can learn from her remarkable life.

Anarchism: What does anarchism really mean anyway? According to her own definition, it is about creating a social order based on liberty and not laws. It is "the theory that all forms of government rest on violence and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary."

Anarchism was just one of the -isms (including socialism, communism, populism and progressivism) that were challenging the politics and social order of the time.

A mug shot of the feared and revered Emma Goldman
 A mug shot of the feared and revered Emma Goldman

Women's rights: Emma was all about the liberated woman. She herself lived in a way quite unusual to her times- at age 20, she left her husband of a year and started living in a commune with other anarchists. She talked openly about sexuality. During a time when it was unlawful to talk about birth control, Emma was one of its first public advocates, believing that a woman has the right to control her body. You may be surprised, though, to learn that she was not a supporter of the women's suffrage movement (trying to gain the right to vote). Voting, in her eyes, was not the best way to ensure equality because it was mostly a middle-class movement.

Jen checks out a San Francisco mural depicting women's rights
Jen checks out a San Francisco mural depicting women's rights

Free speech: Emma founded a literary and political magazine called Mother Earth as a way to discuss anarchist ideas and international movements, as well as to publish poetry and drama criticisms. She then went on tour around the nation, giving lectures to ever-growing audiences. But since the police and local authorities were not so fond of her anarchist politics or the other taboo topics she would often speak about, Emma's lectures were frequently banned. She was also often arrested, for charges ranging from inciting a riot to advocating birth control to opposing World War I. She was even implicated in the assassination of President William McKinley. All of this led to a debate on free speech with Emma obviously supporting her right to express her controversial opinions.

Emma advocated the power of unions
Emma advocated the power of unions

Labor and industrialism: Emma spoke out against the rise of industrialism, factory conditions and violence against workers. She was a prominent advocate of unions and the right to organize.

Anti-militarism: Emma was hard-core against World War I. She particularly opposed the involuntary drafting of people into military service. As an anarchist, she believed in free choice in all aspects of life.

Yellow journalism and the Red Scare: What do all these colors have to do with the story? Well, yellow journalism refers to when the media exaggerates or distorts the news and tries to create a sensational story to attract readers. It started back at the turn of the century, when newspapers had a lot of political power and the public had little way of verifying what was accurate or biased.

Emma was mad that the Presidio in San Francisco was a military station, not a playground or garden
Emma was mad that the Presidio in San Francisco was a military station, not a playground or garden

The press was definitely biased against Emma. It started in 1892 with an incident involving the Carnegie Steel Company (to learn more, you should definitely read Daphne's article on this incredible story).

When a strike at a steel plant in Pennsylvania turned bloody, Emma and her life-long companion, Alexander Berkman, decided to take matters into their own hands and plotted to kill Henry Clay Frick, the guy in charge. Not the smartest of ideas-Berkman was imprisoned, a nationwide fear of anarchists resurged, and the press started to sensationalize "Red Emma" as a demon of violence and sexuality.

The Red Scare following World War I was the fear and distrust of radicals, anarchists, foreigners, etc who did not support the war or traditional American values. Emma Goldman fit the ticket. In 1919, the homes and offices of several government officials, including the U.S. Attorney General, were bombed. This really sparked a lot of fear, and Congress then passed a law allowing the deportation of foreigners who opposed organized government. On December 21st, 249 Russian-born radicals, including Emma Goldman were herded onto a ship and sent back to Soviet Russia.

A cartoon celebrates the deportation of Emma Goldman

Emma spent the rest of her twenty-one years of life in exile from the United States, living in Russia, Sweden, Germany, Spain, England and Canada. After her death, she was readmitted to the United States and is now buried in Chicago, near the Haymarket anarchists who were her original inspiration.

Emma has incited a wide range of viewpoints, from irritation to inspiration, from anger and fear to emulation. Not being an anarchist, I definitely don't agree with all of Emma's opinions. But I do think she was an amazing person who spoke out about issues often way ahead of her time. So whether you think she was a demon or a delight, perhaps we can all agree that Emma Goldman was an intriguing woman whose life we can learn a lot from.


Please email me at: neda@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Pancho Villa: The man, the myth, the legend
Stephanie - Speak your mind and go to prison?
Nick - The long road to world peace
Irene - When war intrudes upon love and health