Luminist Archives

Emma Goldman  (1869-1940)

Voltairine DeCleyre


Emma Goldman
(1869–1940) is remembered as one of America’s most eloquent proponents of anarchism. She was born in a Jewish ghetto in Russia. In 1884 she came to Rochester, New York, where she worked in a sweatshop and got a first-hand look at the “American Dream” of the late 19th century industrial working class.

What initially drew Goldman to anarchism was the outcry that followed the Haymarket Square tragedy in 1886 in Chicago. A bomb had been thrown into a crowd of police during a workers’ rally for the 8-hour day. Four anarchists were eventually hanged. Emma Goldman had followed the event closely and as the day on the day of the hanging she decided to become a revolutionary.

In New York City she met Johann Most, publisher of a German language anarchist paper, who organized a series of speaking engagements for her. She also worked with Alexander Berkman, author of The ABCs of Anarchism, and Peter Kropotkin, author of Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.

In 1893 she was arrested for allegedly urging the unemployed to take bread “by force” and was sentenced to a year in Blackwell Island penitentiary. She was imprisoned a second time for distributing birth control literature, but her longest sentence resulted from her involvement in setting up “No Conscription” leagues and organizing rallies against the first world war. Goldman and Berkman were arrested in 1917 for conspiring to obstruct the draft, and both were given two year prison sentences. Afterwards they were stripped of their citizenship and deported along with other undesirable “Reds” to Russia. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who directed her deportation hearing, called her one of the most dangerous women in America.

Emma Goldman made a number of important contributions to anarchist thought. In particular she is remembered for incorporating sexual politics into anarchism, an idea that had only been hinted at by earlier anarchists. Goldman campaigned and went to prison for the right of women to practice birth control. She argued that a political solution was not enough to get rid of the unequal and repressive relations between the sexes. There had to be massive transformation of values, most importantly in women themselves. Only anarchist revolution and not the ballot, in Emma’s view, would set woman free.

Emma recounts in her autobiography, Living My Life, how she was admonished by a young revolutionary that it did not become an agitator to dance. Goldman wrote, “I insisted that our cause could not expect me to behave as a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. I want freedom, the right to self expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” 

Emma Goldman writings in the Luminist Archives:

  Anarchism: What It Really Stands For

  Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty

  Prisons: A Social Crime and a Failure

  Jealousy: Its Cause and a Possible Cure

  Marriage and Love

Printed copies of these essays are available in pamphlet form from our bookstore.

Resources for Further Study:

  The Emma Goldman Papers

  The Anarchist Archives Emma Goldman Collection

Womens History Emma Goldman Site

  Emma Goldman Reference Archive


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