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Jun 27, 2005 3:18 am

Emma Goldman

Red Emma, b. 6/27/1869
Ben Reitman, her long-time friend and lover, said in 1907 of Goldman in their first meeting that
"She had a powerful face, beautiful, strong, clear, blue eyes, a nose that was not Jewish, and a strong, firm jaw. She was somewhat nearsighted and wore heavy glasses. Her hair was blond and silken and she wore it in a simple knot on the back of her head."
She was an inspiration to her admirers. Margaret Anderson, founder of the avant-garde Little Review in Chicago would say of her that
"something tremendous has dropped out of life with her going. The exasperating thing about Emma Goldman is that she makes herself so indispensable to her audiences that it is always tragic when she leaves; the amazing thing about her is that her inspiration seems never to falter. Life takes on an intenser qualith when she is present; there is something cosmic in the air, a feeling of worlds in the making..."
Born in Kovno, Lithuania, Emma Goldman was, in the words of one of her biographers,"an almost mythical figure, the archetypal woman activist." In 1882 she moved with her family to the Jewish ghetto in St Petersburg where she started reading the radical literature of Turgenev and Chernyshevsky. When her father tried to force her to marry, she left with her sister, Helena, to America.

In 1886, Goldman emigrated to Rochester, New York, earning her living by working in clothing factories. The Chicago Haymarket Bombing soon transpired. An unknown assailant tossed a bomb into a throng of riot police, killing one instantly. In the chaos that erupted, seven policemen were killed, sixty injured, and civilian casualties were likely as high. The event marked the anarchist movement as violent and made Chicago known as a center of labor conflict. The event affected and divided both the labor movement and the anarchist movement, not only nationally, but also throughout the world.

The young Goldman was devastated when four anarchists (who she believed innocent) were hung, another committed suicide in jail, two had their sentences commuted to life in prison and one remained in prison even though there was no case against him. Goldman credited this event for her conversion to anarchism and subsequent divorce of her husband, Jacob Kershner, of less than a year. In August, 1889, Emma moved to New York City where she joined the Yiddish Anarchist movement leader, Johann Most, editor of the anarchist newspaper Freiheit. She met Alexander Berkman, young Lithuanian (from Vilnius) who shared her ideals and would come to share her bed.

In 1892, she conspired with Berkman in his failed attempt to assassinate Henry Clay Frick (in retaliation for Frick's role in the attack on strikers at Homestead). Berkman eventually served 14 years in Western Penitentiary for his crime; her guilt over Berkman's sole responsibility for a crime they both participated in remained a major influence for the rest of her life. Following the failed assassination, Emma gained not only national prominence, but became prominent in the anarchist movement as well. In 1895 she traveled to Vienna to study medicine, attending lectures by Freud. As a trained nurse, she would later spend years among the needy prostitutes in New York's brothels. In London, she met her ideological mentor, Peter Kropotkin. Returning to America a year later as a trained nurse, she made frequent cross-country speaking tours over the next few years.

Her anarchist agitation was interrupted in 1901 when Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley. Goldman was blamed for Czolgosz's action and was forced into hiding by a massive wave of anti-anarchist hysteria (for many years she was"Mrs E.G. Smith"). The same year Berkman was released from prison Emma began publishing Mother Earth, in 1906.

In 1904, while working as a nurse, she had opened up a"Vienna scalp and facial massage" parlor which was intended as a supplement to her income. Upon a chance meeting the next year with a troupe of Russian actors would change the direction of her life. Their lead actor, Pavel Orleneff, needed a manager and interpreter, which she was happy to undertake. Her return would be a benefit performance to raise money for a magazine which she had thought about for many years"to combine my social ideas with the young strivings in the various art forms in America," and the $250.00 box-office take was enough to start with.

Mother Earth (1906-17) was a true accomplishment of Emma Goldman's tireless work for the next decade. She originally had hopes of publishing a periodical under the title,"The Open Road" (from Whitman's poem), but found out at the last minute that another literary publication with that name had already started and was threatening a lawsuit if she used the same name. Fortunately, on a buggy ride in the countryside in February, she noticed the early signs of spring,"indicating life was germinating in the womb of Mother Earth." The rest was history. The first issue on March 1, 1907, 64 pages long. The first printing of 3,000 was sold out in a week and another 1,000 printed. She closed the massage parlor and never looked back. With the help of many of her friends and lovers, the publication had a base of talent to keep the publication running with a high level of quality in both prose and poetry. With Benjamin Tucker's Liberty coming to a close due to a fire in slightly more than a year, Mother Earth would become the primary outlet for American anarchism for the next generation.

Goldman published a broad spectrum of anarchist and libertarian thinking as well as many literary writings. While she was regarded as an anarchist-communist, in part from her background with Most and Kropotkin, in my analysis of all of her written essays in Mother Earth completed some years ago, it was clear that she was strongly influenced by American political thinkers. She referenced George Washington more than anyone else, and the next most-referenced thinkers were Alexander Hamilton(!), Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. The European activists and authors, such as Kropotkin, Bakunin and Reclus, were hardly mentioned. Upon reflection after my original studies, it may be that, since she was writing for an American audience, that she emphasized American libertarians, but I think it doubtful. Her inclination was to be quite forthright and open on such matters. Also, the writers in Mother Earth were often individualists, or defenders of individualism--Voltairine de Cleyre (who was perhaps the finest of her contributors), Leo Tolstoy, Bolton Hall, among others.

The articles and fiction were generally on topical matters as well as general commentaries on specific issues--feminism, birth control, free speech, civil liberties, education, literature and prison reform. She also kept a running correspondence in the pages on her lecture tours (which helped to finance the publication), as well as social events for anarchists (Masquerade Balls--she once came as a nun, and"Mid Summer Dance and Ice Cream Party"--"Tickets, 20 cents, Hat Check, 10 cents").

Several authors who became better known began writing in Mother Earth. John R. Coryell, who frequently wrote under the name Margaret Grant, was the originator of the"Nick Carter" detective series and the"Bertha M. Clay" romance novels. Eugene O'Neill's first printed piece, the poem"The"American Soveriegn"," was in the May 1911 issue of Mother Earth. O'Neill first discovered the periodical while browsing in Benj. R. Tucker's Unique Book Shop in New York as a college dropout, became a regular reader and would continue to correspond with Goldman long after her deportation in 1919 (his editor at Random House was Goldman's nephew Saxe Commins).

Goldman was jailed in 1917 as a result of her work in the No-Conscription League and her anti-war stand against World War I, also causing Mother Earth to be shut down by the government. Her niece, Stella Comyn, would continue it for a year as Mother Earth Bulletin and later publish the mimeographed"Instead of a Magazine," but Goldman was unable to help.

Goldman and Berkman were deported in 1919 to Soviet Russia after incarceration for two years. At first, Goldman was excited to see first hand revolutionary Russia, but she quickly realized that the Bolsheviks and the massive dictatorship created by Lenin was crushing the"spontaneity of the masses." In 1921, Libertarian sailors revolted at Kronstadt against the Bolshevik government. The suppression of Kronstadt by the Communists was too much for Goldman and Berkman and they left Russia in a state of disillusionment. For the next few years, traveling from country to country as she would get permission, she wrote a long series of articles and two books about her experience in and the ideological contradictions she perceived within Soviet Russia.

Goldman married the British James Colton in 1926 for the convenience citizenship offered. She lived in seclusion for a few years in France in order to write her autobiography, which was published in 1931. During this long exile, Goldman continually sought to return to the United States. In 1936, Alexander Berkman committed suicide after prolonged agony caused by an aggravated case of prostate cancer. For the next three years, Goldman committed herself to the support of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists and their fight against Communists, Republicans and Fascists in Spain.

Goldman died from a stroke in Toronto in 1940 while attempting to save an Italian anarchist from deportation, where he faced certain death in Fascist Italy. Only after her death was she admitted back into America, where Emma Goldman found her eternal resting place at Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago, buried near the Haymarket martyrs.

Just a thought.
Just Ken
CLASSical Liberalism

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Tim Sydney - 7/11/2005

Murray Rothbard was pro-choice on abortion but opposed Roe V Wade because it centralised the legal / judicial jurisdiction from state to federal. See link here discussing the federalisation of abortion law under Roe Vs Wade. So there is a wealth of issues for anarchists and libertarians to chew over in the abortion debate.

David's comment about the danger of abortion is interesting too. One of the pro-choice arguments was that abortion illegality would lead to dangerous backyard abortions. However I doubt whether many of those who made this argument would have anticipated the massive growth in the total number of abortions that we have seen. It doesn't look like a simple substitution of legal for illegal abortions. There seem to be some myths about the rate of backyard abortions worth investigating. See this article here for a starting point.

Tim Sydney - 7/10/2005

I suppose my main point is that due to the "provincialism of the present" we often interpret pioneer feminists as if their concerns and issues are the same as feminists today. They very may be but not necessarily.

The "Feminists For Life" site helps illustrate that that automatic linkage of pro-abortion/pro-'choice' arguments with pro-feminism is a modern development.

My guess is that the linkage probably first emerged with Margaret Sanger (See ) and had more to do with her pro-eugenics stance and then was reinforced in the 60s/70s sexual revolution. The linkage is definitely not rooted in feminist philosophy or history.

This would seem to be worthy of the making of a great historical debate!

David Timothy Beito - 6/29/2005

Good point. It should be mentioned that abortion was much more dangerous at the turn of the many women were trying to induce miscarriage via various quack drugs.

Anthony Gregory - 6/29/2005

There is no contradiction when an anarchist is adamantly opposed to both abortion and laws against it.

Kenneth R Gregg - 6/28/2005

I remember the quote that they are using (I don't recall which essay, but I remember the "17 out of 100" figure), but I think that its use is a misrepresentation of Goldman, Tim.

In one of her better known articles, "The Social Aspects of Birth Control" (Mother Earth, April 1916), she says in this context: "...what about the unmarried mother? Or is anyone in doubt that there are thousands of unmarried mothers? They crowd our shops and factories and industries everywhere, not by choice but by economic necessity. In their drab and monotonous existence the only color left is probably a sexual attraction which without methods of prevention invariably leads to abortions. Thousands of women are sacrificed as a result of abortions, because they are undertaken by quack doctors, ignorant midwives in secrecy and in haste..."

Note here that she objects to the deaths of women due to the illegal nature of abortions and the nature of the people who are willing to perform them, not that the abortions occur. Women die terrible deaths due to botched abortions. She goes on:

"...[I]t is not the Birth Contol Movement, but the law, which will have to go...[O]ne thing is certain, the Birth Control movement cannot be stopped nor will I be stopped from carrying on Birth Control agitation....Can you blame me if I am an anarchist and have no use for laws?..."

"...I stand as one of the sponsors of a world-wide movement, a movement which aims to set woman free from the terrible yoke and bondage of enforced pregnancy..."

"I may be arrested, I may be tried and thrown into jail, but I never will be silent; I never will acquiesce or submit to authority, nor will I make peace with a system which degrades woman to a mere incubator and which fattens on her innocent victims..."

As a trained nurse who worked in New York City's brothels, and as one who openly advocated a sexually free lifestyle in a time when such matters were illegal, I would not be surprised at the words quoted in the anti-abortion website were Goldman's, I just think that they were due to other reasons that they ascribe to. It would not be a surprise to me that she had performed abortions as well.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

David Timothy Beito - 6/28/2005

Did she actually think it should be illegal? Of course, I wouldn't be surprised if she did. Many early feminists were anti-abortion.

Tim Sydney - 6/27/2005

The folks over at FEMINISTS FOR LIFE count Emma G as one of the pioneer anti-abortion feminists. They have a quote from her: ""The custom of procuring abortions has reached such appalling proportions in America as to be beyond belief...So great is the misery of the working classes that seventeen abortions are committed in every one hundred pregnancies."

I wonder what she would have thought about having an abortion clinic named after her?

David Timothy Beito - 6/27/2005

There is an amusing account somewhere of Goldman's visit to Benjamin Tucker during the 1920s or 1930s.

Kenneth R Gregg - 6/27/2005

Thanks David,
There would be more to address but I tend to run long on posts, and didn't want to bore.

Goldman is usually identified as a Russian anarchist, and in this day and age when the Baltic states completely separated from the old Russian Bear, we have a good opportunity to recognize that there are strong traditions of freedom in many of the smaller regions such as Lithuania. Goldman, to me, never was Russian, and I'm glad to make this differentiation, just as there was a vibrant experience of Jewish, or Yiddish, anarchism.

In many ways, she was the prototypical American emigre, being in her own way, more patriotic to the fundamental principles of America than most who lived here. When I speak with those who have worked for their citizenship (Goldman, an avowed anarchist, could not have been accepted as a U.S. citizen), they often know more about Jeffersonian principles than the man on the street, and have overcome many obstacles to come to America.

Another misconception is over her anarchist communism. She was far more moderate on her economic theory than is generally thought, and many biographers have missed this point. She was left of center, but not the extreme anarchocommunist that she gets labled as.

Just a thought.
Just Ken.

David Timothy Beito - 6/27/2005

Great job!