Emma Goldman is one of the world’s most famous female anarchists. She is credited with playing a key role in the development of America’s anarchist political philosophy.
Goldman was born on June 27, 1869 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Lithuania. She spent her childhood in poverty with an abusive father who told her that Jewish girls only needed to know how to cook and give men children. He also refused to let her attend school so she was forced to educate herself. When she was 7, she witnessed a peasant being whipped on the street. From then on, she despised violent authority. When she was 15, she was raped.
By 1886, the entire family had moved to Rochester, New York and in 1887, she married Jacob Kershner. A year later, they divorced. As her parents refused to let her into the house, she moved to New York City where she met Alexander Berkman, an anarchist. She also became acquainted with Johann Most, who inspired her to begin speaking publicly as he took her under his wing. Soon, she moved in with Berkman as the pair became lovers.
In 1892, Goldman and Berkman decided to assassinate factory manager Henry Clay Frick, an anti-unionist. On July 23, Berkman shot Frick three times, but did not kill him. He was convicted of attempted murder and went to prison for 23 years, which was hard on Goldman. Over the next ten years, she was arrested twice. The first offense involved the charge of “inciting to riot,” which caused her to be jailed for more than a year. In 1901, she was arrested and held for two weeks when the man who murdered President McKinley claimed he was “inspired” by Goldman.
When Congress brought the Anarchist Exclusion Act, she joined forces with the Free Speech League to lobby for the release of John Turner who had been arrested under it. Though they lost the case, the press proclaimed a victory for the Free Speech League. In 1906, she started her own publication, Mother Earth, and Berkman was released from prison. While he struggled to adjust, he and Goldman made it through together. As he took over her paper, she toured the country to raise funds. However, they separated when Berkman became attracted to a 15-year-old girl.
For the next ten years, Goldman traveled the country, delivering lectures. In 1908, she met and fell in love with Ben Rietman. Reitman had a medical degree and he treated patients who suffered from venereal disease. The pair believed strongly in free love even though Goldman did not take other partners while he did. In 1910, she published Anarchism and Other Essays.
When Margaret Sanger coined the term “birth control” and began speaking about it, Goldman supported her. After she was arrested, Goldman continued distributing Sanger’s fliers. Her work helped make the country a bit more liberal about the issue of contraception. In 1916, Goldman was arrested and she spent two weeks in a prison workhouse.
In 1917, after Congress began requiring males to register for conscription, she organized the No Conscription League, and was arrested again. At her trial, she invoked the right to free speech. Goldman and Berkman were imprisoned for two years, fined, and faced deportation. Upon release, they were deported to Russia. She kept in contact with Reitman. In 1921, they began traveling all over Europe and ended up in Germany. In 1924, Goldman moved to London where she married anarchist James Colton in 1925, for citizenship.
While Goldman was in Canada, in 1936, Berkman underwent an operation and she rushed to see him. By the time she got there, he had shot himself, dying the next day. On February 17, 1940, Goldman suffered a stroke that paralyzed her right side and on May 8, she had another one. On May 14, 1940, she passed away in Canada and was buried in Chicago.
In those times, Goldman’s views were considered to be very radical:
Goldman was a strong believer in atheism. In her work The Philosophy of Atheism, she called atheism the “strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.”
Freedom of Speech
She was a supreme believer in freedom of speech; in all of its forms. She supported anyone arrested for their beliefs even if she didn’t agree with what they were saying, because she believed they had a right to say it.
Goldman was an outspoken opponent of organized violence. She hated wars and her work to try and halt the draft, while unsuccessful, was very important to her.
Goldman also viewed the capitalist system as corrupt. When she planned to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, she hoped it would inspire workers to revolt against the entire system. In fact, she spent much of her time doing this.
Goldman was highly critical of marriage. She believed that marriage inherently placed women on unequal footing with men both socially and legally. Although she herself was married, it was always to men who shared her views and never suppressed her. Goldman’s marriages were also unorthodox as she spent a lot of time away from her men.
Goldman supported free love and the idea that people should be free to go dating as they wished. She believed that people should be free to love whomever they wished in any way they wished. Her affair with Ben Reitman was the perfect example. He was free to love who he wished, just as she was.
Goldman was a staunch supporter of equal rights for homosexuals, which was unheard of at the time. She wrote many letters defending their rights to love as they pleased, condemning people who ostracized them.
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