Famous Figures: Emma Goldman

Born in 27th June, 1869, Emma Goldman, a native Lithuanian and daughter to Abraham Goldman, migrated to America in 1885 to ‘work in apparel companies’, camouflaging her real reason for fleeing which was forced marriage (Gornick 69). Little did she know that the setting would seal her fate of developing anarchical beliefs and turning into the activist she became. The iron lady of Jewish origin and fiery speaker was jailed and charged severally for inciting violence through riots as well as incidences of lobbying for birth control. Goldman met her fiancé, Alexander Berkman, a fellow anarchy activist. Berkman was later convicted for attempting to kill Henry Frick in revenge for 9 steelworkers who had earlier went on strike and got killed by detectives (Gornick 84). Even though she was never charged herself after undergoing conspiracy investigations, Goldman lived her life while being severally harassed, persecuted and trailed by the police[1]. However, her fighting spirit was never killed. She toured the whole country preaching to masses and at the same time writing essays. The writer later got deported to Russia (at this time a post-revolutionary state).

Goldman contributed immensely in developing anarchist philosophies not only in American but also European politics (Goldman 77). The lady borrowed her anarchist inspiration after she listened to Johann Most’s lecture[2]. The latter was a newspaper editor and lecturer who held political views that were radical in nature. She would later pursue her professional training of being a nurse but still remained strong in pointing out and fighting for her beliefs. In addition to anarchy, Goldman’s philosophies touched on the disciplines of atheism, workers’ rights, sexuality, Marxism, social dynamics and women empowerment (Goldman 77).

Anarchy Archives

Anarchy Archives is an online search forum with collections of philosophies affiliated to anarchism (Ward 2). Several books are found in this program, many of which describe Emma Goldman. This paper borrows various details about the activist from this scheme.

Origin of Anarchism

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was the first politician to view himself an anarchist, marking the onset of later anarchism beliefs as seen in icons like Goldman. “Anarchism is a living force in the affairs of our life, constantly creating new conditions…” (Goldman 77). Anarchism refers to a political philosophy which lobbies for a self-governed society, basing its doctrine on the aspect of voluntary institutions[3]. Goldman belonged to this school of thought which was derived from the word “archos”, translated to “one without ruler”, derived from Greek terminologies. Often termed stateless societies, this political ideology considers states harmful, undesirable and unnecessary. “Anarchism stands for the liberation of the human mind…,” is a quote that still stands out amongst Goldman’s most famous expressions[4] (Ward 24).

Goldman’s Belief on Anarchism

Emma Goldman got her life dedicated to creating a radical change, a revolutionized social order. She viewed modern organizations and political policies as being socially unjust. As such, she embraced the idea of anarchism as she believed it offered real social justice, liberty and harmony (Goldman 55). The motivated activist struggled for decades to terminate repression, exploitation and widespread inequality. Controversy faced her because of her strong will and commitment to support absolute freedom. She would later become passionate in speaking and writing about a world with independence and equal rights for women amongst other radical education philosophies. Many powerful authorities in the field of politics could not stand Goldman because of her inclination, prominence and popularity. As such she garnered many enemies, the situation that made people coin the name ‘dangerous woman’ to refer to her[5]. Even though she was harsh towards religion generally, her major beliefs emanated from Jewish traditions which championed pursuing universal; justice as pointed out by Ward (49). Her groundwork was laid by Russian experiences and her immigration status in America. Goldman’s ideals were deeply rooted in the oppression from the Jewish history. She established Jewish activism in American soil.

Anarchy and Sex Question

Refered to as ‘high priestess of anarchy’, Emma Goldman deemed anarchism as being a force that lived in our daily lives’ affairs and regularly created new conditions (Shaw & Lee 121). She went ahead to point out sex as being the most elemental aspect in the lives of humans, considering it a facet that was not only basic but also vital[6]. Goldman addressed sex in many ways, some of these being ‘new woman’, ‘birth control’, and ‘free love’ as well as marriage, love and homosexuality.


In Emma’s words, “The rich endure it to avoid scandal”, she was talking about marriage with regards to what women face while in it (Shaw & Lee 121). Goldman depicts women as having been oppressed for a long time and it was the moment they stood up against the belief of the lady as the underdog in marriage. She says that women only persevere in marriage because of the kids as seen in poor families. On the other hand she views ladies from rich families as persevering for the sake of saving face and gathering good publicity (Shaw & Lee 121). In real sense, women were tormented and it had reached a time equality was to be consented to[7]. The activist goes ahead to describe this situation as a chain that grows heavier yet women have to keep on wearing it.

Goldman emphasizes to women that they are at liberty of fleeing from the men whom they sell favors to (Goldman 74). She describes men as relaxing in unions while women toiled and made them work. As such, the fiery writer and speaker equates a marriage without love to prostitution. She blames the whole ordeal in a system which legalizes theft of human morals, citing the church and government as some of the masterminds of this aspect. This is the major reason behind why Goldman fights for anarchism; so that ‘the cure of inequality evil’ can be fought by reforming the senate and public offices (the system) to an anarchical regime (Goldman 79).

The Individual, Society and the State
Fegurson (225) points out that Emma Goldman depicts the mind of men as being in a confused state. She says that peoples’ faith in institutions is dwindling, asserting that democracy has been minimized to its lowest level too. Goldman emphasizes that she is against dictatorship as well as fascism, a fact which is seen by virtue of her attacking parliamentary regimes. Goldman’s main objective was to find out whether the state was beneficial to mankind in the society.

The individual is a ‘cosmos in himself’ and is not in existence due to the state. Instead it is the other way round, as states are formed by individuals; yet this group of individuals (state), are being fought by the individual because of their anti-democratic activities. Goldman asserts that the state was meant to oppress the weak and can be overturned because they are elected by the same people they are oppressing (Fegurson 241). Life begins, continues and ends with man, with whom true power lies. Goldman describes political absolutism as a vice people have already cleverly realized[8]. She claims to see the freedom idea in anarchism, citing that the society exists for man and not vice versa. She ends by asserting that the quest for freedom by man must carry on through anarchy.

Emma Goldman and Marxism

Similar vision with Mikhail Bakunin

Mikhail Bakunin was a revolutionary anarchist from Russia who held similar beliefs with Emma Goldman (Chalberg 354). First, the two activists portrayed similar situations of radicalization. Just like Goldman, Bakunin got deported because of standing firm against the regimes that were. He got himself expunged from France. In addition, he was also arrested following incitement of rebellion against authorities. Moreover, similar to Goldman, he also fought for workers’ rights and was a member of such a union. Goldman borrowed her doctrines from Bakunin who was one of her mentors. They are both described as ‘mischievous foreigners’. Both were controversial and openly opposed the regimes that were in place during their time, sharing the same vision of an anarchical politics where individuals would be free from oppression by the states or systems (Chalberg 372). Both anarchists, Goldman and Bakunin share some doctrines with Marxism. Both the two ideologies are social in nature and lie on a similar side of war; that of opposing the existence of state as expressed in governments. They believed in free socialism which is a Marxist idea. However, Marxists believe that states should exist until after a transition period when it should wither away, while anarchists fight for its termination as soon as possible (Chalberg 373).

International Socialist

“Since the days of the old internationale, since the strife between Bakunin, Marx and Engels, Socialism has slowly but surely been losing its fighting plumes,” Emma Goldman made these statements through her writing to show her stance in Socialism as an international player (Chalberg 392). She was ready and whole-heartedly willing to revive international socialism which was dying according to her.

Socialism is the political theory which holds that means of exchange, production and distribution ought to be owned by the community as a whole. As such Goldman opposed the fact of a few individuals oppressing others as seen in “The Individual, Society and the State”. She was an international figure, developing anarchist philosophy of politics both in Europe and North America (Chalberg 395). She was an iconic figure in the Russian revolution and wrote about her experiences while residing in France, Canada and England[9]. The ‘radical alien’, in her international socialist spirit, traveled to Spain in order to give her support to the anarchist revolution that was there at the moment.  Her death occurred in Toronto while still pushing for her course.
“American Dream”

Emma Goldman views the society of America as having shifted away from the possibility of obtaining the American Dream as observed by Chalberg (398). This was due to institutionalization as well as exploitation in the regime through misdirected law, economics and religion. The traditional American dream as it was, held that each American regardless of social class or origin was capable of becoming successful via dedication and their own hard work. Through anarchism, Goldman criticized the economic circumstances many Americans faced in the form of bad labor laws, a challenge towards the American dream (Chalberg 398). Goldman saw the American regime as a corrupt society via this aspect and many others, a place where such a dream could no longer be achieved.

Rebel Women

‘Red Emma’ or ‘Red Rebel’, as she became popularly referred to, was a remarkable rebel in American politics and beyond. Only upon her arrival in foreign land, the iron lady has already begun causing turmoil (Chalberg 397). As a new worker in New York, she rallied not only mass meetings but also hunger demonstrations. She was fiery and brave like a true rebel, always opposing the government. She once led a 100-men march while waving a red banner to New York Union Square. She incited the crowds to command for work and bread, and grab the latter if their pleas were not attended to[10]. When Goldman was not doing it, she was writing it, as evident in her numerous works portraying the dirty side of the government that few people dared to do at that time (Chalberg 400).

Role in Ragtime

In Ragtime, Goldman character is still depicted as that of an anarchist, especially in how she views women. One of these instances is seen when she tells Nesbit, “You are a creature of capitalism, the ethics of which are so totally corrupt and hypocritical.” Goldman in Ragtime equates women to slaves of marriage and says that they are oppressed via the character Evelyn. She later assures Nesbit that ‘their lives conform’ as women in unity. Ragtime portrays Goldman as the oppression opponent she was in real life.
Sasha and Emma

Sasha and Emma The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman , is a book that entails Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. It was written by yet another anarchist, Paul Arvich. The work describes the first ever terrorist ordeal in America as having occurred in year 1892, fueled by Alexander Berkman (Sasha), then a 20-year-old immigrant of Russian origin (Loos 51). The book portrays Berkman the anarchist as fighting for workers’ rights, an aspect which landed him in jail. The activist attempted to assassinate Henry Frick in retaliation to the killing of striking workers by police earlier in order to inspire fellow workers[11]. He ended up in jail where he met another member of Homestead strike, the convict who claimed that the workers did not tolerate violence (Loos 75). Public sympathy however favored Frick. Goldman organized some relief fund in addition to attempting to provide justification for Berkman’s act. This is seen through the several articles as well as interviews. Berkman and Goldman’s sexual relationship ended subsequently even though the two remained allies. ‘Sasha and Emma’ depict a strong union between anarchical believers who are fed up with a rotten regime and are ready to fight for their cause irrespective of the outcome (Loos 80).

“Living My Life”

Goldman’s Political Philosophy

Through this autobiography written two years prior to her death, Emma Goldman goes through the story of her life. Once more, she portrays her radical figure as a pacifist, unionist, believer of free love, communist, feminist and anarchist as well as birth control aspects (Avrich &Avrich 72). It is illustrated how she became an outrage object via her notions of extremism. She takes the readers once more through her seamstress role in New York when she arrived there and how she lobbied for equal right for employees who were looked down upon, through activism as well as public agitation. The book does not however clearly depict her role in Spain revolution as it got published 9 years before she died. Through “Living my Life”, Emma majorly reveals her role in Bolshevikin the revolution in Russia where she supported the extreme left which pushed for overthrowing the Soviet regime. The book depicts how she was arrested, her tempestuous romances, and political ideologies[12]. From baptizing babies using beer barrels to openly criticizing capitalism, Emma proves that she is indeed the ‘red rebel’ as the believer of philosophy of political archaism was popularly known ideologies (Avrich &Avrich 74).
Social change

“No real social change has ever been brought without a revolution..for Science, religious, political and economic liberty comes from the minority and not from the mass” (Goldman 102).  Through the Russian revolution, Goldman lobbied for social change in Russia where the oppressed would not wait for industrialization for there to be a change. She condemned the fact that socio-democratic theories had not been embraced by the country and pushed for the social change as seen in “Living My Life” (Goldman 105). This did not only occur in Russia but the western world where Emma traveled, stayed and made social impact.
Attribution in the U.S

The New York Criminal anarchy Act, The Espionage Act, The Immigration Act and The Alien Immigration Act were all laws passed into action to curb Goldman’s actions, showing how much impact she had in North America (Loos 49). The country boasts of the right to speech and expression, a result of the struggle by Goldman[13]. Historically, she forms a significant part of America’s political icons, a rare facet of foreigners at that time. Sexual freedom and religious freedom are all aspects in the law whose basis is Emma Goldman (Loos 51). American citizens can proudly say, “I know my rights” due to reforms pushed by the ‘red rebel’.

Emma Goldman, through anarchy and her philosophies touching on the disciplines of atheism, workers’ rights, sexuality, Marxism, social dynamics and women empowerment changed not only America but Europe as a whole. Her ideologies made impact in a significant portion of the globe. Through her books, articles, speeches and interviews, the icon drove her point home; social justice, anarchy through revolution to inhibit oppression and the American dream.

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