Emma Goldman was born in 1869 in present day Lithuania to an Orthodox Jewish family. The first of four children born to Taube Bienowitch and Abraham Goldman, she often suffered corporal punishment by whip from her father for being a rebellious spirit. Deeply interested in education, she began to attend school at the age of 7 in Königsberg, Prussia, where she was subject to additional punishment for her disobedient nature, frequently receiving beatings with a ruler. She made friends with a german teacher who introduced her to the arts. Later, she moved with her family to St. Petersburg, Russia. Her father opened several unsucessful businesses and she was forced to leave school and take up seamstressing.
This however did not stop Goldman from pursuing a self education, thoroughly studying current events around her and philosophies such as nihilism. It was through literature that she discovered her rebel spirit. She rebelled against her father’s arranged marriage for her, saying that she would wed for love only. Around this same time she was raped, which caused challenges for future relationships in her life.
In 1886 she moved to Rochester, NY to join her sister Lena. Here she took up a job as a seamstress earning $2.50 a week. It was because of her low wages and conditions here that burgeoned her dissatisfaction with the labor system. She soon quit and got a job at a smaller tailor shop located on 189 N. Clinton. It was here that she met her first husband, Jacob Kershner. After a four month relationship they wed. Soon after however, their relationship failed due to jealousy, suspicion, and impotence. Instead of their marriage, Goldman decided to work on other things.
On May 1st 1886, the 8 hour day was implemented. In response, labor unions organized a nationwide 300,000 strong general strike in support. On May 4th, the Haymarket affair occurred in Chicago. Police forces attempted to disband the unruly crowd. An unknown threw a dynamite bomb into the crowd. In turn, police responded with violence, killing 7 police officers and 4 civilians. 8 anarchists were arrested for alleged involvement with the conspiracy. This, in addition to disdain towards the labor system sparked Goldman’s rebellious and anti-authoritarian spirit into a bright flame. She soon packed her sewing machine and left for New York City.
It was in New York City that she met her future companion Alexander Berkman. It was through him that met Johann Most, her public speaking mentor. Through them, she educated herself and refined her beliefs. a
In June of 1892 talks between the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers and the Carnegie Steel Company broke down. In response, Henry Clay Frick, a staunch opponent of worker’s unions initiated a lockout of the striking workforce, and sent in strikebreakers to continue production. Frick also hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency as a security force to ensure that the strikebreakers are protected. This in turn led to a firefight. 9 steelworkers and 3 Pinkerton guards were killed. The actions of Frick absolutely infuriated Goldman and Berkman. They quickly travelled to Pittsburg and begun to plot Frick’s assassination. On July 23, 1892 Berkman gained entrance to Frick’s office. He shot him 3 times and stabbed him once in the leg. Frick survived and Berkman was quickly detained. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Goldman was soon arrested for her involvement, her house searched, but turning over no evidence she was soon released.
In 1893 the national unemployment rate was 20%. Goldman embarked on a speaking tour in New York, speaking to over 3,000 people in Union Square. During this speech she advocated direct action, which was interpreted as the incitation of a riot. She was sentenced to one year in prison. In prison she studied medicine, specializing in midwifery. After her release she set sail for Europe, speaking in London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. In Europe she met contemporaries such as Kropotkin and Malatesta. She received two diplomas in Vienna. With this she completed the first cross country tour conducted by an anarchist speaker.
On September 6th, 1901, President William Mckinley was assassinated in Buffalo, NY by Leon Czolgosz, a mentally ill Anarchist from Detroit. Czolgosz claimed inspiration from Goldman; this did not bide over well. Goldman was soon charged with planning Mckinley’s assassination. After two weeks of interrogation they finally released her, finding no connection between her and Czolgosz.
After Czolgosz’s execution, Goldman retreated from revolutionary politics, using a pseudonym and her nursing qualifications to get various jobs. However, this was to be relatively short lived with the passing of the Anarchist Exclusion Act, which outlawed the immigration of anarchists, epileptics, beggars, and prostitutes. Yet another wave of anarchism rose up to oppose the oppressors, and Goldman was swept up in it’s tide, claiming the act violated freedom of speech.
In 1906 she decided to publish a publication of her own, “a place of expression for the young idealists in arts and letters.” This of course would become Mother Earth, which would go on to be published until Goldman’s deportation in 1917.
On May 18th, 1906 Alexander Berkman was released from prison. Gaunt and wrought with mental turmoil he struggled to adjust to outside life. His speaking tour failing, he decided to kill himself. He bought a revolver in Cleveland and returned to New York, to find that Goldman had been arrested yet again, during a meeting reflecting on Czolgosz. He changed his mind and decided to work on securing their release. Berkman took control of Mother Earth in 1907 whilst Goldman toured the country to raise funds to keep it functional.
Over the next decade, Goldman toured the country nonstop. In 1908, Goldman met Ben Reitman, a doctor who treated the impoverished. Two years later, Goldman began to feel discontent with the lecture circuit. She collected several speeches and essays that she penned for Mother Earth and published her first book, Anarchism and Other Essays.
In 1914, joining forces with Margaret Sanger, Goldman heavily advocated the use of contraceptives in literature and in public. In 1916, Goldman, as well as Sanger were arrested for giving lessons on contraceptives and writing “obscene literature.” In 1915 Goldman toured the country with hopes of raising awareness. She was arrested yet again in 1916 before another lecture. Charged with violating the Comstock Law and refusing to pay her fine she was sentenced to two weeks in a workhouse.
With the United States’ entry into World War I came the Selective Service Act, which required all males 21-30 to register for conscription. Naturally, Goldman opposed this idea, seeing the United States’ entry into WWI as a tool of capitalistic manipulation. She announced in Mother Earth her intent to oppose conscription and to oppose U.S. involvement in the war. With these principles she and Berkman organized the No Conscription League of NY. Their mission statement stands as follows: “We oppose conscription because we are internationalists, antimilitarists, and opposed to all wars waged by capitalistic governments.”
On June 17th, 1917 Goldman and Berkman were arrested during a raid of their offices. They were charged with conspiracy to induce persons not to register under the espionage act. They were both sentenced to two years in prison with deportation upon their release. They were sent to Russia in the midst of the Bolshevik revolution. Initially, they were supportive of it, however the suppression of free speech began to worry them. She met with Vladimir Lenin who told them “There can be no free speech in a revolutionary period.” Based on her time in Russia, she penned My Disillusionment in Russia, and My Further Disillusionment in Russia.
The 1936 Spanish Revolution was brewing between the Anarchists and the nationalist party. Goldman was invited to Barcelona by the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo and the Federación Anarquista Ibérica. For the first time in her life she lived in an anarchist community. There she toured a series of collectives, speaking, editing bulletins and responding to English language mail. She begun to feel disenfranchised after the CNT-FAI joined a coalition government in 1937, going against the core anarchist values of abstaining from a state structure. They united with the communists against fascism. She begun to write for Spain and the World, a paper focusing on the civil war. In May 1937 communists attacked the anarchists collectives and strongholds. She soon returned to Canada to live her final days. She spoke negatively of the events leading up to WWII. She felt as if the world was gradually losing cause.
On February 1940, Goldman suffered a stroke. She became paralyzed on her right side and lost her ability to speak. She suffered a second stroke on May 8th and died on May 14th in Toronto.
Though her time in Rochester was short, it was here that she found her preliminary revolutionary causes, her disdain for the labor system and the patriarchal governments running the world. Her ideologies reverberate today, she is widely studied by anarchists and feminists the world around. She was a pioneer in contraception, a pioneer in anti-draft and antifascist activities, and a pioneer revolutionary. Without Goldman, we wouldn’t have anarchism as it is today.