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Emma Goldman

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Emma Goldman (1869–1940) stands as a major figure in the history of American radicalism and feminism. An influential and well-known anarchist of her day, Goldman was an early advocate of free speech, birth control, women’s equality and independence, and union organization. Her criticism of mandatory conscription of young men into the military during World War I led to a two-year imprisonment, followed by her deportation in 1919. For the rest of her life until her death in 1940, she continued to participate in the social and political movements of her age, from the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War.


Situated within a long tradition of avant-garde artists and thinkers who challenged convention, Goldman possessed an uncanny ability to express the needs of her own generation and presage those of the next. A quick-witted and rousing orator, an eloquent and searing social critic, Goldman was dubbed by the liberal press “the high priestess of anarchism,” whose “gospel” was “eight thousand years ahead of her age.”4 Like an ad hoc professor of the streets, Goldman used every forum she could obtain–parks, public lecture halls, private clubs, even the shafts of coal mines–to impart her message, attempting to prod the public out of complacent acceptance of the prevailing social and political norms.

The gusto and eloquence with which Goldman challenged convention became her hallmark. Particularly in her advocacy of women’s sexual independence and her analysis of the political dimensions of personal life–her insistence that marriage was not the sole signifier of love, her willingness to speak publicly about social alienation, and the common yearning for love and community–she widened her circle of influence. She reached beyond the predominantly ethnic immigrant enclaves that constituted the anarchist audience and helped to “Americanize” the radical movement. Motivated in part by her longings to broaden her influence outside the Russian-Jewish community, and by her personal refusal to accept the limitations inherent in an exclusive ethnic or racial identity, Goldman sometimes alienated her “nearest and dearest” by staging Yom Kippur picnics on the holiest of Jewish holidays designated for fasting and atonement.

Goldman’s lasting influence is evidenced most clearly in the specific realms of freedom she espoused–in free speech, in sexual freedom–more than from the general promotion of anarchism that propelled her intellectual and political work. She moved easily from lecturing and writing on issues of sexual and reproductive freedom to issues less tied to gender–labor, the education of children, religious moralism, drama, war. Among the few women who shared the radical spotlight in the pre-World War I era were socialist peace activist Crystal Eastman, labor leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, and American-born anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre. Goldman and her diverse political contemporaries joined forces in their common interest in freedom of expression–a principle that would take years of battle in the streets and courtrooms to establish and enforce as law–and in so doing moved from the margins into the center of the American tradition. Because of her insistence on the right to speak in opposition, to express what others might consider outrageous blasphemy, Goldman is a particularly compelling subject for studying the history of freedom of expression in America–a liberty now identified as one of the distinguishing characteristics of western democracy.

Excerpted from the Emma Goldman Papers online.

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