Conjuring Emma Goldman

At the turn of the last century, when revolutionary, feminist and Jewish interests often clashed with one another. "Red" Emma Goldman was able to synthesize fragmented, even warring , political identities. How did she do it? 

OUTSPOKEN ACTIVIST ON BEHALF of reproductive rights and renowned anarchist revolutionary, Emma Goldman (1869-1940) has materialized for years in popular books and films; she appears as a character in E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime (1975), and turns up as a singing revolutionary in the 1998 Broadway adaptation of the novel. She also emerges as a character in Warren Beatty’s 1981 film “Reds” (1981), and there are a number of lesser known plays, operas, and films that illustrate the events of her life. Most recently, the documentary film “Emma Goldman: The Anarchist Guest” (Coleman Romalis, 2000) focuses on the later years of her life in Toronto. More than any other woman of her time—a time rife with politically active Jewish women, such as Ernestine Rose, Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich—Emma Goldman stands out in our cultural memory as the paradigmatic feminist, activist, and Jewish heroine.

Emma Goldman’s prominence as a cultural figure has trickled down from books, plays and movies into individual people’s lives. Mentioning her name even casually elicits Emma anecdotes. One man reports growing up with a framed picture of Goldman hanging in his parent’s house, another had organized an “Emma Goldman Day” for a Jewish summer camp in Massachusetts. Journalist Ari Goldman and Shira Dicker named their daughter Emma Goldman in her memory. Says Ari Goldman about this decision: “I always admired Red Emma . . . and I desperately wanted to find out that we were related. Now I am related to Emma Goldman!”

Other die-hard Emma fans include the staff and volunteers of the Emma Goldman Papers Project in Berkeley, who gather and organize thousands of letters, photographs, newspaper articles, and government documents about Goldman’s life. The Jewish Women ‘s archive has Emma on one of their 2002 “Women of Valor” posters. And Emma aficionados everywhere can be seen wearing the popular Emma Goldman T-shirt stamped with her famous misquote, “If I can’t dance, its not my Revolution”.

My most recent encounter with the figure of Emma Goldman occurred a few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center. I left my apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—where police were giving out masks to enable residents to walk through the smoke and soot still erupting from the former Twin Towers—to view “The Anarchist Guest” at Makor, a Jewish cultural center on the Upper West Side. The discussion after the documentary—facilitated by J.J. Goldberg of The Forward and Lilith’s Susan Weidman Schneider—took on an almost seance-like quality, with audience members conjuring up their own images of Emma Goldman. Referring to her by her first name, as if she were an old friend, they speculated about how she’d have reacted to the events of September 11: “Emma would have been concerned about the people of Afghanistan, who are afraid of military retaliation and are desperately fleeing their country,” one person said. “She would have felt a sense of uncertainty about whether this attack warrants a military response,” suggested another.

Of course, no one really knows what “Emma” would have said. But what is the power of this woman that inspires so many people—even years after her death—to speak in Emma Goldman’s name?

Emma Goldman was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1869. At 17, leaving behind an increasingly anti-Semitic Russia and a strained relationship with her parents, she immigrated to America. Settling in Rochester, NY, she worked as a seamstress in a textile factory, and in 1887 married Jacob Kershner. Iconoclastic in this as in so many things, she divorced him after two years of an unhappy union.

According to her autobiography Living My Life (1931), it was during the course of this short-lived marriage that Emma Goldman witnessed the event that galvanized her politically and drew her to anarchy as an overarching political ideology. In 1887, seven immigrant labor organizers were accused of bombing Haymarket Square in Chicago. Their conviction was based on their political beliefs rather than on evidence, and all but one were sentenced to death. Hearing of their execution, Goldman recalls how “something new and wonderful was born in my soul. A great idea, a burning faith, a determination to dedicate myself to the memory of my martyred comrades.”

After her divorce in 1889, Goldman moved to the Lower East Side and quickly became involved in radical politics. It was at this time that she developed her skills as an orator in Yiddish and German—and eventually in English as well. At the height of her career, Goldman traveled all over the United States, lecturing to thousands of people on labor rights, contraception, and free speech. Mother Earth—a magazine she published from 1906- 1918 that included essays on anarchism, reproductive freedom, pacifism, and literature—disseminated her ideas to thousands more.

As Goldman’s fame increased, so did the American government’s attempt to suppress her political activity. In 1893, a speech she gave at a demonstration for the unemployed landed her in prison for a year. In 1901, she was jailed and later released for suspected involvement in the assassination of President William McKinley. And in 1916 she was arrested for advocating birth control at a public lecture. When the United States entered WWI, the clash between Goldman and the American government came to a head. Her anti-conscription activities were considered a threat to national security, and she was jailed once again. In 1919, with 248 other immigrant radicals, Emma Goldman was exiled to Russia.

Although the excitement of Goldman’s life did not cease after her exile—her “disillusionment” with communist Russia and her involvement in the Spanish Civil War were still to come—it is Goldman’s pre-exilic existence that appears in fiction, in movies, in plays. When we conjure up images of Emma, we see her bellowing out fiery speeches to enraptured audiences on the Lower East Side and all across America, we see people inspired to demand eight-hour workdays, to claim a woman’s right to bear children only when she feels ready, to gain “the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.”

Why does the persona of Emma Goldman hold so much currency in American culture? Goldman’s hybrid political identity—the fact that she is both a revolutionary and a feminist—may be what generates this power for us today. The first time we see the Goldman character in “Reds,” she’s arguing with Jack Reed, the film’s central character. “This is not the time to go to jail for birth control. . . you arc too valuable to the anti-war movement,” he insists, arguing that thousands of American boys will be killed should the United States enter World War I. Goldman, of course, is adamant about speaking on the topic. “Thousands of American women—overworked, underfed—are dying,” she counters. “If they give birth to any more children they won’t last out the year. Are their lives any less valuable than thousands of American boys?”

While this rendition of Emma Goldman is a dramatization, more of our time than of hers, it does highlight an important aspect of her politics—that she brought a feminist consciousness to the radical causes for which she worked. Her anarchist philosophy, her belief in the “the spirit of revolt, in whatever form, against everything that hinders human growth,” did not refer only to the state. In her essays—”Marriage and Love,” “The Social Aspects of Birth Control,” and others—Goldman encouraged women to apply that spirit to their personal lives, to revolt against marriage, an institution through which a woman loses ”.her name, her privacy, her self-respect, her very life.” She instructed that a woman should take control of her body, to “decide how many children she should bring into the world, whether they should be brought into the world by the man she loves and because she wants the child, or should be born in hatred and loathing.” And she did not cease preaching about sexual politics even when other well-known anarchists, such as Peter Kropotkin, reacted to her work by saying that it would be more effective if “it would not waste so much space discussing sex.”

When we conjure up images of Emma, we are reminded that the feminist struggle is not separate from the fight against exploitation and poverty. We remember that issues of reproductive and sexual freedom are not incidental to a free society, that sexism can exist in the most radical communities, that feminist issues cannot wait until after the revolution.

Unlike many feminists of her day, Emma Goldman was opposed to women having the vote. Why was Goldman, an avid supporter of reproductive and sexual freedom, against women having access to what seems like such a crucial tool of social change? Goldman answers this riddle in “Woman Suffrage,” printed in Anarchism and Other Essays (1911): “I am not opposed to woman suffrage on the conventional ground that she is not equal to it.” Rather, she felt that voting was “an evil…that has only helped to enslave people…it has but closed their eyes that they may not see how craftily they were made to submit.” For Goldman, suffrage was a tool of the government and the ruling class—a trick to make workers believe that they had some stake in government that exploited them—and valuable neither to women nor to men.

Emma Goldman had little regard for the middle- and upper-class feminists who would secure their own power at the expense of the poor. She writes in “Woman Suffrage” that “Susan B. Anthony, no doubt an exceptional type of woman, was not only indifferent but antagonistic to labor; nor did she hesitate to manifest her antagonism when in 1869, she advised women to take the place of striking printers in New York.” Even though Goldman may have been in agreement with these first wave feminists on many issues, she would not support those feminist causes that conflicted with the interests of the working class.

When we conjure up images of Emma, we are reminded that not all women share the same experiences of suffering. We remember that issues of sexism are compounded by racism and poverty, that those who are oppressed can also oppress others.

Emma Goldman’s Jewish identity is not easy to negotiate. In “Anarchism: What it Really Stands For,” Goldman makes it clear that she’s no fan of religion— she bemoaned the ways in which religion “dominates man’s mind, how it humiliates and degrades his soul. . . God has created a kingdom so despotic, so tyrannical, so cruel, so terribly exacting that naught but gloom and tears and blood have ruled the world since gods began.” Similarly, in “The philosophy of Atheism,” she talks about the “emancipation of the human race from all Godheads, be they Judaic, Christian, Mohammedan, Buddhistic, Brahministic, or what not.”

Still, in spite of her disdain for religion, when people search for Jewish role models Emma Goldman is one of the usual suspects. They cite her lectures in Yiddish, and the fact that she began her political career in Jewish radical forums. They refer to the fact that she was inspired by the biblical Judith, writing in her autobiography that she sees herself “cutting off Holofernes’ head to avenge the wrongs of my people.” In addition, letters from her exile in Russia indicate her growing concern about anti- Semitism: “When I was in America, I did not believe in the Jewish question removed from the whole social question,” she wrote. “But since we visited some of the pogrom regions I have come to see that there is a Jewish question, especially in the Ukraine. . . It is almost certain that the entire Jewish race will be wiped out should many more changes take place.”

When we conjure up images of Emma, we are reminded that there is no one way to be a Jew, and that expressions of Jewishness are not limited to Jewish religious practice. In the case of Emma Goldman, Jewishness is expressed through a concern for Jews as an oppressed people, a grounding in Jewish literature and language, and her relentless, passionate commitment to tikkun olam.

More than sixty years after her death, we are still conjuring up images of Emma. For some, she appears as the archetype of the righteous rebel. For others she appears as the nostalgic remnant of a more radical Jewish past, of who we were before we chose polite, liberal politics over active, bare-faced resistance. She surfaces as a reminder that feminism, Jewishness, and a sense of social justice can all be part of one’s identity, that these are not contradictory, that they need not— cannot—be separated.

And perhaps, on a September evening in the movie theater, in the wake of the World Trade Center tragedy and on the cusp of a precarious future, I conjured up my own image of Emma, simply because I did not know where else to turn. It is an image that inspires me to use all of my resources—as a feminist, a Jew, and a human being who yearns for a just society—to help me react to a new and frightening set of political and mental challenges. Or perhaps it was, simply, my own image that I was projecting—as I began to face a shocking reality that, for all her prescience. Red Emma could never have imagined.