Invention of a Feminist Sound Bite

“IF I CAN’T DANCE I DON’T want to be in your revolution,” said Emma Goldman.

Or did she? Perhaps she said, “If 1 can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” as my purple T-shirt claims under a picture of Emma looking demure in a widebrimmed hat. Or was it rather, “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution,” as the quote appears in a 1983 Passover Haggadah?

In fact, though the sentiment is indeed Emma Goldman’s, she wrote none of the above, notwithstanding that each of these versions and more have been attributed to her on buttons, posters, banners, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and in books and articles, for nearly twenty years. Here, rather, is what she did say, in her 1931 autobiography Living My Life:

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman, Goldman s lover], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance… My frivolity would only hurl the Cause. I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, .should demand the denial of life and joy. . . If it meant that, I did not want it.

As I may, inadvertently and indirectly, bear some responsibility for the extrapolation from authentic text to familiar paraphrase, I would like to confess and set the record straight. Here is what happened. Sometime early in 1973 I received a phone call from one Jack Frager, an old-time anarchist. Like many dedicated radicals of the era before desktop publishing, he was a printer; now he had the original idea to raise funds for the Cause by printing up a batch of Emma Goldman T-shirts to hawk in Central Park at the huge upcoming festival celebrating the end of the Vietnam War. Having heard mc lecture to the anarchists on Emma’s feminism (after decades of obscurity during which all of her works were out of print, Emma was suddenly returning to the public eye as a hero of women ‘s liberation). Jack was phoning to solicit my help.

I had recently published two books on Emma; a biography and a collection of her essays, both of which contained photos of her. He wondered if I might lend him a glossy photo from which to print, and also asked me to suggest a phrase or slogan from Emma’s writings suitable for emblazoning on T-shirts. Delighted by an opportunity to publicize Emma’s feminist side, I offered him a glossy shot of a stalwart, hatless Emma in a pince-nez and referred him to several prose passages, particularly the dancing episode, which seemed to me to embody her most lively feminist spirit. In gratitude. Jack promised me all the T-shirts I wanted, at cost.

Several days later, when I picked up my shirts along with my precious glossy, I was surprised to find a succinct abridgement of Emma’s dance story spread boldly across the shirt—the first version of the now-famous slogan: “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution.”

I searched Emma’s texts for the statement; it was nowhere to be found. But Jack was so pleased, the festival was so soon, Emma looked so lively printed in red and black on a variety of rich background colors, that I hadn’t the heart to register an objection in the name of scholarship. After all, the apocrypha appeared on a mere gross or two of T-shirts, which surely could not require the same standards of accuracy as, say, book reviews— and the sentiment expressed was pure Emma indeed.

But history (and fashion) exploded so quickly in those hungrily feminist days that the slogan on the original shirt-run was soon dispersed and copied and broadcast nationwide and abroad, underground and above, changing along the way like a child’s game of Telephone, until Jack’s initial lighthearted liberties had taken wing as quotable lore and soared up into the realms of myth.

Alix Katex Shulman has written eleven books, including four novels, two memoirs, and two books on Emma Goldman. Her most recent book is A Good Enough Daughter, a memoir. A different version of this piece was published in Women’s Reviews of Books, December 1991.