Goldman was born on June 20, 1869 in the Jewish quarter of a small city in Russia in what is now modern Lithuania. She was her mother Emma’s third child and her father Taube’s, first. As a young girl, she was subjected to Taube’s fearsome rages. He was not happy that his child was female; he wanted a son.
As Jews, the family was constantly subjected to powerful feelings of anti-Semitism that was common throughout Russia. As a consequence, they moved to the Baltic town of Popelan where Taube became an inn keeper and a petty public official. Of Goldman’s two sisters, she formed a close relationship with her older sister Helena. For a time, when Goldman was eight years old, she lived with her uncle who physically abused her. This left her with an antipathy and ambivalence towards men that haunted her throughout her adult life. She was eventually rescued from this situation by her family. Even as a young girl, Goldman was strong-willed and formulated her own views regarding the world around her. She was influenced by the Russian populists and nihilists; she vigorously rejected the conventions of the time. Her thinking was particularly informed by the readily apparent unequal treatment of women and the blatant anti-Semitism she are her family were subjected to. The future that awaited her – factory work, arranged marriage, her inferior role as a woman and as a Jew – was daunting. She rejected this kind of outcome to her life. In contrast, America seemed to offer a modicum of hope and promise.
In late 1885, Goldman, 16 years old, and her sister Helena a woman of 24, set sail for America. They arrived at Castle Gardens in New York that functioned at that time as a holding area for newly arrived immigrants. Once the sisters were able to prove they had family who would look after them, they travelled to Rochester where her aunt Lena was living. There, Goldman found that she did not escape the prejudices she had hoped to leave behind. She worked long hours as a seamstress and ultimately married a man that proved to be a major disappointment both emotionally and sexually. She finally divorced him and, after two short years, gathered her belongings and her sewing machine together with five dollars and took the train to New York City. The year was 1887.
Goldman came to strongly believe in the need for human equality and freedom, and was informed in her early years by the harsh treatment of workers, especially woman. She was particularly influenced by the Haymarket Affair. On May 1, 1886, 340,000 workers went on strike all over the country demanding an eight hour day. In the city of
Chicago, 80,000 workers took to the
streets. Anarchist militants were among
those who were instrumental in organizing this workers’ action. The following day, the Chicago police were mobilized against the
strikers at the McCormick Harvester Works. They fired on the crowd - killing six
strikers. The next day, a protest rally
was held at Haymarket Square. The police attempted to break up the rally,
and in the ensuing chaos, a bomb was thrown at the police killing one and
fatally wounding seven others
The subsequent trial sentenced five anarchists to death. Four were later hanged - Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fishcer - and one of the condemned, Louis Lingg, committed suicide. Goldman was especially taken by the speech August Spies made in his own defense prior to his execution. Seven years after the hangings, a judicial enquiry found that all of the executed were innocent of the charges and the three serving life sentences were released. In the years that followed, the growing labor movement had to struggle against their corporate employers and both the Federal and local governments in order to curtail some of the abuses perpetrated against employees, and secure decent living conditions for working people.
At that time in the nation’s history, there was significant opposition to the excesses of industrial capitalism. There existed an activist community in the lower east side of Manhattan in the 1880’s where there was a significant population of exiles from Russia fleeing from the anti-Semitic prohibitions and pogroms. A pogrom was a large scale riot perpetrated against the Jews. It occurred periodically in Russia. The first pogrom historically referred to occurred in Odessa in 1821. At that time, the Russian government instituted a policy that had as it basic intention the eradication of Jews; unless, they agreed to convert to Christianity.
On account of this disillusionment with capitalism, there was strong attraction to anarchism. According to Goldman the founding principle of anarchism, “is the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong, harmful as well as unnecessary.” Furthermore, she believed that, “Anarchism is the great liberator of man from the phantoms that have held him captive; it is the arbiter and pacifier of the two forces for individual and social harmony.” This worldview appealed to immigrant Italian, Slavic and Jewish communities in the larger cities where the excesses of capitalism were most pronounced. In such communities, immigrants suffered from abysmal working conditions, long hours of poorly compensated labor and squalid living conditions.
Pierre Proudhon (1809-1865) and Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) both envisioned the total elimination of the state following revolution. These theoreticians envisioned a peaceful evolution to what they referred to as a “stateless collective.” Goldman defined Anarchism as, “the philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law…” Her fondest hopes for herself and humanity is reflected in the following comment – “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s rights to a beautiful, radiant things.” She also believed that, “Real wealth consists in things of utility and beauty, in things that help to create strong, beautiful bodies and surroundings inspiring to live in. But if a man is doomed to wind cotton around a spool, or dig coal, or build roads for thirty years of life, there can be no talk of wealth.” These powerful sentiments illustrate that Goldman was an idealist; she strongly believed in a possibility of an idyllic social order.
By the time Goldman moved to New York, the views of the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921), a Russian aristocrat, fell into favor. He believed in violent revolution. At first, Goldman was attracted to this view. Eventually, however, Goldman and even Kropotkin himself came to despair of violence as a means to an end. Many of her views and sentiments were expressed in the journal Mother Earth that Goldman founded in 1905. Unfortunately, many of the documents that appeared in this journal were ultimately destroyed by federal agents.
Her disillusionment regarding the promise America held out to her came to a climax following the Russian revolution and the onset of World War I. She was an outspoken opponent of involuntary conscription and spent two years in prison for conspiring to, "induce persons not to register" for the newly enacted draft.
During this tumultuous period, those who openly opposed the American government were pursued in what came to be called the Palmer Raids – a direct result of the red scare that permeated American culture prior to its entry into World War I. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson appointed A. Mitchell Palmer as attorney general. Palmer subsequently chose J Edgar Hoover as his assistant and together they employed the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to organize an offensive against radicals and left-wing organizations.
Following the Russian revolution, Palmer was convinced that Communist agents were actively plotting against the American government. His view was seemingly validated by the discovery of thirty-eight bombs sent to leading politicians and the Italian anarchist who blew himself up outside Palmer's Washington home.
On November 7, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested. In spite of the fact that the evidence seized did not expose any real conspiracy to overthrow the government, a large number of these suspects were held without trial for an extended period of time. The vast majority was eventually released but Goldman and 247 other people were deported to Russia. Another series of raids took place on January 2nd, 1920 in which an additional 6000 were arrested and held without trial.
Upon her release from prison, Goldman’s American citizenship was revoked and she was deported to the Soviet Union. Goldman spent two years within the newly formed Soviet Union. There, she quickly became disillusioned with the Bolsheviks after becoming acquainted with the excesses of the new government as it consolidated power. As a consequence, she became an outspoken critic. In her thinking, it brought to the fore the evils of government and that communism, as practiced, and anarchism held irreconcilable beliefs. She envisioned a stateless society as the ultimate goal of anarchism. In addition, she became an avid adherent to sexual liberation and aestheticism. She ultimately fled the Soviet Union and became stateless. She traveled extensively and was held in contempt by both the political right and left.
In 1927 at the age of 58, Goldman began to write the story of her life while residing in Toronto, Canada. During the Spanish Civil War, prior to World War II, she traveled to Spain in order to support the anarchist’s cause. Goldman died on May 14, 1940.
Emma Goldman refused to accept the limitations imposed upon her by the simple fact that she was a woman and a Jew. She had a vigorous intellect and was an eloquent and dynamic speaker, who came to be seen as a threat to the status quo. She was never hesitant to speak out against injustice whenever and wherever she saw it and was eventually maligned by adherents to both sides of the political spectrum. This reality did not deter her from her strong moral sense of purpose, and she remained a strong advocate of the dispossessed. She endured much hardship in her life, but remained true to her vision of the possibilities for the future, and maintained a profound optimism regarding the future prospects for humanity.