Emma Goldman: An Exceedingly Dangerous Woman

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Emma Goldman was born in 1869 in Lithuania. In 1885 she emigrated to the United States taking a job in a Rochester New York clothing factory. For the next 34 years Emma Goldman was one of the most articulate and popular writers and commentators on women’s rights, the plight of industrial workers and the futility of war. In the early morning hours of a December day in 1919, after having been confined on Ellis Island without criminal charges, Emma Goldman and more than 200 other foreign-born U.S. citizens were summarily expatriated from the United States because of their opposition to the World War I military draft.

Emma Goldman’s criticisms of the government, corporations, war and the oppression of women (particularly the Comstock Act which had outlawed birth control for women) resulted in constant harassment by legal authorities. She was called “the most dangerous woman in America,” and there is little doubt she may well have been just that.

Starting in 1906 Emma, traveling by horse-drawn carriage, train and eventually the new-fangled automobile, made hundreds of speeches across the country. She drew huge crowds. In 1910 alone it is estimated that 40,000 people heard her speak in defense of workers, women, free universal education, and anarchism and as an advocate of “free love,” a very revolutionary concept in 1910. Of course, she was often arrested immediately after speaking. Love and justice were just not on the government’s agenda.

From 1906-1917 Goldman published an extremely influential radical magazine called Mother Earth which she dedicated to espousing every “unpopular cause.” She was part of the most impressive collection of intellectuals, writers, and social critics ever assembled in American culture. Among her close collaborators were Roger Baldwin, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Henry Miller, Lincoln Steffens, Eugene Debs, “Big Bill” Hayward, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, John Reed, Margaret Sanger and Eugene O’Neill. As a group these people defined American literature for 50 years and as a group they decisively rejected bourgeois culture.

After her deportation Emma Goldman was also a compelling critique of the state bureaucracy created in the Soviet Union and later one of the most important voices in the anti-fascist Spanish Civil War.

In 1931 Emma published her autobiography Living my Life, which surprisingly was praised as one of the most important books of the century by the New York Times. In May 1940 Emma died of a stroke in Toronto, Canada.

The film Emma Goldman: An Exceedingly Dangerous Woman is a wonderful celebration of a life in rebellion.

Some questions for discussion:

1. Most, if not all, of Emma Goldman’s ideas continue to be important and relevant today. Select one of her major causes (women’s rights, opposition to war and the draft, workers’ rights, marriage, freedom of speech) and compare her arguments to contemporary debates on the issue. Have things changed or not? And, if not, why not?

2. Emma Goldman spoke out passionately on the gap between the “rich” and “poor” in American society. Considering the wealth held by top 1% in American society and the fact that is 2013 46.5 million Americans (15% of the adult population and 22% of all children) lived below the federally-defined poverty line how serious is this problem today? What are the costs of being poor (i.e. health, nutrition, education)? What are the benefits of being rich (i.e., political influence, luxury items)?

3. Consider the 40-hour work week, the ban on child labor, the right to form and join a union, and safety standards for workplaces. How great were the contributions of Emma Goldman and her fellow radicals in achieving these reforms for American workers?

4. Emma Goldman and many others were the victims of political repression during the so-called Palmer Raids. Think about the FBI’s campaign to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr.; the FBI’s COINTELPRO program; and the Patriot Act. Is the repression of political dissidents as big an issue today as it was in 1919? Why does a so-called “democracy” engage in the repression of free speech?

5. After watching the film think about what criticisms Emma Goldman would have had of the United States and Russia. How would she have critiqued these two very different political and economic systems? What would she have said about the status of women? How would those critiques have differed?

Gary Potter

Professor, School of Justice Studies

Eastern Kentucky University

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