One of the most famous anarchists in history and the activist once dubbed “the
most dangerous woman in America,” Emma Goldman, was born on this day in 1869.
Throughout her lifetime, Emma wrote over 30 books of anarchist political philosophy (x).
Emma was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Kaunas,
Lithuania on June 27, 1869. Her parents had been poorly matched by their own
parents and her childhood was surrounded by violence; a rebellious spirit from
the start, Emma was frequently beat by her father and branded a “loose
girl” by her teachers. The family eventually fled to Rochester, New York in
1885 in response to rising antisemitism at home. In America, Emma worked in a clothing
factory and soon married a fellow factory worker named Jacob
Kershner. When the marriage fell apart only months after the wedding, the
Goldmans were mortified and kicked Emma out of the house. With only her sewing
machine and five dollars to her name, Emma left her family in Rochester and
headed to start a new life in New York City.
The foundation of Emma’s politically identity was formed
during her time as a factory worker in Rochester where she was witness to the 1886
Haymarket Affair in Chicago and the growing anti-authoritarian scene. Now on
her own in New York City, she became involved – politically and romantically –
with noted anarchist Alexander Berkman. Together, they created the 1892
Homestead Strike and attempted to assassinate the manager of the Carnegie Steel
Company, Henry Clay Frick. Although the plot was unsuccessful, it made national
news and put Emma’s name on the map as one of the radicals to watch out for.
For the next thirty years, Emma would dedicate her life to the anarchist
cause of creating a freer social order and would be in and out of prison. She
was a fiery public speaker, author, and a major public enemy of the United
States government. For a time she was even believed to have conspired with Leon
Czolgosz in the attempted assassination of President William McKinley, but was
eventually cleared of all charges.
Nicknamed “Red Emma” in the press, her speeches and talks were known to draw hundreds of attendees (x).
In addition to her countless acts of direct action, Emma
also made history by being one of the first political activists to publicly
criticize homophobia. The gay German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld considered
her an ally and once wrote that Emma was “the first and only woman, indeed the
first and only American, to take up the defense of homosexual love before the
general public.“ Many historians question whether or not Emma’s allyship
was purely that – allyship – or if she
herself also had some skin in the game of gay liberation; she was known to have
made connections with lesbian activists during her time in prison and it is
also believed that she had a brief affair with a woman named Almeda Sperry. Although
Emma and Almeda could only have spent a couple weeks together psychically,
there are collections of love letters shared between the two, which can be read here!
Emma Goldman passed away on May 14, 1940 in Toronto, having
been deported from America during the original Red Scare of 1919-1920. Her body
was eventually allowed to be brought back into the United States, the country
where she had spent so many years fighting for her political
cause, and was buried in Forest Park, Illinois.