Emma Goldman

June 27, 1869 (Russia) – May 14, 1940* (Toronto)

Dubbed “Red Emma” by the press and called “the most dangerous woman in America,” by J. Edgar Hoover, Emma Goldman was a tireless radical activist whose influence is felt to this day.

Emma, circa 1886

Emma Goldman was born in Kaunas, Russian Empire (which is now Lithuania) to Jewish parents. Her father was deeply traditional and wanted Emma to learn only how to be a housewife and marry, and attempted to force her into an arranged marriage when she was only fifteen. Emma resisted and fought to educate herself in spite her father’s opposition.

Finally, in 1885 after much struggling against his refusal to allow it, Emma was allowed to emigrate to the US with her sister Helena. After all that, however, teh rest of her family joined them in Rochester, New York, the following year, fleeing the rising antisemitism in St. Petersburg where they’d lived.

Emma’s thirst for knowledge and resistance against the role assigned to her by her family and society simply because she was woman led her on a life-long journey of activism, rebellion, and an ever-evolving philosophical outlook that nevertheless always focused on individual and collective action in pursuit and defense of individual freedoms against oppressive political, social, and economic power structures.

She was deeply influenced in her early years in the US by the injustice of the Haymarket Affair which informed her early activism, and when she discovered the power of public speaking – both the power she could wield and the thrill of the experience for her – she began to take a leading role in radical circles.

Emma was not above violent action in pursuit of her goals (she was, at heart, an anarchist) and landed in jail more than once. Eventually, her opposition to the draft in the lead-up to the US entry into WWI led to her deportation back to Russia in 1919 in what was surely a violation of her Constitutional rights as an American citizen (but Woodrow Wilson and J. Edgar Hoover were never overly concerned about violating protestors’ Constitutional rights).

In Russia, her initial excitement about the Russian Revolution was shattered as she saw the rise of the communist dictatorship flattening out any possibility of a true and ideal anarcho-communist society. She spent the rest of her life traveling the world, writing, and continuing to fight for the causes she believed in. After her deportation, Emma was only able to return to the US once before her death for a 90-day speaking tour in support of her autobiography. The last few years of her life, she lived primarily in Canada. In early 1914, she suffered a debilitating stroke that limited her movement and ability to speak. Though she was making progress and regaining function over the months after that first stroke, she suffered another on May 8th and died six days later on May 14th.

US authorities allowed her body to be returned to her rightful home (I refuse to accept the legality of her deportation), and she was laid to rest at German Waldheim (now Forest Home) just beyond the Haymarket Monument. The bas relief portrait that adorns her headstone was created by Jo Davidson, a sculptor who specialized in realistic portrait busts. The headstone is also inscribed with a quote from Emma: “Liberty will not descend to a people, a people must raise themselves to liberty.”

Various remembrances and obituaries ran in newspapers all over the country (and I’m sure the world), many of which spent a lot of time editorializing about how she should have appreciated the world as it was more and just been grateful to have escaped Russia for the wonderfulness of the US. The more things change… I was going to include one or two below, but they mostly just made me mad so please find links instead to some interesting and informative articles about her actual life and work and not about what the authors of those articles think she should have spent her time doing instead.

RIP Emma


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*The dates on her headstone are just… wrong

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