Friday Hoyden: Emma Goldman

At a time when the Australian government is doing its best to behave like a blend of Dickensian villains and French aristocrats, without the compensatory good taste in cravats of either, we are more than due for a genuine revolutionary for a Friday Hoyden. Emma Goldman was a Russian (or technically Russian Empire, from an area now in Lithuania) Jewish immigrant to the USA, who spent her life being persecuted for her work campaigning for the rights of workers and marginalised groups of all kinds.

Goldman classified herself as an anarchist. Throughout her life her campaigns were always against state control of people’s lives and people’s voices, and against the exploitation of the vulnerabilities people incur through being poor, ethnically marginalised or female. She was one of the earliest campaigners for women’s reproductive rights. An idealist who never let that cloud her judgement, she immediately reversed her hopeful stance on the Bolshevik state in Russia when she saw that it involved curtailing people’s right to freedom of speech, ostensibly for the good of greater, long-term goals. She was absolutely strict in her belief that you could not win ultimate freedom by denying any person along the way their individual humanity. She never denounced violence as a tactic, which was used by critics as a reason to dismiss her philosophies and deny the value of her influence. She was jailed numerous times, including for giving public lessons on the use on contraceptives, and would come out and get right back on with the work.

B&W of elderly woman standing at a dest speaking into a microphone, surrounded by people.

Speaking in Barcelona, 1936. I love how active and determined she looks.

Reading her autobiography, I was reminded (this is going to sound absurd, but bear with me) of the impression given of Jesus, if you read the bible with the mysticism stripped away. That is, she doesn’t just preach goodwill to all, she sees herself as in no way above being the person to wash someone’s feet, if that is what the situation requires. Nurse the sick, shelter the outcast, no judgement offered except of the powerful and the decadent. She was just as likely to give a prostitute a bed in her home while she treated her for venereal disease, as to go out and address a rally of thousands from a podium. Unlike many other leaders of movements for social change who have avoided getting their hands dirty, Goldman could be the patron saint of those who walk the walk.

Here is a more detailed biography, with mentions of her many published works, but I recommend her autobiography Living My Life, which is an an engaging and insightful read.

B&W police profile & full face of woman in Victorian blouse and glasses.

Goldman in her New York mug shot.

Categories: gender & feminism, history, social justice

Tags: , ,

5 replies

  1. I had no idea she lived to be 70.
    Goes to show how feminist women are erased from history. Even the famous ones!

    What a difficult life- always going against the grain of accepted social beliefs, too radical even for the radicals. But she never gave it up. What courage and passion.

  2. Ooh, one to add to my “find biographies of” list.
    I love these. Thanks for the work you put into them, orlando.

  3. Thanks for your comments, I’m not always sure anyone actually reads these (besides tigtog)!

  4. I do get around to them all eventually!
    That look in her eyes in that mug shot! It’s too impassive to be quite contemptuous, but it’s definitely dripping with disdain.

  5. Many feminist second-wavers rediscovered this complex, courageous and brilliant writer/organizer/activist in the sixties and seventies. Emma remains relevant and inspiring. I wrote this song for a live radio celebration of International Women’s Day on my local community station (WOMR) and recorded a first version in celebration of Emma’s 145th birthday last June:
    [moderator note: the submitter entered two URLs joined by “and” in the commentor URL field which thus did not resolve as a link to either URL. This have been redacted to link to just one of those URLs – I chose the URL most like the commentor’s username ~ tigtog]

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