What makes a Revolutionary Woman?

Stephanie Fail

Emma Goldman was a political activist and author who stood up in defense of freedom, equality, and women’s rights. Goldman has inspired millions with her speeches and writings upon the subject of eliminating enslavement and hierarchies for all of humanity.

Self-categorized as an Anarchist, in her own words she described the philosophy in a 1933 speech entitled “An Anarchist Looks at Life”. “Anarchism, to the great teachers and leaders in the spiritual aspect of life, was not a dogma, not a thing that drains the blood from the heart and makes people zealots, dictators or impossible bores. Anarchism is a releasing and liberating force because it teaches people to rely on their own possibilities, teaches them faith in liberty, and inspires men and women to strive for a state of social life where every one shall be free and secure.”

Goldman was born in 1869 to poor Jewish parents in the then Russian province of Lithuania. There her family suffered deeply from anti-Semitism as her father turned his frustrations of their low social position into domestic abuse. Instead of blaming her suffering completely on her father, a young Goldman began to look at the bigger problems of society that made her father cruel. At 12, her family moved to St. Petersburg and when Czar Alexander II was assassinated by nihilists, Goldman read Chernyshevsky’s “What is to Be Done?”. Energized at a young age by the transforming political atmosphere, the character Vera, a political organizer and cooperative worker from Chernyshevsky’s book, became a role model for Goldman. She went to live with relatives in Germany and obtain a “modern” education but clashed with both her family and school’s authoritative ways.

After nearly being forced into an arranged marriage by her father, she immigrated to Rochester New York with her sister at the age of 16 to work in a garment factory. Goldman believed life as an American would mean liberty and equality.

“Helena and I stood pressed to each other, enraptured by the sight of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty suddenly emerging from the mist. Ah, there she was, the symbol of hope, of freedom, of opportunity! She held her torch to light the way to the free country, the asylum for the oppressed of all lands. We, too, Helena and I, would find a place in the generous heart of America. Our spirits were high, our eyes filled with tears”, recalled Goldman in one of her essays.

This illusion shattered as she began working at a factory for 10 hours a day with minimal pay. The following year there was a strike throughout the country when over 300,000 workers protested for an eight hour work day. In Chicago the atmosphere literally became explosive when during the protesting of the murders of striking workers, a bomb went off resulting in a pandemonium that left uncounted numbers of protesters dead along with 7 police officers. The press and police fiercely blamed the anarchists for the entire problem and sentenced seven of the Anarchists to death.

This woke Goldman up to political activism and the following year she marries and divorces a fellow factory worker, resulting in her being shunned by the New York Jewish community. She relocated to New York City where she immediately became a strong member of the resident Anarchist community and did not hesitate to attack the ingrained dogmas of these radicals on the issues of the role of women, their negative views of homosexuality, and the class discrimination they exhibited by reaching out only to workers.

Throughout her life she held a variety of jobs from seamstress to midwife to ice cream parlor owner to tour guide. It was during her period as a midwife however that she witnessed the intense suffering of many women dealing with unwanted pregnancies and many of her speeches included discussions of women’s rights and the organization of the right for women to have an abortion. According to her, this helped free women from being trapped in slave-like situations with their male partners. “A true conception of the relation of the sexes will not admit of conquered and conquered; it knows of but one great thing; to give of one’s self boundlessly, in order to find one’s self richer, deeper, better.”

In spite of continuous death threats, for the rest of her adult life she continued to speak, regarding the right of all humans to a free life without being controlled by external forces. She was vehemently anti-war as she saw it as a mere tool for a cowardly elite to make power grabs and money off of the sacrifice of working class youth and fought against ignorant patriotism as the country prosecuted all whom spoke out against U.S. involvement in the first World War. When President Mckinley was assassinated by a man who had attended one of her speeches the government arrested Goldman but did not have enough evidence for conviction. Soon after, she was deported back to Russia for her crusade for free speech.

Emma Goldman’s fearlessness and faith in human nature as peaceful and free make her ideas eerily relevant to today’s as women’s rights are still abused and those whom speak out against the government monitored fiercely by the terms of the Patriot Act. A woman far ahead of even the present times, her approach to life continues to inspire millions. What is true freedom? In “An Anarchist Looks at Life” she chose to quote a beloved poem as a metaphor.

“I do not know how many of you have read Gorki’s marvellous prose-poem called ‘The Snake and the Falcon.’ The snake cannot understand the falcon. ‘Why don’t you rest here in the dark, in the good slimy moisture?’ the snake demands. ‘Why soar to the heavens? Don’t you know the dangers lurking there, the stress and storm awaiting you there, and the hunter’s gun which will bring you down and destroy your life?’ But the falcon paid no heed. It spread its wings and soared through space, its triumphant song resounding through the heavens. One day the falcon was brought down, blood streaming from its heart, and the snake said ‘You fool, I warned you, I told you to stay where I am, in the dark, in the good warm moisture, where no one could find you and harm you.’ But with its last breath the falcon replied ‘I have soared through space, I have scaled dazzling heights, I have beheld the light, I have lived, I have lived!’.”