Emma Goldman Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A leading member of the anarchic Left in the early twentieth century, Goldman was a critic of both capitalism and socialism and an advocate of women’s rights.

Early Life

Emma Goldman was born on June 27, 1869, in Kovno (now Kaunas) in Lithuania, which was then part of the Russian Empire. Her parents, Abraham Goldman and Taube Binowitz Zodikow, were already rearing two daughters, Helena and Lena, from Taube Goldman’s first marriage (she was a widow when she entered into an arranged marriage with Goldman). Beaten frequently by her father and denied comfort by her mother, Emma was unable to find either emotional or financial security in the Goldman household. For a time, she lived with relatives in Königsberg, a city in the northeastern corner of Germany. Her experience in her uncle’s household was, if anything, worse, and Emma returned to her parents, who themselves moved first to Königsberg and then, in 1881, to St. Petersburg in Russia.

Emma did find some satisfaction in life. She was able to attend school in Königsberg, where a young teacher befriended Emma and introduced her to music and literature, both of which became lifelong sources of pleasure for her. In St. Petersburg, however, the family’s economic privation meant that Emma had to abandon her hopes of continuing her education and becoming a doctor (her father could not understand why a woman needed an education) in order to work in factories that made gloves and corsets.

Rebelling against her father’s authority and the Jewish religious and cultural traditions in which she was raised, Emma became fascinated with radicalism. An avid reader, she found inspiration in Vera Pavlovna, the heroine of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s radical novel What Is to Be Done? (1863), who defied authority and convention. Especially meaningful to Emma, whose father suggested arranging a marriage for her, was Pavlovna’s rejection of that practice as the auctioning of a sex object. Emma also admired the martyred young women who had been active participants in the 1870’s Russian radical movement, the People’s Will.

Emma sought immediate relief from her despair by emigrating to the United States, the land of hope, departing Russia with Helena late in 1885. They intended to live with their sister Lena, who was married and living in Rochester, New York. To Emma’s dismay, she soon seemed trapped in Rochester by the very things she wished to escape: monotonous, low-paying work in a clothing factory, further talk of an arranged marriage, and the presence of her parents, who followed their daughters to the New World.

Again, Emma found inspiration in the story of martyred radicals: four men executed (a fifth committed suicide) in November, 1887, for the bomb murder of several Chicago policemen during a mass workers’ meeting at the Haymarket Square in Chicago the previous year. What especially angered Emma was that the authorities never ascertained who threw the bomb, making it seem clear that the men who had been arrested were really being tried for their beliefs. If injustices similar to those that occurred in Russia could also take place in the United States, reasoned Emma, it was time for her to align herself with the opponents of capitalism and of its tools, the state and the church.

Emma had one more personal crisis to endure before making a commitment to activism. In her early teens, Emma had had her first sexual experience, a humiliating and painful one, with a young man she had considered her friend. She was still able to develop emotional attachments with men, however, and in Rochester she fell in love with a fellow worker, the handsome and seemingly intellectual Jacob Kersner, whom she married in February, 1887.

The marriage seemed to offer escape from familial pressures but did not succeed. Kersner proved to be impotent and took comfort in gambling with his cronies. For a time, Emma tried to avoid the stigma of divorce, but at age twenty, she divorced Kersner and moved to New Haven, Connecticut. She briefly returned to Rochester, remarried Kersner, divorced him a second time, and moved to New York City.

Life’s Work

Among the new friends Emma Goldman made in the immigrant neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side, two stood out: Alexander Berkman, who became her lover, and Johann Most, an older man who had made a name for himself in Germany and became a leading figure among anarchists in the United States. Although she was familiar with socialist thought, she regarded it as menacing to individual freedom because it accepted large state-owned industry as positive. Anarchism, in contrast, promised a society based on justice and reason and opposed both the centralization of the corporation and the centralization of the state.

Schooled by Most in both anarchist theory and public speaking, Goldman made her first speaking tour in 1890 and was delighted to realize that she had the power to sway people with the spoken word. She also came to realize, however, that the words she was speaking were not hers but Most’s, and she repudiated his mentorship. Converts to anarchism and to the communal living that Goldman and Berkman advocated were disappointingly few, and the two thought of returning to Russia.

In 1892, a pressing new cause kept them in the United States: planning the assassination of tycoon Henry Clay Frick, who had violently suppressed a strike at the Homestead steelworks of Pittsburgh. They decided that Berkman would shoot Frick, while Goldman, who helped him plan the assassination attempt, would explain his actions. The affair went awry. Berkman merely wounded Frick, and other radicals, including Most, distanced themselves from Berkman and from assassination as a political weapon.

Goldman had now come to another turning point in her life. She thought of herself not as an exile from Russia but as a woman who could have a meaningful future fighting for change in the United States. Although she escaped prosecution for her role in Berkman’s attack on Frick, she was arrested in 1893 and...

(The entire section is 2515 words.)