Emma Goldman came to be best known for her participation in the anarchist movement in the United States in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Her radicalism, libertarianism, and uncompromising honesty made her world famous. She worked for a variety of liberal causes and was ahead of her time in many areas, including birth control and free speech.
Goldman was born into a lower-middle-class Jewish family. Her mother, a widow with children, had remarried for economic reasons and unexpectedly become pregnant with Emma. Her father, who had wanted a son, made sure Emma knew of his disappointment through verbal and physical abuse. The family moved from city to city in search of better living conditions. In consequence Goldman’s education was sporadic. She worked diligently, however, and passed the entrance examination for a medical college in St. Petersburg. Yet she was prevented from entering because her religious instructor gave her a negative evaluation.
Goldman’s rebelliousness began when she started associating with nihilist and populist university students. She worked in a factory by day and read radical literature by night. She and her sister Helena decided to emigrate to America, where she quickly learned English and continued her self-education by reading a vast amount of literature in English.
As a garment factory worker in Rochester and other cities on the East Coast, she experienced at first hand the injustices of capitalism. Adjusting her revolutionary ideas to the New World, she worked toward reform. During this period she met Alexander Berkman, who shared her zeal for social justice and became a lover and lifelong companion.
Chicago’s Haymarket Square killings became a focal event that solidified Goldman’s anarchist convictions and gave her ideological direction. She associated with anarchist leaders and made a strong impression with her zeal and intelligence. Johann Most saw Goldman’s leadership potential, and at first she accepted his mentorship...
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