Happy (Belated) Birthday, Emma Goldman!
by Melanie J. Meyers, Senior Reference Services Librarian, Center for Jewish History

No real social change has ever been brought about without a revolution… revolution is but thought carried into action.” –Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman was an influential political thinker, anarchist and feminist. She was born on June 27, 1869 to an orthodox Jewish family in Kovno, Russia, in what is now Kausas, Lithuania. After a tumultuous early life in Kovno, she emigrated to the United States in 1885, settling in Rochester, NY where she became increasingly attracted to the politics surrounding Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket Riots. After a brief failed marriage, she moved to New York City, and on her first day there met Alexander Berkman.

Berkman and Goldman were the masterminds and principal actors behind the failed plot to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick during the incredibly bloody steelworkers strike of 1892; they hoped that this act would incite the masses to rise up against the capitalist system. The plot failed miserably. They did not kill Frick, and the workers did not rise up in support. Worse, Berkman was eventually convicted for his role in the assassination attempt and sentenced to over 20 years in prison.

In 1893, Goldman spoke to a large crowd outside Union Square, where she uttered her famous quote: “Well then, demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread.” Shortly thereafter, she was arrested and convicted of inciting a riot, and sentenced to 10 months in jail, to be served at New York City’s Blackwell’s Island. However, thanks to a very sympathetic profile published by famed journalist Nellie Bly, Goldman was greeted by thousands of enthusiastic fans upon her release, and was inundated with requests for public speaking engagements.

Her influence and notoriety only grew over the years. She was accused of having a role in the assassination of President McKinley because the actual assassin claimed to have been “inspired” by a speech of hers. In a controversial break from her anarchist comrades, she refused to condemn the assassin and was christened “the high priestess of anarchy” in the press. However, her intense level of activism was wearing her down both mentally and physically.

In 1906, she founded Mother Earth magazine in an attempt to slow down her pace. Mother Earth reprinted selections from famous writers in addition to original works on issues such as birth control, anarchism, atheism, labor unions and politics in general. Goldman and Berkman — who was still in prison — continued writing, touring and speaking for many years on a variety of issues. They were vocal opponents of the US’s entry into WWI, and started an anti-conscription organization to protest the draft. The authorities did not look kindly on this, and when their offices were raided and found to contain what was labeled as anarchist propaganda, they were both put in prison again. After their release in 1919, both Goldman and Berkman were deported to Russia under the auspices of the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1918.

For the rest of her life, Goldman traveled extensively, writing about the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and the trial/execution of fellow anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Although she was devastated by the suicide of Berkman in 1936, she continued to maintain a busy schedule, traveling to France, England and Canada, still writing and lecturing. She was felled by a stroke in 1940, and was buried in Illinois, in the same plot as other influential labor activists and those executed after the Haymarket Riots.

Goldman’s influence cannot be underestimated, and she is widely credited for her pioneering works on labor, free speech and reproductive freedom. The Center for Jewish History holds an extensive amount of materials on Goldman, including a rich trove of primary source material held by YIVO Library and the Bund Collection of the YIVO Archives.

Among the many items held by YIVO Library is a copy of the brief filed on behalf of Goldman and Berkman in the United States Supreme Court in 1917, as well as a pamphlet printed in 1919 that details the experience of their imprisonment from 1918-1919, simply titled A Fragment of the Prison Experiences of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman (price: ten cents). In addition, the YIVO Library also holds bound volumes of Mother Earth, dating from 1907, with a subscription price of $1 per year. The American Jewish Historical Society also holds a wealth of information on Goldman, ranging from biographical materials to first editions of her published works, including a lovely first American edition of her book published in 1923 after her deportation, entitled My Disillusionment in Russia.

Goldman once stated, “The most unpardonable sin in society is independence of thought.”  If that is the case, then she was truly an unrepentant sinner, who kept challenging assumptions and pushing boundaries until the end of her days.