Goldman, Emma (1869–1940)

Emma Goldman was a prominent anarchist, political activist, public speaker, and writer in the early twentieth century. Her widespread lecture tours and prolific publications helped shape the anarchist movement and other radical causes in both North America and Europe. She also advocated for birth control, free speech, peace, labor reform, and women's equality. After one of multiple arrests in 1917 and subsequent deportation from the United States in 1919, she spent the remaining years of her life living in Canada and Europe, where she continued to give lectures and write. She died in 1940 in Toronto, Canada.

Goldman was born on June 27, 1869, in Kovno, Russia (present-day Lithuania), to Abraham and Taube Bienowitch Goldman. Her father used violence to correct the behavior of his children, particularly Emma, who demonstrated a rebellious streak early in life. When Goldman was seven, the family moved to Königsberg, where she enrolled in school. After the family moved to Saint Petersburg, Goldman had to work in a corset shop, ending her formal education. During this time, Goldman began to educate herself on radical politics.

In 1885, Goldman and her sister, Helena, moved to Rochester, New York. Her experiences working in textile factories further fueled her political advocacy. Following a brief marriage in 1887, Goldman moved to New York City. While there, she met Alexander Berkman and Johann Most, two anarchists. Goldman impressed Most, and he adopted her as his protégé. As her star began to rise and she continued to develop her own ideas, however, she found herself at odds with Most. They parted ways, but she and Berkman became lovers and, later, lifelong friends.

Following the violence of the 1892 Homestead Strike, which killed seven Pinkerton agents and nine strikers, Goldman and Berkman decided to assassinate the factory manager, Henry Clay Frick. Goldman helped plan and fund the attack, and Berkman attempted to carry it out. He failed and was arrested. Goldman continued to defend him, even after other anarchists, like Most, decried Berkman's action. She also continued her labor advocacy and spent one year in jail for rallying downtrodden workers, suffering from the Panic of 1893, to radicalism. This period of incarceration allowed her to further her political education and also to learn a new trade in the infirmary. Following her release, she continued to lecture but began earning a living as a midwife. Her work with poor women stimulated a lifelong advocacy for birth control access.

World War I was a pivotal time for Goldman. She encouraged men to resist the draft, founding the No Conscription League with Berkman. In 1917, they were arrested and were deported in 1919 to Russia. Originally a supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution, Goldman quickly found herself appalled by its injustices, corruption, and complete lack of free speech. Pressured to work for Lenin's government, she took a position as a collector of information for the future Museum of the Revolution. Her experience in Russia also changed Goldman's position on political violence as a means to an end.

Convinced that Lenin had perverted the revolution, Goldman and Berkman left Russia in 1921. They spent several years in Berlin, where she began writing articles for the New York World about her experience in Russia and working for the communist government. She later published those essays in a book, My Disillusionment in Russia. This was not her title; she also protested the fact that the publisher omitted some of her later essays. The publisher relented and agreed to publish the deleted essays under the title My Further Disillusionment in Russia. Fellow political advocated reacted to Goldman's exposé on Leninist injustice with dismay.

In 1924, Goldman moved to London. When the English government began to indicate that it might deport Goldman, a fellow anarchist, James Colton, married her, giving her British citizenship and security. She continued to travel and lecture throughout the 1920s. In 1928, she began her autobiography, demanding Berkman's help as her editor. The two spent two years in Saint-Tropez, France, and the book, Living My Life, was published in 1931. Spring-boarding off the enthusiastic reviews, she received permission to lecture in the United States in 1933. Goldman had continued to consider herself an American, and she eagerly returned to New York in 1934 and tried to renew her visa after its expiration, to no avail.

Following Berkman's suicide in 1936, Goldman turned her attention to the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish anarchists invited her to Barcelona, where she threw herself into lecturing and writing in support of the anti-Franco forces. The anarchists failed, however, and after the Nationalist movement won, Goldman returned to England. She moved to Canada in 1939, where she watched with unease the march to war. As much as she despised fascism, she did not support the idea of a war.

Meredith Lee May

See also: Comstock, Anthony (1844–1915) ; Czolgosz, Leon (1873–1901) ; Depression of 1893 ; Homestead Strike (1892) ; Sanger, Margaret (1879–1966)


Drinnon, Richard. Rebel in Paradise: A Biography of Emma Goldman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Falk, Candace. Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.

Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. 2 vols. 1931. Reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1970.

Morton, Marian J. Emma Goldman and the American Left: “Nowhere at Home.” New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.