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Remember ‘Red Emma’

March 21, 2012
By Jon Hochschartner

In honor of Women's History Month, and as the Occupy Movement prepares for a May Day resurgence, we should remember Emma Goldman, the anarchist, feminist and atheist. She fought against inequality in many forms throughout her life, leading to her being arrested more often than can be recounted here. She was, according to future FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, one of the "most dangerous" revolutionaries in America.

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Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

Emma Goldman was born in present-day Lithuania to Jewish parents. She was raped when she was 15.

The trauma remained with her the rest of her life. As she wrote in her autobiography, "After that I always felt between two fires in the presence of men. Their lure remained strong, but it was always mingled with violent revulsion. I could not bear to have them touch me."

The same year, her physically abusive father attempted to place her in an arranged marriage. She resisted and quickly immigrated to the United States.

A few years later, in 1889, Goldman met Alexander Berkman. They quickly became lovers, sharing a belief in anarchism, a particularly libertarian strand of socialism. Their partnership would soon become infamous.

"In early 1892, the Carnegie Steel Plant at Homestead, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, was being managed by Henry Clay Frick while Carnegie was in Europe," according to historian Howard Zinn. "Frick decided to reduce the workers' wages and break their union. ... When the workers did not accept the pay cut, Frick laid off the entire work force. The Pinkerton detective agency was hired to protect the strikebreakers."

Ten thousand locked-out workers and their sympathizers protested outside the plant. When hundreds of Pinkerton agents approached, a gun battle erupted, leading to the deaths of three agents and seven workers.

In retaliation, Goldman and Berkman decided to assassinate Frick, the goal being, as Berkman wrote, to "strike terror into the soul of his class." According to the couple's plan, Berkman would carry out the action and Goldman would rationalize it to the public following his arrest.

Ultimately, Berkman botched the assassination, leaving Frick alive, albeit severely wounded. Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison, of which he served 14. The police ransacked Goldman's apartment but could find nothing with which to incriminate her.

She would soon be arrested for an unrelated matter, after she delivered a speech in 1893 before 3,000 unemployed people in New York City. Her exact words are debated, but Goldman maintained she told the crowd, "Demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they do not give you bread, take bread." She was arrested for inciting a riot and sentenced to a year in Blackwell's Island prison.

In 1901, Leon Czolgosz, a man with a history of mental illness, perhaps comparable to Jared Lee Loughner, shot and killed U.S. President William McKinley. He claimed to have been inspired by a speech he had seen delivered by Goldman. In fact, Czolgosz had attempted to make contact with various anarchists who rebuffed him in the belief he was a police agent. Despite having no real connection to the crime, Goldman was held in jail for two weeks before being released.

Having worked as a midwife, Goldman witnessed the lengths poor women would go to prevent unwanted pregnancies. She wrote, "It was incredible what fantastic methods despair could invent: jumping off tables, rolling on the floor, massaging the stomach, drinking nauseating concoctions, and using blunt instruments. These and similar methods were being tried, generally with great injury. It was harrowing, but it was understandable."

According to many historians, Goldman played a mentoring role to Margaret Sanger, the birth-control pioneer who founded Planned Parenthood. Goldman herself was arrested in the mid-1910s for violating the Comstock Law that prohibited dissemination of information regarding contraception.

Goldman was an early advocate of gay rights. According to writer Sherry Wolf, "Goldman went on a speaking tour throughout the United States in 1915 and defended homosexuality. Goldman commented to friends about the numbers of men and women who would approach her afterward to say that it was the first time they had ever heard about others like themselves."

Later Goldman wrote, "It is a tragedy, I feel, that people of a different sexual type are caught in a world which shows so little understanding for homosexuals and is so crassly indifferent to the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life."

In 1917, Goldman and Berkman, the latter having been released from his earlier imprisonment, were arrested for their opposition to World War I's draft. They were sentenced to two years' incarceration. When they were released, America was in the midst of the First Red Scare, resulting from the Bolshevik Revolution. The pair was deported to Europe, where they made their way to Russia, to witness the societal transformation firsthand.

Unlike many on the left, Goldman early on recognized the seeds of totalitarianism planted by the Bolsheviks. Her disillusionment began with the low value the Bolsheviks placed on civil liberties during the heat of the Russian Civil War. It was completed by the Bolsheviks' violent suppression of an anarchist uprising in 1921 that demanded greater freedom. Goldman and Berkman soon left the country.

In 1936, Berkman committed suicide, missing out on the anarchist revolution that would erupt that year in Spain, in the midst of that country's civil war between Republican and Nationalist forces.

"Civil war in Spain shook Goldman free of the grief that followed Berkman's death," according to writer Miriam Brody. "She was invited by the Spanish trade unionists, the CNT (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo) and the more militant FAI (Federacion Anarquista Iberica), to Barcelona to undertake English language propaganda for the anarchists."

Goldman accepted the invitation and was impressed by the socialist experiment blooming there, writing, "I have already visited all works in control of the CNT and operated by the workers themselves, the railroads, transport, oil and gas works, the aviation yards, and some of the clothing factories. And I was overwhelmed by the perfect condition and orderly running of everything."

Ultimately the Nationalist forces that took control of the country in 1939 crushed the revolution. Goldman, 70, died of a stroke the next year.

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Jon Hochschartner lives in Lake Placid.

 
 

 

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