Emma Goldman Biography, Political Activist, Writer, Emma Goldman Biography and Profile
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Emma Goldman Biography

Bio Synopsis

Emma Goldman, Anarchist and activist, was born June 27, 1869, Kovno in the Russian Empire (present-day Kaunas, Lithuania). She immigrated to the U.S. in 1885, where she worked in clothing factories. Goldman emigrated to the US in 1885 and lived in New York City, where she joined the burgeoning anarchist movement. Emma Goldman criticism of mandatory conscription of young men into the military during World War I led to a two-year imprisonment, followed by her deportation in 1919. Emma Goldman Biography and Profile. Read more

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Emma Goldman Early Life

Anarchist and activist Emma Goldman, was born June 27, 1869, Kovno in the Russian Empire (present-day Kaunas, Lithuania). She immigrated to the U.S. in 1885, where she worked in clothing factories. It was in that setting that she came in contact with anarchist beliefs. A fiery speaker, she was jailed for inciting riots and advocating birth control. She was deported to the Soviet Union in 1919, spending the rest of her life traveling, speaking, and writing. Emma Goldman was a feminist anarchist known for her political activism, writing and speeches. She played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.

Goldman emigrated to the US in 1885 and lived in New York City, where she joined the burgeoning anarchist movement. Attracted to anarchism after the Haymarket affair, Goldman became a writer and a renowned lecturer on anarchist philosophy, women’s rights, and social issues, attracting crowds of thousands.

She and anarchist writer Alexander Berkman, her lover and lifelong friend, planned to assassinate Henry Clay Frick as an act of propaganda of the deed. Although Frick survived the attempt on his life, Berkman was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison. Goldman was imprisoned several times in the years that followed, for “inciting to riot” and illegally distributing information about birth control. In 1906, Goldman founded the anarchist journal Mother Earth.

In 1917, Goldman and Berkman were sentenced to two years in jail for conspiring to “induce persons not to register” for the newly instated draft. After their release from prison, they were arrested—along with hundreds of others—and deported to Russia.

Emma Goldman Full Biography and Profile

Emma Goldman was an early advocate of free speech, birth control, women’s equality and independence, and union organization. Her criticism of mandatory conscription of young men into the military during World War I led to a two-year imprisonment, followed by her deportation in 1919. For the rest of her life until her death in 1940, she continued to participate in the social and political movements of her age, from the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War.

Although Goldman was hostile to religion in general, her core beliefs emerged in part from a Jewish tradition that championed the pursuit of universal justice. Her early experiences in Russia and as an immigrant to the United States laid the groundwork for her later analyses of political and economic problems, and she understood that her own ideals had their roots in a Jewish historical experience shaped by longstanding oppression. Goldman’s career stands as an important chapter in the history of Jewish activism in America.

Goldman and Helena Fled Russia For U.S.

Goldman and her sister Helena fled Russia for the United States in 1885. As they sailed into the New York harbor, Goldman rejoiced in her arrival in “the free country, the asylum for the oppressed of all lands.” “We, too,” she thought, “would find a place in the generous heart of America.”

Poverty, oppression, and the longing for deliverance marked Emma Goldman’s early years. Born into a poor Jewish family in a backward, anti-Semitic country, Goldman struggled to escape, first through flights of imagination, then through formal education, and finally by means of emigration.

My Disillusionment in Russia

Initially supportive of that country’s Bolshevik revolution, Goldman quickly voiced her opposition to the Soviet use of violence and the repression of independent voices. In 1923, she wrote a book about her experiences, My Disillusionment in Russia. While living in England, Canada, and France, she wrote an autobiography called Living My Life. After the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, she traveled to Spain to support the anarchist revolution there. She died in Toronto on May 14, 1940, aged 70.

Free-Thinking ‘Rebel Woman’

During her life, Goldman was lionized as a free-thinking “rebel woman” by admirers, and derided by critics as an advocate of politically motivated murder and violent revolution.Her writing and lectures spanned a wide variety of issues, including prisons, atheism, freedom of speech, militarism, capitalism, marriage, free love, and homosexuality. Although she distanced herself from first-wave feminism and its efforts toward women’s suffrage, she developed new ways of incorporating gender politics into anarchism. After decades of obscurity, Goldman’s iconic status was revived in the 1970s, when feminist and anarchist scholars rekindled popular interest in her life.


On June 27, 1869, Emma Goldman’s life began in Kovno, a small imperial Russian city, now in Lithuania. Her family suffered from the anti-Semitism of the times, living in Jewish ghettos and moving often in search of opportunity. Brutalized by this life, Goldman’s father directed his anger against his family. His often violent assertion of authority over them led young Emma, perhaps more acutely aware than he of the injustice of their situation, to imagine instead directing violence outward against the enemies of the Jewish people, in the manner of Judith, the Biblical heroine with whom she identified.

Goldman became interested in more modern ideas at twelve, after the family moved to St. Petersburg. There she glimpsed the possibility of ending the old order when Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Excited by the ideas of the Russian Populists and Nihilists, Emma eagerly devoured Chernishevsky’s What Is to Be Done? and promptly replaced her childhood heroine Judith with Chernishevsky’s modern Vera, a political organizer and cooperative worker.

Enduring Appreciation of Literature, Opera, and Classical Music

Soon after, Goldman left Russia to seek what she hoped would be a modern education in a German Gymnasium. But Emma rejected the rote learning and authoritarian teaching methods she encountered in her school, and she fought with her German relatives. Nevertheless, Goldman developed an enduring appreciation of literature, opera, and classical music, which helped alleviate the pain she met in life.

Thinking of America

Returning to Russia, Goldman soon found herself thinking of America. Her father put her to work in a corset factory and began pressuring her into an arranged marriage. Rejecting his demands, the sixteen-year-old Emma set sail in 1885 for America in the company of her older half-sister, Helena.

“Helena and I stood pressed to each other, enraptured by the sight of the harbour and the Statue of Liberty suddenly emerging from the mist. Ah, there she was, the symbol of hope, of freedom, of opportunity! She held her torch to light the way to the free country, the asylum for the oppressed of all lands. We, too, Helena and I, would find a place in the generous heart of America. Our spirits were high, our eyes filled with tears.” — Emma Goldman, remembering her arrival in America.

Joined in the Growing Militance

Goldman’s romantic hopes were soon shattered by the dismal realities of working-class life. Settling first in Rochester, New York, she found factory work harder than in Russia, and joined in the growing militance against the inequality and inhuman working conditions that characterized industrializing America.


The decisive moment came in 1886. Labor and radical activists held a mass rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on the evening of May 4 to protest the police’s brutal suppression of a strike at the McCormick Harvester Company against a union lock out the previous day. Towards the end of an otherwise peaceful demonstration, a bomb was thrown at police after they attempted to stop the meeting, injuring people in the crowd and killing a police officer. In the chaos that followed an unknown number of demonstrators were killed by the police, and another six police officers were fatally injured (primarily by their own gunfire), and died during the ensuing weeks, their condition avidly followed by the public. Afterwards, the police and the press blamed Chicago’s anarchist leaders, and in this climate of hysteria a jury condemned them despite a dearth of evidence. Seven were sentenced to death, one was given fifteen years. Of those who received the death penalty two had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, and another committed suicide the night before the execution. The remaining four were executed on the 11th of November 1887. Convinced of the defendants’ innocence, the outraged Goldman became active in the anarchist cause.

Personal Life

With the crystallization of Goldman’s political thought came changes in her personal life. Refusing to be trapped in the unhappy marriage of her earliest years in America, Emma risked the stigma of divorce, leaving her husband in Rochester and heading for a new life in New York. It wasn’t long before the young idealist became a prominent member of the city’s anarchist community. Johann Most, the great anarchist orator, recognized Goldman’s eloquence and commitment, and organized her first speaking tour. Amidst the newfound excitement of political activism, she fell in love with Alexander Berkman, a fellow Russian émigré. Together, they vowed to dedicate their lives to anarchism.


In 1892, when Henry Clay Frick of the Carnegie Steel Company provoked a bloody confrontation with workers at the company’s plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania (June 30-July 6), Berkman and Goldman decided to retaliate. On July 23, Berkman went to Frick’s office in downtown Pittsburgh and shot Frick, but failed to kill him. Berkman was convicted and sentenced to twenty-two years in prison. Though Goldman was involved in the plot, she escaped the indictment because of insufficient evidence.


When President William McKinley was shot in 1901 by Leon Czolgosz, the police immediately tried to implicate Goldman, noting that Czolgosz had recently attended one of her lectures in Cleveland. Consequently Goldman and other anarchists were arrested. Eventually, though, disappointed by the lack of evidence against her, the authorities were forced to order Goldman’s release. Goldman temporarily withdrew from public life to avoid harassment. When she re-emerged she entered one of her most politically active periods, speaking around the country, writing on a wide range of topics, and editing her free-spirited journal, Mother Earth from 1906 to 1917. Many, however, remained convinced that she was a dangerous killer, thanks in large part to the anti- anarchist agitation of the press.

Following the Haymarket bombing incident, Albert Parsons and several other anarchist leaders were arrested. Parsons, convinced of his innocence, had turned himself in on the day of the trial; the others had been arrested earlier. Despite the absence of evidence linking them to the bombing, they were convicted, and the trial became a cause cèlébre for the American Left. Emma Goldman admired their passionate commitment and believed they were innocent. The guilty verdict and the stirring defiance of the jailed leaders had an important influence on Goldman and inspired her initial interest in the American anarchist movement.


Protest demonstrations flared across America and Europe. On November 11, 1887, Albert Parsons and three other anarchists were executed. The inscription on the four men’s tomb echoed the final words of one of the victims: “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”


In 1893, Illinois Governor Peter Altgeld, convinced of the Haymarket defendants’ innocence after a lengthy review of the trial, pardoned the anarchists who had received long prison sentences for their alleged role in the Haymarket bombing.


On September 6, 1901, Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley. Although Emma Goldman did not know Czolgosz, police and the press blamed her for the President’s death because Czolgosz had attended a speech of hers earlier in the year. This article, with its frightening illustration, is representative of the way in which the nation’s press fueled the negative characterization of anarchists. Such notoriety forced Goldman to retreat somewhat from the public spotlight and to adopt the name “Miss E.G. Smith,” which she would use intermittently over the next few years. Her strength of will, though, is reflected in her return to public lecturing in 1902.

Freedom of Expression

Freedom of expression was a cause Emma Goldman championed throughout her adult life. She was outraged that in the United States, “a country which guaranteed free speech, officers armed with long clubs should invade an orderly assembly.” As an anarchist orator, Emma faced constant threats from police and vigilantes determined to suppress her talks. Undeterred, Goldman continued to assert her right to speak, though she paid dearly for her principles. Arrested and tried in 1893 for urging a crowd of hungry, unemployed workers to rely on street demonstrations rather than on the electoral process to obtain relief, Goldman based her defense squarely on the right of free speech–and lost. She spent ten months in jail, a reminder that in nineteenth century America the right of free speech was still a dream, not a reality.

Assassination of President McKinley in 1901

Following the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, tolerance for free speech declined even further. Repression culminated in the passage of the draconian Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918, which resulted in long prison terms for those who protested United States entry into the First World War. At the same time, liberal and radical Americans became more vocal in their opposition to the abridgement of first amendment rights. The government’s attempts to suppress Goldman’s unconventional views actually led many who disagreed with her to support nonetheless her right to express her ideas freely.


It was in this context that Goldman began lecturing regularly on freedom of speech and, in 1903, worked with the newly formed Free Speech League. The extremity of the situation sometimes led to amusing results. Once, expecting the police to disrupt a lecture in Philadelphia, Emma chained herself to a podium in order to make it physically impossible for the police to remove her before she finished speaking. But as fate would have it, this time the police did not appear.


Goldman’s insistence on freedom of speech had a profound influence on Roger Baldwin, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Baldwin heard Goldman speak in 1908 at a working class meeting hall in St. Louis, and what he heard led him to dedicate his life to the cause of freedom. He later told Goldman in a letter, “You always remain one of the chief inspirations of my life, for you aroused in me a sense of what freedom really means.” In his old age, Baldwin said, “Emma Goldman opened up not only an entirely new literature to me, but new people as well, some who called themselves anarchists, some libertarians, some freedom lovers . . . bound together by one principle–freedom from coercion.”

Emma Goldman Deported to Russia

The ultimate irony of Emma Goldman’s crusade for free speech in America is that she was deported to Russia for exercising her right to speak against United States’ involvement in World War I. Undaunted, Goldman risked further political isolation by becoming one of the Left’s most vocal and eloquent critics of political repression in the Soviet Union.

Ben Reitman Was Emma Goldman’s Lover

Ben Reitman was Emma Goldman’s lover and manager between 1908 and 1916. A Chicagoan, Reitman was for much of his life an almost compulsive hobo. As a youth he tramped through Asia and Europe and around America several times. He settled down long enough to acquire an M.D. degree in Chicago in 1904. Later in his life he continued to go on periodic tramps. Besides using his medical knowledge to minister to the poor, he treated their social ills by organizing a mass demonstration of unemployed workers–for which he was arrested and tried in 1907.

His relationship with Emma Goldman began in March 1908 when Goldman was unable to secure a place to speak. Reitman offered her his “hobo hall.” Instantly attracted to each other, this encounter blossomed into the most intense relationship of Goldman’s life. Reitman soon offered to accompany Goldman on her lecture tours. As road manager, his skills of arranging and publicizing meetings, renting halls and promoting and selling anarchist literature contributed to the success of Goldman’s repeated cross-country lecture tours.

Reitman aroused in Emma Goldman a sexual and emotional passion that she was never to experience in her life again. In l909 she revelled in their love: “You came to me like a stroke of lightning, kindling my soul and my body with mad passion, as I have never known before.”

Throughout their ten-year love affair, Emma Goldman and Ben Reitman sustained their relationship on the road through passionate letters. Goldman, who publicly advocated free love and total independence, struggled herself with dark feelings of jealousy and a longing for security. Though she acted as a harbinger of hope and affirmed the anarchist vision of social harmony, privately she wondered whether her own failure to live out her ideal made her unworthy of delivering such a lofty message. “I stand condemned before the bar of my own reason,” she would write once.

On August 15, 1909, Goldman wrote this letter to “My Beloved Hobo.”

Emma Goldman gradually expanded her lecture topics from straightforward expositions of anarchist theory to include applications of this theory to contemporary social and political issues. Among these were socialism, birth control, women’s emancipation, free speech, and free love.

Emma Goldman played an supportive role in the largest free speech movement in pre-World War I America: the battle of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to secure constitutional liberties for their organization on the West Coast. In an effort to suppress the IWW, many cities passed ordinances denying IWW leaders the right to speak. The IWW began defying these ordinances by sending large contingents to the endangered cities to exercise their constitutional right to free speech. In Missoula, Spokane, and Fresno, hundreds of IWW members were thrown in jail for this offense.

One of the most dramatic confrontations over free speech occurred in 1912 in San Diego. Within one week, San Diego authorities jailed 150 members of the IWW (also known as the Wobblies). Private vigilante groups terrorized IWW members and drove them out of town. As tensions mounted in San Diego, a vigilante group killed a Wobbly in Los Angeles. Outraged by the turn of events, Emma Goldman and Ben Reitman decided to join the San Diego free speech fight. They had barely arrived in the city when Reitman was abducted from their hotel by a group of vigilantes. He was taken into the countryside, stripped, beaten, covered with hot tar and sagebrush, forced to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” then, with a cigar, the letters IWW were singed onto his buttocks.


With the exception of a brief ninety-day lecture tour in 1934, Emma Goldman spent the remaining twenty-one years of her life (1919-1940) in exile from the United States. During this period she lived in Russia, Sweden, Germany, France, England, and Canada, never finding a political “home” outside the United States.

In no country did Emma Goldman feel more estranged than in her native Russia. She was shocked by the ruthless authoritarianism of the Bolshevik regime, its severe repression of anarchists, and its disregard for individual freedom. But she continued to defend the revolution, which she distinguished from the subsequent Bolshevik regime. She argued forcefully in My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) that the emergence of the Bolshevik party-state actually crushed the revolution. Notwithstanding the prescience of this critique, the persistence and stridency of her anti-Bolshevism alienated her from many European and American leftists.

Perhaps in part to counter this estrangement and the loneliness of her exile years, Emma maintained a lively correspondence with a large number of Americans and Europeans, and was active in the American expatriate community in France. In the 1920s and 1930s, while struggling to survive economically and frustrated by the restrictions her status as an exile imposed on her political activities, Emma engaged in a variety of literary projects. The most important and enduring product of this period of writing and reflection is her moving one thousand-page autobiography, Living My Life (1931). Her letters and papers–many of which come from this period–complement this monumental work by showing the full spectrum of Goldman’s interests and associations.

During her exile, Emma Goldman continued to apply her principles of free speech not just to the United States, but to the Soviet Union as well. Angered by the suppression of anti-Bolshevik dissent in Russia, Goldman registered her protest with Lenin himself and left the country within two years hoping to alert the world to the injustice she had witnessed. Her courageous position left her vulnerable to criticism from the Left as well as from the Right and isolated her even further.

Emma Goldman felt lonely in England

In 1924, she moved to London. Despite her association with a wide circle of left-wing and liberal British intellectuals, Goldman felt lonely in England and frequently complained about the stolidity and reserve of the British. “Even the best English paralyze me,” she wrote Berkman.

Emma Goldman and James Colton

Before she could leave England, however, she had to ensure that she would have right of residency somewhere. Despite her political objections to the institution of marriage, she engaged in the legal formality of marriage to an elderly coal miner from Wales named James Colton to secure the mobility and privilege of British citizenship.

Emma Goldman Full Biography and Profile

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