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Women Worth Knowing: Emma Goldman

image source: thought.co


Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940) was a notorious activist, writer, and lecturer for almost the entirety of her adult life. Her political views saw her get into a lot of trouble, serving several jail sentences and receiving much bad press. She was nicknamed ‘Red Emma’ on behalf of her views (anarcho-communism) and her background (being born and raised in Lithuania).

Emma was an early advocate of free speech, birth control, women’s equality and independence, and union organisation.

YouTube video resource: encore theatrical company

I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.

for the people

Emma Goldman was painted as a public enemy during most of her years spent living in America. As a supporter of the Labor Movement, in which she spoke and wrote publicly about better wages, shorter working days and equal pay, Emma was persecuted by the media to the point in which she found it difficult to put a roof over her head. In fear of endangering her friends and colleagues, as well as being unashamed of her identity and therefore not willing to lie about her name to potential landlords, she was known to have slept in public parks.

Thankfully, Goldman’s parents had emigrated to America, and when Emma was diagnosed with consumption, she luckily had her conservative parents close enough to help restore her back to health. However, as the Labor Movement continued, Emma did not have much time to rest. A large demonstration of unemployed people living in poverty took place at Union Square, New York, and Emma was invited as one of the speakers. Here, she famously said to the thousands of attendees:

Ask for work. If they do no give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take bread.

Later in 1893, Emma Goldman was charged of inciting a riot, and sentenced to serve one year in penitentiary at Blackwell’s Island. During her time in prison, Emma passed her time as the nurse of the prison hospital. She also used her time behind bars to learn English literature. After her sentence had been served, Emma was welcomed back by her community with open arms, as she was greatly appreciated and admired in her radical ranks for her devotion and idealism.

Emma published many papers, magazines and essays about anarchism and her life. Emma also wrote reports that were submitted to the American congress about working conditions of the American people, including wise commentary about capitalism and the way that it harms individuals rather than enhances their way of life.

No real social change has ever come about without a revolution.

personal life

Born of Jewish parentage on 27th June 1869 in the Russian Province of Kovno, Emma lived out her early years in an idyllic countryside setting. However, it was not long until Emma was witness to harsh discrimination, in this case her own family; her home town of Kurland was mainly of German heritage, and Emma saw her Jewish father harassed by Christian chionovniks.

Emma also witnessed young men of her community being dragged to a life as a soldier, and female servants being exploited by their employers. Many young women sought refuge in the Goldman household after being impregnated by “respectable” men of society, consequently cast out of their workplaces and homes.

Emma and her elder sister, Helene, moved to America, with dreams of living in a country that was sold to the rest of the world as the “land of equality, freedom and brotherhood”. Emma was soon disappointed, as she found work in a clothing factory, sewing from early morning til late at night, earning just two and a half dollars a week.

It was at this point that Emma found a brief comfort in the arms of her American husband, who also spoken Russian (something that consoled Emma’s homesickness). After a few years the couple separated, and many years later, as Emma became a “heavy threat” to the American government, the Federal authorities deprived Emma of her citizenship by revoking the citizenship of her husband, of whom she had not seen for twenty years.

Losing her American citizenship never deterred Emma. Throughout her life she didn’t stop preaching and living the life that she believed in, regardless of the many dangers and downfalls that she faced.

Today every great strike, in order to win, must realise the importance of the solidaric general protest.

key iconic moments

  1. Was the unofficial mentor of Margaret Sanger, the sex educator who coined the term “birth control” and opened the first birth control clinic in the United States.
  2. Served jail time for providing information about birth control at a lecture.
  3. At the time of her death, she was working to protest fascism in particular regard to the Spanish Civil War.
  4. Lectured on ‘free love’, saying that love and partnership between two people shouldn’t be governed by political leaders or religion.
  5. Served jail time in 1917 for conspiring to induce persons not to register for the newly instated draft.

why she is worth knowing

Throughout her life, Emma took any opportunity to learn more about people and their struggles, touring Europe to speak about socialism and witness the living and working conditions of different countries. She also continued to train as a nurse, another attribute of her kind nature towards humanity.

Whether at protests or on lecture tours, Emma was often arrested or outright banned from speaking. Her beliefs in equal living rights for everyone were considered highly radical and dangerous to American society. Regardless of what others (especially of those in high-power positions) thought of her, Emma Goldman didn’t back down from what she believed in. She lived her life as she saw fit, she fought for other people’s rights, protested and gave her time and energy to causes that needed it.

Emma Goldman was wise, kind and unapologetic when it came to her beliefs. She always got back up again after being knocked down, a woman of pure strength and courage.


Jewish Women’s Archive
Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman (forward by Hippolyte Havel)
The Berkeley Library, California
Encore Theatrical Company


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