On December 21, 1919, Emma Goldman – “Red Emma,” the activist and thinker who spent a lifetime fighting for workers’ rights, socialism, birth control and the cultural avant-garde – was deported from the United States to her native Russia. As Goldman was a naturalized American citizen, her exile was made possible only after her naturalization was nullified, a measure engineered by a young J. Edgar Hoover, then the head of the Justice Department’s General Intelligence Division.
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Emma Goldman was born in Kovno (today Kaunas, Lithuania), in the Russian empire, on June 27, 1869. Her parents were Taube Bienowitch and her second husband, Abraham Goldman, whom Taube married after the death of her first spouse. By all accounts, their union was a loveless one, and years later, the daughter attributed her father’s tendency to beat his children to sexual frustration. Abraham also failed in successive business ventures, in Kovno and later in Königsberg and St. Petersburg, when the family lived in those cities.
Emma studied, and excelled, at a Jewish primary school in Königsberg. Later, however, when she wanted to continue her studies at the secondary level, she was told by her father that “all a Jewish daughter needs to know is how to prepare gefilte fish, cut noodles fine, and give the man plenty of children.”
Wanting to avoid being coerced into an arranged marriage, in 1885 Emma followed two of her older sisters to the United States; the next year, they were joined by the rest of the family.
Exposure to anarchism
After living and working briefly in Rochester, New York, and New Haven, Connecticut, and a short, failed marriage, Goldman arrived in New York City in 1889. By then, she was enamored of revolutionary politics, especially after the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago – violent demonstrations in the context of a labor strike. Several policemen were killed by a bomb, and eight anarchists were convicted of their murder and sentenced to death. Goldman was convinced the charges were trumped up.
This was the beginning of her exposure to anarchism, about which she learned more during an apprenticeship with editor Johann Most, under whose guidance she realized her gift as a rousing public speaker; and from her love affair with anarchist Alexander Berkman, with whom she shared much of her work and life.
Eventually, Goldman became a believer in nonviolence. But in 1892, she was still nave enough to think that by assisting Berkman in assassinating steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, during a strike at the Homestead mill, Pennsylvania, the masses would rise up – not only against the exploitative steel industry, but against the capitalist system altogether.
Berkman shot Frick but failed to kill him, and served 14 years in prison. A year later, Goldman too was jailed, for inciting a riot during a speech to unemployed workers in New York.
Goldman founded and edited a magazine (Mother Earth), lectured on contemporary theater and on “free love” and birth control, and campaigned against U.S. involvement in World War I and the draft that was necessitated by that involvement. Not for nothing did a U.S. attorney refer to her as “exceedingly dangerous.”
In 1917, Goldman was convicted of espionage for having encouraged men not to register for the draft, and was sent away for two years. When she emerged from prison, the war was over, but the United States was in the midst of a “red scare.”
Goldman, Berkman and 247 other radicals were declared subversive aliens. They were deported to Russia, where they apparently belonged.
A brief sojourn in newly communist Russia, however – which included a face-to-face meeting with Lenin – convinced Goldman that it wasn’t where she belonged, and thus began two decades of wandering on her part. She wrote several memoirs, and a long autobiography, worked hard for the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War, and at the end of her life, settled in Canada, where she tried to help political refugees from Spain and other places gain asylum.
Emma Goldman died in Toronto on May 14, 1940, four years after her companion, Berkman, suffering from ill health, shot himself to death. She was buried in Chicago, near the graves of the executed Haymarket anarchists.