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Bad-Ass Bitch #2: Emma Goldman

January 8, 2017

 

 

This is Emma Goldman’s mug shot—sorry, one of Emma Goldman’s mug shots--and I for one have never seen anyone make a pince nez look so hardcore. 

 

Emma was born in 1869 in Lithuania and came to America in 1885 at the age of 16. She worked in a clothing factory in Rochester. In 1889, at the age of 20, Emma left her husband and her sister and moved to New York City with $5 in her pocket.

 

On her very first day in New York Emma met Alexander Berkman, who would become her most abiding romantic and political partner. In 1892 they moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, and opened an ice cream shop. They were the original Ben and Jerry--left-wing ice cream mavens.

 

(Jsyk, if you google "anarchist ice cream" you'll discover that there is a food truck with that very name. Ice cream flavors include “Know Your Rights” and “Black Panther” and the owner hands out political material with every cone.)

 

In 1893 the United States suffered one of its worst economic crises and unemployment rose to over 20%. Emma began speaking to crowds of frustrated men and women in New York, often in Union Square.

 

 

On August 21 she spoke to 3000 people, saying,

 

Demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread.

 

Emma went on to champion several causes, especially freedom of expression, sexual freedom and birth control, equality and independence for women, union organization and workers’ rights. She was considered "the most dangerous woman in America," went to jail multiple times, and was finally deported to Russia in 1919. 

 

Emma died in Toronto on May 14, 1940, at the age of 70, after a debilitating stroke.

 

So what the hell is anarchism, according to Goldman? In her book Anarchism and Other Essays she wrote:

 

Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.

 

In other words, it has nothing to do with our modern usage of anarchy, which means chaos, mayhem; it's about a re-organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis.

 

There are a few things about Goldman that make her unique in the early 20th-Century Anarchist movement:

 

1. In a movement that was dominated by men and largely uninterested in gender disparity, Emma was a passionate feminist. As an anarchist she found voting pointless and consequently was highly critical of the suffrage movement, instead choosing to focus on equality in other realms. She was an advocate of birth control and free love and viewed marriage as part of a system of patriarchal oppression. While even female anarchists tended to focus solely on politics, Emma studied medicine while in prison and upon release became a practicing mid-wife. She is considered today to be a founder of anarcha-feminism, which views patriarchy as something to be resisted alongside government power and class divisions.

 

 

2. Goldman was practically the only public person talking about homophobia at that time and had an incredibly progressive view of gender fluidity. German “sexologist” (I’m putting that on my business cards) Magnus Hirschfeld wrote, “She was the first and only woman, indeed the first and only American, to take up the defense of homosexual love before the general public.” 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.

 

3. She was an outspoken critic of Russian communism, which she recognized as oppressive and corrupt. Many anarchists were reluctant to accept that the Russian communist experiment had failed so miserably.  

 

4. She was fun. One of the things I love most about Red Emma, besides her fearlessness, was her insistence that activism wasn’t dull and repressive and that the new world order was meant to allow people to live more liberated, more exciting lives. So many activists, even today, seem to take it all so damn seriously, and to be so pleased with the right to judge others that their left-wing street cred supposedly gives them. Emma describes, in her autobiography, dancing at a party of fellow anarchists and being told by one of them that “it did not behoove an agitator to dance.” She wrote:

 

I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown in my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to behave as a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things."

 

 

Goldman was not a believer in voting, and after the 2016 election, I can’t say I blame her.

 

 

I’d love to hear what she might say now that we’re entering Trumpland. She’d have a field day with Putin’s involvement, with Trump’s misogyny and casual racism. I can imagine that the disappointment and depression so many of us feel, a direct result of our feelings of disenfranchisement, anger and powerlessness, might be blown to bits by Emma’s wit, her passion, her forcefulness. We’d be thronging in Union Square, now so posh and pointless, and we’d make it significant once again in the fiery glare of Emma’s fervor. My hope for 2017 is that a new Red Emma, just as courageous, angry and dangerous, steps onto the soap box to show us how it's done. 

 

 

Sources: Anarchism and Other Essays, The New York Times, Wikipedia, PBS, Jewish Women's Archive, nycgovparks.org

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