Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

By Sally Ann Drucker
Sponsored by High Plains Library District



Emma Goldman was a renaissance woman. Her methods for political activism ranged from writing to public speaking, but at times were characterized as anarchist, leading her to be bequeathed the title of anarchist.  After emigrating from Lithuania to the US in 1885, she played a pivotal role in the development of radical politics and feminism in America.  Her lectures attracted thousands. Goldman was imprisoned several times for inciting workers and illegally distributing birth control information.  She believed that birth control was every woman’s right, a radical idea for the time.   

In 1892, strikers at Carnegie Steel, managed by Henry Frick, were killed by Pinkerton guards.  Goldman’s long-term companion Alexander Berkman wounded Frick in an anarchist “attentat,” or call for justice, and was incarcerated.  Goldman was accused of conspiring with him, and in 1901was blamed for inspiring the assassination of President McKinley.  Neither accusation was proven, but Theodore Roosevelt called her “the most dangerous woman in America.”    
When the United States prepared to enter World War I, Goldman and Berkman, then out of jail, organized a No-Conscription League.  They believed that the state fought wars on behalf of capitalists; they viewed the draft as one of the worst forms of state coercion.  The League became a vanguard for anti-draft activism, with chapters in numerous cities.  In 1917, Goldman and Berkman were arrested.  During their trial, Goldman invoked the First Amendment, asking how the government could claim to fight for democracy abroad while suppressing free speech at home.  “We say that if America has entered the war to make the world safe for democracy, she must first make democracy safe in America. How else is the world to take America seriously, when democracy at home is daily being outraged, free speech suppressed, peaceable assemblies broken up by overbearing and brutal gangsters in uniform; when free press is curtailed and every independent opinion gagged? Verily, poor as we are in democracy, how can we give of it to the world?” An additional argument was that members of the clergy were admired for following their consciences; why couldn’t other citizens do the same? Nevertheless, Goldman was sentenced to two years in jail for conspiring with Berkman to "induce persons not to register" for the newly instated draft.   
Released in September, 1919, they were re-arrested, and with hundreds of others deported to Russia during America’s Red Scare of 1919-20.  Initially supportive of the Bolshevik revolution, Goldman reversed her opinion when Lenin said, "There can be no free speech in a revolutionary period."  Goldman's experiences in Soviet Russia led to her book, My Disillusionment in Russia (1923).  

She was not allowed to return to the US except for a brief tour in 1934 to promote her autobiography, Living My Life (1931).  Goldman spent her later years in Toronto, supporting Sacco and Vanzetti, Spanish anarchists, and other radical causes.  She made lasting contributions to progressive politics through her birth control and free speech movement activities.  The latter inspired the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  In recent years, feminists have rediscovered Emma Goldman as an early fighter for women’s freedom, gay rights, and individual liberties for all.       

Recommended Reading

Gornick, Vivian. Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life. Yale University Press, 2011.

Shulman, Alix Kates, Ed.  Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader. Humanity Books,  


Sally Ann Drucker

Since 1993, Sally Ann Drucker has presented interesting and infamous women at Chautauquas.  She first portrayed Frances Wright, feminist-abolitionist, at a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded Democracy in America Chautauqua, touring eight states over three summers.  She has also portrayed Rosie the Riveter, WWII Defense Worker; Lucrezia Borgia, 16th Century Duchess; Betty Friedan, feminist founder of N.O.W.; and Hazel Shaw, Dust Bowl Survivor. Drucker is pleased to return to Colorado to present Emma Goldman.  When not performing, she’s an English Professor at the State University of New York - Nassau, Garden City, NY.  She also teaches Women’s Studies and other interdisciplinary courses there.  

Bullet Points

Emma Goldman  wrote and lectured against military conscription; she believed that most modern wars were fought on behalf of capitalists, at the expense of the working class, with the draft a form of illegitimate coercion.  

As America prepared to enter World War I, she formed a No Conscription League, stating that every man should follow his conscience rather than be forced to serve in the military.  One meeting attracted 8,000 people.   

Goldman argued that the draft contradicted fundamental American principles.  She felt that true democracy and individual liberty were cast overboard under the pretext of democratizing Germany, and that every liberty-loving person should insist on the right of individual choice in relation to the draft.   

On trial, Goldman argued that her actions were not anti-American but the essence of patriotism, meant to inspire America to live up to its ideals.  She claimed that she exercised her right to free speech by educating audiences on conscientious objection.  Ultimately, Goldman was sentenced to two years in prison for her anti-war activities.   


"My lack of faith in the majority is dictated by my faith in the potentialities of the individual."
"Compared with the wholesale violence of capital and government, political acts of violence are but a drop in the ocean."
“The most unpardonable sin in society is independence of thought.”  
"The political arena leaves one no alternative, one must either be a dunce or a rogue."
"Pettiness separates; breadth unites. Let us be broad and big."
"Patriotism assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others."


1869 - Born in Kovno, Lithuania.

1885 - Immigrated to US with sister Helena, settled in Rochester, New York.

1887 - Married fellow factory worker Jacob Kershner; divorced him the following year.

1887 - Political awakening sparked by execution of four anarchists (the Haymarket Martyrs) unjustly convicted of bombing a Chicago labor rally in 1886. 
1889 - Moved to New York City, met anarchists Alexander Berkman and Johann Most.
1890 - Coached by Most, delivered first of countless public lectures.

1892 - Conspired with Berkman in his attempt to assassinate Henry Frick, Carnegie Steel manager, who ordered violent attacks on striking workers.

1893 - Served ten months in prison for speaking at demonstration of the unemployed.

1895 -Trained as a nurse in Vienna.

1901 - Unjustly implicated in assassination of President McKinley. 

1903 - Responding to anti-anarchist laws, developed Free Speech League in New York City 

1906 - Founded Mother Earth magazine.    

1910 - Published Anarchism and Other Essays.  
1914 - Published The Social Significance of the Modern Drama. 

1916 - Arrested twice, imprisoned once, for lecturing on birth control, distributing information.  

1917 - Co-founded No-Conscription League; sentenced to two years in prison for conspiracy to obstruct draft.

1919 - Deported to Soviet Russia with 248 other radicals.   

1923 - Published My Disillusionment in Russia, in reaction to Bolshevik suppression of  anarchists and free speech.

1928 - After many visa difficulties, settled in Saint-Tropez, France to write autobiography.  

1931 - Published two-volume autobiography, Living My Life.

1932 - In England, started lecturing on dangers of fascism and rise of Nazism. Continued lecturing on this subject in US and Canada.

1934 - Secured visa and returned to US for 90-day book/lecture tour.

1936-38 - Worked with anarchist trade union to fight fascism and support Spanish anarchists during Spanish Civil War.  Not allowed back in US, lived in Toronto, Canada.

1940 - Died at age 70 in Toronto, was buried next to Haymarket Martyrs in Chicago.