Sunday, August 24, 2008

Women's Rights Activist & Anarchist Emma Goldman

Feminist, Women's Movement, and Birth Control Movement Pioneer

© Judith Faucette

Emma Goldman, women's rights movement activist, Emma Goldman Clinic
Emma Goldman was an early figure in birth control history and the free speech movement. She supported anarchism, the women's rights movement, and lesbian rights.

The Emma Goldman Papers, a project of the University of California at Berkeley, uses its Emma Goldman Online Exhibition to educate young women about the life of this amazing activist. This guide describes how Goldman, born in imperial Russia and educated in Germany, learned about anarchism and other progressive ideals from an early age and then journeyed to America where she began a life's work in increasing opportunities for women.

Early Anarchism and Work for Free Speech

After divorcing her first husband, the EGOE reports, Goldman fell in love with a fellow anarchist and became more strongly tied to the movement. That man was then sentenced to twenty-two years in prison after trying to kill a Carnegie Steel bigwig, and Goldman herself was later arrested because the man who assassinated President McKinley had attended one of her lectures.

After she was released, Goldman disappeared from public life for several years, but then returned to the political scene and began publishing the journal Mother Earth, which had an eleven-year run. She got involved with the Free Speech League, which later evolved into the ACLU, and gave lectures on the topic of free speech.

Reproductive Rights and Anti-War Activism

In 1915 and 1916, Goldman became an advocate for women's rights to birth control, and ultimately, general reproductive choice. She smuggled birth control into the country and was arrested several times, though that campaign was cut short by World War I. Speaking out on conscientious objection, Goldman served a prison term and then was deported to the Soviet Union for her views.

During her time in the United States, Goldman focused not only on birth control, but on sexual freedom for women in general. The Jewish Women's Archive describes her radical views – she felt that the patriarchy was oppressive and restrained women, that marriage was legalized prostitution, and that requiring women to bear children limited them socially and economically. Interestingly, she was opposed to the suffrage movement because she felt that its approach was illusory and rooted in middle-class privilege, and that it would not bring any real improvement to women's inferior position.

Goldman was criticized even by her progressive and anarchist colleagues for her views on homosexuality. She believed in free love, regardless of gender and regardless of sexual preference. In a letter excerpted in the 2001 anthology Come Out Fighting (Chris Bull, ed.), Goldman explained her views on homosexuality in a logical and reasoned manner. Though she denied the lesbianism of a colleague in that letter, she also made clear her acceptance of homosexuality and the lack of a preference for one form of sexuality over another.

Emma Goldman was clearly far ahead of her time. She not only was a forerunner in the women's rights movement, the birth control movement, and the free speech movement, but wrote and spoke in a way that made clear her logical approach to sensitive issues. She refused to accept second-best, and believed in the power of love, openness, and community.

The copyright of the article Women's Rights Activist & Anarchist Emma Goldman in Gender Equality Activists is owned by Judith Faucette. Permission to republish Women's Rights Activist & Anarchist Emma Goldman in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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