Red Emma

ImageOne of the most dangerous women in America spoke in Hartford on February 12, 1913. “Red Emma” Goldman talked about love and marriage, a subject that was as revolutionary as the anarchist theory she is known for today.

It was as a Connecticut garment worker in 1888 that Emma studied anarchist thought. She was working in a New Haven corset factory at the time. In 1890 she briefly started a dressmaking cooperative in that city and established herself as an organizer among the German, Russian and Jewish immigrants.

In New York, young Emma met Alexander Berkman, whose “propaganda of the deed” led him to try to kill industrialist Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead strike in which workers were murdered by Pinkerton agents. Berkman failed, but landed a twenty-year jail sentence. Emma defended the man who was to become her life partner, which left her isolated from many allies and often forced her to live in parks and whore houses. One year later she was in jail herself on the trumped up charge of “inciting to riot.” There she worked as a nurse’s aide in the prison hospital (she later became a nurse herself). By 1897, her reputation as an activist and theorist had been established, and soon after Emma Goldman was touring throughout New England, across the country and in Europe.

Emma raised funds for the Lawrence textile strikers in 1912 and became friendly with Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Debating a socialist over the question of direct action versus electoral work, Emma recalled in her autobiography that she was aided by a young Wobbly who challenged the socialist by pointing out that the political arena did not serve migratory workers, immigrants, or youth who had no right to vote. She defended the IWW activists who spearheaded the San Diego Free Speech Fight, ignoring her own safety. With the proceeds from her public meetings, Emma and others set up a “feeding station” that provided clothes and food from sympathetic shop keepers. It was during this time that her companion Ben Reitman was kidnapped by vigilantes, tortured and branded with “IWW” on his back.

She published “Marriage and Love” in 1911. The pamphlet analyzed how the social institution of marriage maintains capitalism. Derided as an advocate of “free love” for her view against compulsory monogamy, Emma wrote “Free love? As if love is anything but free it can live in no other atmosphere. In freedom it gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely.” Marriage, on the other hand, “incapacitates [a woman] for life’s struggle, annihilates her social consciousness, paralyzes her imagination.”

The fact that Emma spoke to anyone in Hartford should not be underestimated. Emma Goldman was probably kicked out of more U.S. cities than any other human being. From Burlington Vermont, where the mayor stopped her from a public appearance, to El Paso Texas, where she was allowed to speak in English, but not in Spanish, Emma spent several decades in standoffs with police fighting to simply express her ideas. The New Haven police admitted her into a lecture hall in 1909, but they kept out all the people who came to see her.

More than 500 women and men crowded into Hartford’s Columbia Hall to hear this woman and her dangerous ideas. Emma was accompanied by Alexander Berkman, by then freed from prison. She told the enthusiastic Hartford audience that “in love only comes the divine union between men and women, and the sanction of the church or law cannot make it a bit more sacred or holy.”

Emma Goldman spent her life in struggle–and much more time in jail-by advocating birth control and opposing World War I. By 1919, she was deported to Russia, under the direction of a young government agent who was making a name for himself by attacking “reds.” Emma Goldman was labeled “one of the most dangerous women in America” by J. Edgar Hoover, who personally supervised her deportation (and who never did get married).

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