Wednesday, January 30, 2013

177: The Self-Empowered Woman: Emma Goldman

Dear Followers,

Today I'd like to introduce you to a genuinely unique Self-Empowered Woman who devoted her entire life to fighting against the status quo. Emma Goldman was born on June 27th, 1869, in what (today) is called Lithuania, but at the time of her birth was Russia.

Emma's mother, Taube, had been married and widowed (and the mother of two young girls) before she met Abraham Goldman, the man her family had "arranged" for her to marry. She had married her first husband when she was only 15, and Emma later wrote that "whatever love she had died with [him]." It was a tense marriage, at best. Their first child was Emma, but Abraham had set his heart on having a son.

He was an extremely violent man whose bad investments had lost Taube's inheritance. The couple eventually had three sons, but Abraham was a violent father and frequently whipped Emma because she was, according to him, the most rebellious of their children (1: No Paternal Safety Net).

As a little girl, Emma witnessed a peasant being beaten, and the event so traumatized her that she actively fought against violent authority for the rest of her life (2: An Early Sense of Direction). Even as a schoolgirl she was often punished by her teachers, even though she loved going to school.

Because of the family's poverty she was forced to go to work instead of continuing her education. When she begged her father to let her return to school, he threw her French book into the fireplace and told her "Girls do not have to learn much! All a Jewish daughter needs to know is how to prepare gefilte fish, cut noodles fine, and give the man plenty of children." In spite of his opinion, she studied on her own and refused to marry the man he chose for her when she was only 15 (17: Dreaming Your Own Dream).

When she was 16, she and her older sister emigrated to Rochester, New York (14: Selective Disassociation), to live with their other sister and her husband. Soon the rest of the family moved to America to escape antisemitism. Emma began work as a seamstress, making overcoats for ten hours a day but only earning two and a half dollars a week. When she asked for a raise but was refused, she took a job at a smaller shop nearby.

That's where she met Jacob Kershner, who shared her love for books, dancing, and traveling; they also shared a deep frustration with factory work. They married in 1887, but within the year they were divorced (15: Forget About Prince Charming). When Emma refused to take him back her parents criticized her "loose" behavior, and refused to let her in their home. With her sewing machine and five dollars, she left Rochester and moved to New York City.

On her first day, she met Alexander Berkman who invited her to hear a lecture by Johann Most, who advocated violence to create change. Berkman and Goldman would remain close for decades, and Most helped Emma become an active anarchist. In her early 20's, she was already considered "a dangerous woman," and was actually sentenced to one year in Blackwell's Island Penitentiary. During her time there a visiting doctor helped her study medicine, and she began work reading dozens of books by American activist-authors (Emerson, Thoreau, etc.).

Since nursing students in the U.S. couldn't study massage or midwifery, she moved to Europe and lectured in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. She also went to Vienna and Paris, and even helped to organize the International Anarchist Congress.

She returned to America but in 1901, she was arrested on charges of influencing the man (Leon Czolgosz) who shot President William McKinley, and held in jail for two weeks. Because she refused to condemn the shooter, she was vilified by newspapers as well as by other anarchists. After he was executed she retreated because "It was bitter and hard to face life anew." Depressed, defeated and alone (Berkman was in jail), she used the name E.G. Smith, vanished from public life, and worked as a private nurse (12: Hard Times)

In 1906, she decided to start a publication for young idealists. Mother Earth was a platform for writings about anarchism, atheism, feminism and sexuality. In 1907, after Berkman was freed, Emma went on a national fundraising tour and left him in charge of the magazine, but while she was gone he had an affair with a 15 year old anarchist (15). In 1908, she fell in love with Ben Reitman (the Hobo doctor), but he was unfaithful as well (15).

She opposed WWI, and was arrested for two years for doing so. She and Berkman were deported in 1918, along with 249 others, and sailed from New York to Finland before arriving in Russia. Her experiences there led to her 1923 book My Disillusionment in Russia. In her book Anarchismm and Other Essays she wrote that anarchismm stood 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."

She paid a big price for her beliefs (7: Magnificent Obsession), including those about contraception and homosexuality. Goldman died in 1940, at the age of 70; to learn more about her turbulent life, dip into Vivian Gornick's new biography Emma Goldman (Yale, 151 pp., $25).

Looking forward to your comments...

No comments:

Post a Comment