Women of Valor


Early Years

Emma Goldman, 1869 - 1940

Born on June 27, 1869, in Kovno, Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire), Emma Goldman became acquainted with poverty, injustice and oppression at a young age. She witnessed violence against women and children, landlords brutalizing peasants, and corrupt officials extorting fees from a powerless constituency. Her family experienced significant anti-Semitism, living in Jewish ghettoes and forced to move often in search of opportunity.

Goldman's family provided her with little refuge from the outside world. Although her mother, Taube, was active in the Jewish community, she was frequently depressed and emotionally distant from her children. Her father, Abraham, vented his anger at the difficulties of life by tyrannizing his family. Emma, the special focus of Abraham's rages, recalled him as "the nightmare of my childhood."

As a child, Goldman spent four years at a Jewish elementary school in her grandmother's hometown of Königsberg, doing well academically but rebelling against the capricious authority of the teachers. At thirteen, she moved with her family to St. Petersburg, where she had six more months of schooling and came into contact with radical students and revolutionary ideas.

An avid reader, Goldman devoured works by the Russian populists and nihilists, who sparked her imagination and reinforced her faith that injustice must be confronted. But her father attempted to crush her yearnings for freedom and opportunity. Telling her, "All a Jewish daughter needs to know is how to prepare gefüllte fish, cut noodles fine, and give the man plenty of children," he refused to let her continue her studies. Instead, he sent her to work in a factory and tried to force her into marriage at the age of fifteen.

  1. Quotation "the nightmare of my childhood" cited in Alix Kates Shulman, ed., Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, 3rd edition (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, Inc. 1996), 21.
  2. Quotation beginning "All a Jewish daughter needs" cited in Emma Goldman, Living My Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), 12.
  3. Additional information from Shulman, 20-21; Goldman, passim; "Biographical Essay on Emma Goldman" on the website of the Emma Goldman Papers, accessed March 26, 2002, available at http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/goldman/Curricula/bioessay.html.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Emma Goldman - Early Years." (Viewed on April 19, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/goldman/early-years>.