Women of Valor

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Love & Sexuality

Emma Goldman, 1869 - 1940

Unlike some of her comrades, whose radical politics were matched by often conventional private lives, Goldman believed individuals should enter into and leave personal relationships with no constraints, a view determined by both her commitment to the principle of absolute freedom and her own disappointing experience of marriage. "If I ever love a man again," she said in 1889, "I will give myself to him without being bound by the rabbi or the law, and when that love dies, I will leave without permission."

Goldman applied her ideas about free love consistently to women and men, homosexuals and heterosexuals. Her advocacy of homosexual rights earned her opposition even from some within the anarchist community, who believed such an unpopular position would only heighten hostility toward the anarchist movement. As usual, Goldman was as ready to defy her own comrades as her political adversaries.

Believing that love and sexuality were crucial to personal and professional fulfillment, Goldman engaged in numerous passionate affairs throughout her life. Her first important relationship was with her life-long comrade, Alexander Berkman; her longest and most torrid affair was with her manager, Ben Reitman, who aroused a sense of her own sexuality that at times overwhelmed her rational, analytic side. "You have opened up the prison gates of my womanhood," she wrote to him. "[A]ll the passion that was unsatisfied in me for so many years, leaped into a wild reckless storm boundless as the sea."

Goldman cycled often between the energy, excitement and ecstasy that accompanied a new affair and the despair and hopelessness she experienced when the relationship failed to live up to her expectations. Despite her commitment to free love, Goldman was unable to overcome desperate feelings of jealousy, and she had trouble reconciling her public image as a strong, independent woman with the insecurity and pain men caused her. "[T]he world would stand aghast," she commented, "that I,...the strong revolutionist,...should have been as helpless as a shipwrecked crew on a foaming ocean."

Notes: 
  1. Quotation beginning "If ever I love a man again" from Emma Goldman, Living My Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), 36.
  2. Quotation beginning "You have opened up the prison gates" from letter from Emma Goldman to Ben Reitman, September 27, 1908, University of Illinois, Circle Campus, cited in Candace Falk, Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984), 4, revised paperback edition from Rutgers University Press, 1990, 1999.
  3. Quotation beginning "The world would stand aghast" from letter from Emma Goldman to Ben Reitman, July 29, [1911], University of Illinois, Circle Campus, cited in Falk, Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman, 4.
  4. Additional information from Goldman, 555-556; Falk, Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman, passim.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Emma Goldman - Love & Sexuality." (Viewed on April 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/goldman/love-sexuality>.