Women of Valor


Political Awakening

Emma Goldman, 1869 - 1940

Dreaming of a new world of equality, justice and freedom, Goldman and her sister Helena fled Russia for the United States in 1885. As they sailed into the New York harbor, Goldman rejoiced in her arrival in "the free country, the asylum for the oppressed of all lands." "We, too," she thought, "would find a place in the generous heart of America."

Goldman's hopes were quickly shattered by the dismal realities of working-class life. Settling with relatives in Rochester, NY, she found work in a factory. Although conditions were better than in Russia, the pace of work was faster, the discipline was harsher, and Goldman was paid only $2.50 for a 10 ½-hour day. Family and communal life, moreover, could be as restrictive as those she had left behind. Evidently, "the golden land" did not always live up to its promises.

A series of shocking events soon sparked Goldman's political awakening. On May 4, 1886, labor and radical activists held a rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square to protest the brutal suppression of a strike by the police. As the police attempted to stop the meeting, a bomb exploded, injuring many people and killing a police officer. In the ensuing chaos, a number of demonstrators were killed and six officers fatally injured, mostly by police gunfire.

Police and press accused several prominent Chicago anarchists of throwing the bomb that caused the carnage. Despite flimsy evidence, eight were convicted of murder, with seven sentenced to death. Four were executed on November 11, 1887, two had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, and one committed suicide. Broad international protests followed the verdict. Goldman, too, was outraged at what she believed to be a travesty of justice. Convinced of the men's innocence, she began to read everything she could about anarchism.

  1. Quotations beginning "the free country" and "We, too" from Emma Goldman, Living My Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), 11.
  2. Additional information from Goldman, Living My Life, 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; "The Dramas of Haymarket," on the website of the Chicago Historical Society, accessed April 30, 2002, available at http://www.chicagohistory.org/dramas; Candace Falk, Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984), 19-20, revised paperback edition from Rutgers University Press, 1990, 1999.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Emma Goldman - Political Awakening." (Viewed on April 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/goldman/political-awakening>.