Education, Activism, and Anarchy: Examining Emma Goldman’s Legacy
Learning about an activist, or really any person, with a complex legacy, is challenging. Balancing the good with the questionable doesn’t mean we should ignore the harder parts of history, but in the end, it’s important to focus on what we can learn from them. And there is a lot we can learn from Emma Goldman.
Emma Goldman was an anarchist feminist writer and activist who fought against injustice throughout her lifetime. Many of the causes that Goldman advocated for a century ago are still matters that are relevant today. Specifically, her advocacy for reproductive rights and freedom of speech inspire me to educate myself and others on these issues, and to take action in meaningful ways.
Goldman worked tirelessly to create change in the world, from when she was a teenager until her death in 1940, and her approaches were unconventional and controversial. When it came to her activism, Goldman strongly believed in the use of education to spread awareness and inspire change. However, she was more than willing to use drastic measures to push for equality.
In 1892, she was involved in the assassination attempt of U.S. industrialist Henry Clay Frick, chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company. Emma Goldman’s use of aggressive tactics show how she didn’t hesitate to take bold action on problems people faced.
Goldman’s dislike for government and authority was very much mutual. She was imprisoned many times by the United States, sometimes wrongfully, and was in constant opposition with the police and authorities. Freedom of speech and expression were critical to Emma Goldman’s core beliefs. She helped found the Free Speech League at the beginning of the 20th century, created largely to respond to legislation designed to limit anarchism. The organization was committed to preserving rights to free expression.
Books and literature are pathways to expressing freedom of speech, something that is very important to me. I believe in the importance of having access to books where you are represented, and where you can read about the experiences and perspectives of others. Reading builds empathy, among other important things, and to see the current rise in book banning across the country has been frustrating, to say the least.
Book bannings have become commonplace in schools across the United States, with members of the far right targeting books because of content they have deemed inappropriate. Countless books have been removed from library shelves because they contain discussions about race, have LGBTQ+ characters, or discuss other themes that are supposedly too “mature” for schoolchildren to read. Notably, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman, which is about the Holocaust, was banned in a Tennessee school district in January 2022. Spiegelman responded in shock, calling the action “Orwellian” in an interview. Unfortunately, that was just one of many situations where books with important messages and lessons have been banned.
Fortunately, people and institutions aren’t just standing by as this is happening. Organizations like the American Library Association, Unite Against Book Bans, and PEN America have compiled data about current bans, and create ways that anyone can take action.
Goldman also was passionate about birth control access and education. She fought for sexual and reproductive freedom in a time “when the dissemination of birth control information was punishable as obscene publication.” Goldman believed that contraception was key to women’s freedom in all forms – social, sexual, and economic. She lectured about birth control and distributed material in support of it, being arrested twice and imprisoned once for her actions. Since the reversal of Roe v Wade in June 2022, which ended the federally protected right to abortion, there have been an increase in strict abortion bans across the country, as well as counter efforts to preserve reproductive rights. Some of the bans have been blocked or overturned by popular vote on ballots, and voters have shown up in the polls to protect abortion rights.
Goldman would no doubt feel very passionately about these two issues in the present day as she fought for the same things during her own lifetime. However, Goldman was not a nonviolent protester, and would most likely criticize attempts from both of these movements for being too diplomatic, delicate, and lawful. I think she would likely encourage direct action, advocating for more drastic measures and more violent protests. I do believe that she would be in favor of the educational efforts taking place as she worked to educate people during her life.
While I don’t believe that violent methods are the most effective way to make change, I admire how Emma Goldman worked tirelessly for change, and we can all learn from her dedication to educating the masses. I also think it's important to acknowledge Goldman’s frame of reference a century ago compared to how we look at activism today. I’ve grown up learning about peaceful activism with the nonviolent examples of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Gandhi led India to freedom from British colonial rule in 1947, seven years after Emma Goldman died, and Martin Luther King Jr. gave his first public speech during his junior year of high school, in 1944. It's easy to criticize Goldman’s harsher approaches, but these powerful examples of nonviolent activism came after her time.
Emma Goldman believed in equality, and devoted her life to battling the many wrongs she saw in the world. She never stopped fighting for what she believed in, and refused to be silenced. To apply her late 19th and early 20th century tactics to our modern day movements is difficult, as the situations and contexts are vastly different. However, I have learned a lot by looking at how she took bold and direct action on the issues that mattered most to her, and her persistence in fighting for change.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.