Dangerous Women-Dangerous Ideas

Article excerpt


In a review of Phyllis Grosskurth's (1980) biography of Havelock Ellis published 22 years ago in the SIECCAN Newsletter (Greenland, 1981), I recalled that Ellis had been a hero of mine since childhood. I also opined that "if the Editor of The Lancet and the Judges found his writing to be 'disgusting and obscene,' intuitively I was in favor of it." From an early age, I had similar feelings about Emma Goldman, Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger. As a child, growing up in the east end of London, England, I met both Goldman and Stopes and admired them enormously. Much later, I was thrilled to discover that Margaret Sanger and Havelock Ellis had been lovers until his death in 1939.

Over the years, as an academic and as a researcher studying the work and influence of the Canadian Eugenic Society, I was privileged to read the enormous collection of Marie Stopes papers in the British Library and at the Wellcome Institute in London. Similarly, I studied the correspondence and the publications of Goldman and Sanger. Now, as a cranky old man with no desire to write "another lousy book" or to get published in professional journals, I am passionately engaged in writing a play (or a three-part TV docudrama) about the lives, labours and the loves of Goldman, Stopes and Sanger. What follows, in Part 1, is a discursive account of my remembrances and impressions of these dangerous women and their dangerous ideas. Part 2 consists of a memoir titled, "Emma Goldman, Marie Stopes and Me."


Human progress depends on the actions of very small groups of eccentrics who, while "marching to a different drummer," challenge the existing social order and defy traditional beliefs and values. To succeed, pioneers or forerunners must be articulate, resolute, resourceful, passionate and highly intelligent. As pioneers of birth control and of the sexual revolution, Goldman, Stopes and Sanger were well endowed with these qualities. They knew each other well and were, in turn, best friends, bitter enemies and fierce competitors. However, having no great empire to protect, Emma was probably much more companionable than were her colleagues Marie and Margaret. Because she lived, worked and died in Toronto, Emma's story comes first.

GOLDMAN, EMMA, 1869-1940

Born in Lithuania, Emma died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Toronto at the age of 71. As an infant, she moved with her large Jewish family to St. Petersburg, Russia. At the age of 15, to escape an arranged marriage, she emigrated to Rochester, New York and worked in the Garment district. Following a miserable marriage, Emma left her husband, moved to New York City and joined the Anarchist movement. After serving prison sentences for political offences, Goldman was deprived of her American citizenship, banished from the United States, and compelled to seek refuge in France and finally in Canada.

Internationally renowned as "Queen of the Anarchists", Red Emma preached in Russian, German, Yiddish and English. Her heart-felt message was that "private property, the church and the state were great evils." She also demanded "perfect, unrestrained freedom for everyone." Opposed in principle to the institution of marriage, Emma championed "free love" and "effective birth control" as basic human rights. At the same time, she was not opposed to marrying for convenience and did so on several occasions.

Unlike her two colleagues, who gained financial security from second marriages to wealthy men, Emma endured poverty, depressions and disappointment throughout her revolutionary life in Toronto. One of her great hardships was living in dingy, vermin-infested apartments on Spadina Avenue. Much worse was the daunting experience of living communally with "comrades" where she lacked privacy and the opportunity to entertain her relatives, friends and lovers.

Reflecting on Goldman's life in Canada, George Woodcock (cited in Featherling, 1980) claimed that

   she was one of my favourites largely because 
   of the way in which she shattered categories. …