Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

EMMA GOLDMAN
(1869-1940), feminist anarchist

MARTHA SOLOMON

When sixteen-year-old Emma Goldman arrived in the United States as an immigrant from Russia in 1885, almost nothing in her background suggested her future fame as a strident advocate for anarchism, a scathing critic of cherished U.S. institutions, and an influential figure in U.S. intellectual and social history. With little formal education and less money, she, like most immigrants, saw the United States as the land of opportunity. Still, her experiences with repressive politics in Russia, her identification with the radical idealism of the Russian Nihilists, and her reading of revolutionary literature had sown the seeds for her commitment to social change ( Living My Life, 26-29). While the trial and execution of the Haymarket anarchists in 1887 distressed her deeply, the injustice of their fate also provided her with a direction for her enormous energies. Their deaths, she later recalled, "gave me the first impulse towards the vision for which the Chicago men had been done to death by the blind furies of wealth and power" ( Johann Most, American Mercury, June 1926:158). Inspired by their martyrdom, she began regularly attending socialist meetings and eagerly writing for advertised literature. "I devoured every line on anarchism I could get," she wrote in her autobiography ( Living My Life, 9-10).


BACKGROUND

With her ideology still evolving, in 1889 Goldman moved to New York City and into the active radical community there. Here a chain of circumstances led her to assume the role of public advocate for anarchism. She immediately met Johann Most, whose radical writings had inspired her growing commitment to anarchism. Himself a renowned and effective orator, Most perceived Goldman's potential as a public speaker. Encouraging and training her, he soon arranged speaking engagements. Those initial lectures, in which she simply parroted Most's ideas, taught her two important lessons as a speaker. Embarrassed by her inability to respond effectively to questions from the audience, she realized "the need for independent thinking"; also emboldened, she "wept with the joy of knowing . . . I could sway people with words" ( Living My Life, 51-53).

A commitment to women's causes grew out of her work as a practical nurse in impoverished areas of New York City. There the scourge of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions among poor women deepened her commitment to fundamental economic and political change. These experiences also convinced her that women suffered particularly from the pressures of institutionalized religion and conventional morality.

Although she initially confined her work to Yiddish-speaking audiences, as

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