June 27, 1869– Emma Goldman:
If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.
Goldman was an anarchist noted for her political activism, smart writing and stirring public speeches. She played a pivotal role in the development of political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the 20th century. She lived an engrossing life worthy of being told in a feature film as someone more than a supporting character.
Goldman does figure in a major way in one of my all-time favorite novels, Ragtime (1975) by E. L. Doctorow, and in the 1981 film version directed by Miloš Forman (1981), and in the stage musical (1996) of the same name based on the book, also favorites.
She has been the subject or a character in several films, plays, biographies, and novels, perhaps most notably by Maureen Stapleton, who won a much-deserved Academy Award for her role in Warren Beatty‘s Reds (1981). Another great is Stephen Sondheim‘s brilliant stage musical Assassins (1990), yet no film has been made that tells her own remarkable story. I think it is the right moment for such a film. I suggest that Bill Condon write and direct, and that I star as Goldman. Look at the resemblance, it is uncanny. I was born to play this role and it needs to be made in 3D!
Goldman was exceptionally famous during her era. If she were alive today she would have her own reality show: Blowin’ Shit Up With Emma on the TLC network. During her lifetime, Goldman was described by the press as “the most dangerous woman in America”. She was a multi-hyphenate for sure: Atheist-Feminist-Agitator-Prison Reformer-War Resister-Unionist-Birth Control Advocate-Cabaret Artist. After her death, and through the middle part of the 20th century, her fame faded. Historians viewed her as a great orator and activist, but did not regard her as an important political philosopher or theoretical thinker.
At a time when it was nearly unthinkable, Goldman spoke out publicly in defense of gay individuals, defending their right to choose who and how they loved. She faced criticism from others on the Left who feared that embracing the cause of equal rights for homosexuals would damage their other political work. Goldman was as unaffected by these fears as she was by the condemnation of those on the right. She continued to support Gay Rights throughout her life. Goldman was the first American I know of to truly take up the civil rights of gay people before the general public. In her speeches and publications she defended the fundamental right of gay men and lesbians and she condemned the fear and stigma associated with homosexuality. Goldman:
It is a tragedy, I feel, that people of a different sexual type are caught in a world which shows so little understanding for homosexuals and is so crassly indifferent to the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life.
In 1919, the U.S. Government, particularly cross-dressing J. Edger Hoover‘s Justice Department, had Goldman deported to Russia because of her rabble-rousing views. She did not fare well with The Bolsheviks. They found her brand of free speech to be totally bourgeois. She traveled around Europe relying on the kindness of admirers. In 1933, Goldman received permission to return to the USA under the condition that she only speak in public about her autobiography Living My Life (1931) and not specifically about politics. She returned to New York City, greeted by admirers and reporters imploring her for interviews. When her visa expired a few months later, she went to Canada, and that is where she stayed.
Goldman was a committed atheist. A nurse by training, she was an early advocate for educating women about contraception. Like many feminists of her time, she saw abortion as a tragic consequence of social conditions, and birth control as the most positive alternative. Goldman was also an advocate of free love, and a strong critic of marriage. She saw the earlier wave of feminists as bounded by social forces of Puritanism and Capitalism. Goldman:
We are in need of unhampered growth out of old traditions and habits. The movement for women’s emancipation has so far made but the first step in that direction.
Goldman gave her last speech in 1940. After suffering a series of strokes, she finally shut-up for good while on a speaking tour in Canada. Her handlers had to obtain permission from the U.S. State Department to bring her body back to America. You can visit her now at the German cemetery in beautiful Forest Park, Illinois.
In the 1960s, the New Left rediscovered her radicalness. In the 1970s, feminists took her up as an icon. A quote attributed to her: “If I can’t dance I won’t take part in your revolution…” became a touchstone. Academia adopted her in the 1980s, with Goldman projects supported by universities, foundations, and even the federal government.
Today Emma Goldman is considered one of the great American individualists, with tee-shirts, posters and mugs to prove it. Yet, the radical and modern tamed Goldman cohabit together uneasily. Perhaps the last word should be given to Goldman herself, who said when she returned to America after 14 years of exile:
I was always considered bad, my friends, but now I am worse.