Skip To Content

What Emma Goldman Has in Common — With Bernie Sanders

Emma Goldman (1869–1940), the Lithuanian Jewish anarchist, was widely known in America as Red Emma for her defense of free speech, labor protests, women’s rights and birth control. Although she was deported from the United States in 1919, starting in the 1970s increasing numbers of historians and readers have been drawn to Goldman’s personality and advocacy. Recently, the Forward’s Benjamin Ivry spoke with Donna M. Kowal, author of “Tongue of Fire: Emma Goldman, Public Womanhood, and the Sex Question” (State University of New York Press) and associate professor at SUNY’s the College at Brockport, about the abiding allure of Red Emma.

Benjamin Ivry: In 1896, Emma Goldman praised bomb-throwing anarchists in France and Russia. She conspired to commit one murder, of American industrialist Henry Clay Frick, and refused to condemn the assassination of President McKinley by someone who claimed she had inspired him. Why has Goldman become such a beloved character of late?

Donna M. Kowal: You know she’s been a beloved character for decades in terms of the women’s movement. She really became an icon because of her brazen personality and also her demand for sexual freedom. I think she was a firebrand, she was a sensation. First of all, as a woman playing a public role, she violated gender norms. Not just advocating suffrage, she wanted to go far beyond that and upend the entire political and economic system with her ideas defending working people, poor people and the unemployed.

In “Tongue of Fire” you cite a personal letter written to a friend in 1925, in which Goldman comments, “I am too Jewish to become mystical or to ever accept anything but clear thinking.” Surely Goldman was aware that a Jewish tradition of mysticism exists, even if she had never read the relevant texts?

My interpretation is that she grew up in a Jewish household; her parents were Orthodox, and the home was steeped in tradition. Her family had to flee Lithuania because of mounting anti-Semitic violence. Once she immigrated to the United States, she found herself also fleeing the Jewish traditions of her family. Her father was very domineering and wanted to marry her off at age 15.

In her memoir, “Living My Life,” Goldman mocked her father’s view that “all a Jewish daughter needs to know is how to prepare gefilte fish, cut noodles fine and give the man plenty of children,” yet in 1934 she proudly mailed out a recipe for cheese blintzes, which the Emma Goldman Papersproject has distributed to donors to the archive. It seems a rather indeterminate recipe for someone so uncompromising about other things, using “pot cheese, but farmer’s cheese or dry cottage cheese may be more easily available.” Have you tried this recipe?

I haven’t but I really should. I think her relationship to her Jewish identity was very complicated, cooking abilities aside. She denounced all religions, while identifying as Jewish. Her vision of anarchism was an attempt to transcend labels and categories of social groups.

During her short-lived return to the States in 1934, Goldman was offered a lecture booking in vaudeville theaters. To much of America, was Goldman merely entertainment or a joke, such as telling kids if they did not behave they would be sent to Red Emma?

Definitely. She could pack an audience of over 1,000 easily, and while there were serious supporters such as immigrants, factory workers and intellectuals, probably a majority of her public were spectacle seekers, wondering who is this dangerous woman. There was so much hype that people wanted to see in person this incarnation.

Earlier biographers such as Alix Kates Shulman and Candace Falk suggest that Goldman may disappoint feminists because she appeared to blame women if they were oppressed by men, telling them they were wrong to get married and should escape and seek free love. Does the usefulness of such advice a century ago trouble any Goldman fans today?

That’s a great question. I think most women, especially middle-class women, could not follow her advice. Middle-class women had to be refined and proper and follow their husbands and, before that, their fathers. It was working-class women who were more oppressed in terms of class status, but who were not expected to be confined to the home in the way that middle-class women were.

Is it possible that today some voters might be drawn to the candidate Bernie Sanders as a kind of nostalgic version of Red Emma, advocating an elder Jewish version of socialism and an alternate society? To date, Sanders has spared the electorate lectures on free love, but do such unauthorized products as “Buff Bernie: A Coloring Book for Berniacs”, showing the candidate with superhero muscles, follow Goldman in mixing utopian erotic and socialist dreams?

I think Sanders is tapping into this discourse. Obviously he is not an anarchist, but he is tapping into Goldman’s idealistic imagery that moved people.

One production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Assassins” placed Goldman onstage when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz was preparing to shoot President McKinley. While this is theatrical license, wasn’t Goldman fond of a large number of assassins or wannabe assassins? And wasn’t her influence sometimes noxious?

Yes, and Goldman’s relationship to violence was also complicated. On the one hand, she denounced violence, militarism and war, but on the other hand she clearly expressed empathy with people, fellow activists, who resorted to violence out of desperation and zeal for their cause. She herself dabbled in violence, because she plotted and planned the attempted assassination of Frick, although she was never prosecuted for that. That was part of the symbolism associated with her in the press: Anytime she came to speak, violence could erupt at any moment. Some young women in particular were afraid to go to her lectures, with the police presence and rowdy crowds.

The critic and journalist Vivian Gornick has claimed that “Emma Goldman was not a thinker; she was an incarnation…. Hers was the sensibility not of the intellectual but of the artist; and she performed like an artist, dramatizing for others what they could hardly articulate for themselves.” Would you agree?

I actually disagree with Gornick on that point. I think [Goldman] was both an artist and a thinker. Reading her published works and letters and fragments of her writing over time, you can tell from her ideas on anarchism and oppression that she thought deeply about human oppression and the scope of it.

In “Living My Life,” Goldman wrote about her advocacy of birth control and “contraceptives, particularly at my Yiddish meetings, because the women on the East Side needed that information most.” Why did Jewish women on Manhattan’s Lower East Side need to know about birth control before anyone else a century ago?

There was incredible overcrowding in the immigrant areas, and these women had no control over the number of pregnancies, and that took its toll on their bodies and health. They needed to work to support their families. Reproductive freedom is essential to people working to survive and feed their families.

While being vehemently against nations of all kinds, in the late 1930s Goldman began to accept the need for a country of refuge for the world’s persecuted Jews. Around the same time, she wrote to a friend, “[M]uch as I loathe Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Franco, I would not support a war against them and for the democracies which, in the last analysis, are only Fascist in disguise.” Was she really supporting Jews, or merely suggesting they should have a place to run to when faced with extermination?

As much as she would not advocate for a Jewish homeland, [Goldman] did believe in the struggle for social justice, and the struggle to have a safe place in the world. After she was deported, her views did shift slightly. She visited Ukraine, where pogroms took place, and in a letter to her niece she wrote that there was a Jewish question, expressing concern that Jews could be wiped out. I don’t think that was a major shift, just a slight shift.

Goldman advised the urban poor: “Go into the streets where the rich dwell. Ask for work. If they do not give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take bread.” Was this advice genuinely helpful?

She was basically telling people to steal bread when she spoke in Union Square to unemployed workers who felt a great sense of desperation. Their voices were not being heard; working conditions were miserable in terms of hours and wages. It was a worthwhile statement, I suppose, in mobilizing people. As a long-term solution, perhaps not. In Goldman’s brand of anarchism, she was arguing for complete individual autonomy. She believed that if we got rid of all authority, people would just work together to develop a civil society through voluntary cooperation.


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.