Today in History

Today in History: February 11

Emma Goldman

Portrait of Emma Goldman
Emma Goldman,
March 6, 1934.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964

...when a law has outgrown time and necessity, it must go and the only way to get rid of the law is to awaken the public to the fact that it has outlived its purposes and that is precisely what I have been doing and mean to do in the future.

Emma Goldman, Letter to the Press, February 11, 1916.
Goldman Collection, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, presented online in The Emma Goldman Papers (external link), Berkeley Digital Library Sun SITE (external link).

Emma Goldman, American anarchist and feminist, compelling advocate of free speech, the eight-hour work day, and birth control, was arrested in New York City on February 11, 1916, just prior to giving another public lecture on family planning. She was charged with violating the Comstock Act, an 1873 statute banning transportation of "obscene" matter through the mails or across state lines. At the time, federal courts interpreted the statute as prohibiting distribution of contraception information.

Goldman was born on June 27, 1869, in Kovno, a Russian city now part of Lithuania.Like most poor Russian Jews, Goldman's family suffered under the political oppression and anti-Semitism of imperial Russia. She fled Russia with her sister Helena in 1885, settled in Rochester, New York, and was briefly married to a fellow Russian immigrant. Goldman worked in a garment factory, and disillusioned with working conditions there, she joined the labor movement.

Goldman’s political awakening continued. Her acceptance of anarchism--the belief that any form of government is unnecessary and undesirable--grew as a result of the persecution of anarchist and labor leaders of the Haymarket Affair of 1886-87.

Trial Evidence Book.
Illinois vs. August Spies et al. Trial Evidence Book. Defense Exhibit 1.,
Chicago Anarchists on Trial: Evidence from the Haymarket Affair, 1886-1887

Goldman moved to New York City in 1889. Her abilities as a speaker and writer contributed to her prominence among political radicals.

In the 1890s, Goldman worked as a nurse and a midwife among poor immigrants in New York City's Lower East Side. She campaigned for legalized birth control, believing that contraception was essential to women’s social, sexual, and economic freedom. Goldman was arrested twice (1915 and 1916) and imprisoned once (1916) for lecturing and distributing material in support of birth control.

Emma Goldman, Facing the Camera
Emma Goldman, Facing the Camera,
Chicago, Illinois, 1906.
Photographs from the Chicago Daily News

A co-founder of the No-Conscription League, in 1917, Goldman was again arrested—this time for speaking against the selective draft law . After two years in prison, she was deported to Russia in 1919. She lived and worked in Russia until 1921, when she left, disillusioned with the Russian Revolution.

Exiled from the United States, Emma Goldman traveled through Europe, delivering lectures as an advocate of anarchism and individual freedom. She lived for a time in St. Tropez, France, and in Canada, where she died in 1940.