Emma Goldman, American anarchist and feminist, advocate of free speech, birth control, and the eight-hour work day, 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 law banning transportation of “obscene” matter through the mail or across state lines. At the time, federal courts interpreted the act as prohibiting distribution of information about contraception.
[W]hen 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 to “the Press,” February 15, 1916. The Emma Goldman Papers
Goldman was born on June 27, 1869, in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire; by the time she was twelve, her family had moved to St. Petersburg. Like most Eastern European Jews, Goldman’s family suffered under the political oppression and anti-Semitism of Imperial Russia. She fled Russia with her sister Helena in 1885, settling in Rochester, New York, where they were soon joined by the rest of their family.
In Rochester, Goldman worked in a garment factory and was briefly married to a fellow laborer and Russian immigrant. Disillusioned with working conditions, she quickly became energized by the growing labor movement. Her acceptance of anarchism–the belief that any form of government is unnecessary and undesirable–grew from the persecution of anarchists and labor leaders during the Haymarket Affair of 1886-87. Following labor protests in Chicago that turned violent, eight anarchists were convicted of bomb throwing without hard evidence, based on the radical content of their writings and speeches; four of the eight were hanged amid broad public outrage. The designation of May Day (May 1) as an international labor holiday commemorated the Haymarket tragedy.
By 1889, Goldman had moved to New York City. Her abilities as a speaker and writer contributed to her prominence among an international group of 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. Emma Goldman was arrested twice (1915 and 1916) and imprisoned once (1916) for lecturing and distributing material in support of birth control.
Goldman was also, in these years, involved in a variety of anarchist activities, ranging from direct actions to lectures to publications such as her Anarchism and Other Essays of 1910. As a co-founder of the No-Conscription LeagueExternal in 1917 Goldman was again arrested—this time for speaking against the selective draft law. After two years in prison in Missouri, she was deported to Russia in 1919 along with several hundred other radical immigrants. Goldman 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, where she wrote her memoir, Living My Life of 1931; and in Toronto, Canada, where she died in 1940. Though banned in her lifetime, Emma Goldman returned to the United States for her final resting place: she is buried in a Chicago cemetery near the monument erected for the Haymarket Martyrs.
- Read Socialism, Feminism, and Suffragism, the Terrible Triplets, Connected By the Same Umbilical Cord, and Fed From the Same Nursing Bottle (1915) by Benjamin Vestal Hubbard. Chapter V, “Race Suicide-Its Suggestion and Approval,” of this anti-suffrage tract contains a section discussing the negative social effects of birth control. Emma Goldman is mentioned on page 192 of this chapter. The document is available through the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection.
- Read “The County Health Nurse”. This interview with a Depression era public health nurse is one of many perspectives available in the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 collection.
- Margaret Sanger was another pioneer in the birth control movement. Read a letter from Emma Goldman to Sanger from 1915. See the finding aid for the Margaret Sanger Papers held in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, and visit the full Margaret Sanger Papers Project External website.
- Works by Emma Goldman are found in a number of collections in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division, including the Anarchism Collection, Paul Avrich Collection, and Radical Pamphlet Collection.
- View films from The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898 to 1906 to see commercial activities on the Lower East Side where Goldman was an activist. Search, for example, on immigrants to view life in the city.
- Read selected newspapers digitized in Chronicling America related to Anarchist Incidents and about Emma Goldman.
- Search on lower east side in the pictorial collections to view hundreds of images of this part of New York City.
- Read the Today in History entry for the Spanish Civil War, a cause for which Goldman devoted her energies in the last years of her life. Additional features highlighting American radicals include Anne Hutchinson, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.