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.
…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.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 External of 1886-87. 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. 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.
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, Berkeley Digital Library Sun SITE External.
- 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 collection Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921.
- 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 – 1940 collection.
- See Chicago Anarchists on Trial: Evidence from the Haymarket Affair, 1886-1887 External for images of original manuscripts, broadsides, photographs, prints, and artifacts relating to the Haymarket Affair.
- View actuality films from The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906 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.
- Search on lower east side in the pictorial collections to view hundreds of images of this part of New York City.
- Additional Today in History features highlighting American radicals include Anne Hutchinson, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.