One of the twentieth century’s most famous advocates of anarchism, Emma Goldman earned the nickname Red Emma for her controversial political activism. Her eloquent and compelling public speeches won considerable support for her radical ideas. Often, her work also caught the attention of the United States government and she was jailed more than once.
Goldman was born in Lithuania in 1869. She lived alternately with her parents and her grandmother, and after just a few years of formal education, she went to work in a St. Petersburg factory to help support the family. As a teenager, she moved with her sister to Rochester, New York. Goldman took work in a clothing factory where she became acquainted with members of a German socialist group and began to develop an interest in their political agenda. She soon moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where she met a community of Russian socialists and anarchists. She grew increasing committed to the idea of anarchy and decided to move to New York to work actively as an anarchist.
In New York, Goldman joined a radical community surrounding the anarchist newspaper, Die Freiheit, edited by Johann Most. She became involved with another Russian anarchist, Alexander Berkman. Though the relationship was cut short when Berkman was sent to prison for his attempted murder of Henry C. Frick (Goldman admitted to helping plan this crime), they resumed contact after his release and continued to work together. In the meantime, Goldman developed a talent for public speaking. In 1893, she was arrested for inciting a riot when she told workers to demand bread and to take it if it wasn’t given to them. She was sentenced to a year in prison.
After her release, Goldman gave lecture tours in the United States and throughout Europe. She founded and edited Mother Earth, an anarchist magazine in which she called for the complete abolishment of government. Her speeches and writings influenced many, including Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley in Buffalo, New York, in 1901. Czolgosz claimed that Goldman inspired him to take action against the government. Though she was never connected to the crime, Goldman defended Czolgosz’s actions, which led to significant police harassment and public scorn.
As World War I approached, Goldman and Alexander Berkman coordinated an anti-conscription campaign. They were arrested for conspiracy to obstruct selective service and imprisoned for two years. Upon her release late in 1919, a federal court stripped Goldman of her United States citizenship. She, along with Berkman and other political dissidents, was deported. Goldman spent many years traveling throughout Europe seeking refuge. During this time, she wrote two books, My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) and Living My Life (1931).
After her deportation, Emma Goldman returned to the United States only once, on a ninety-day visa. It was during this visit that Carl Van Vechten photographed her. The two had known one another since the days of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s New York City salon in the 1910s. “Though she was referred to disrespectfully by the press of the day as ‘that Goldman woman,’” Van Vechten wrote, “I found her about as radical as a Presbyterian in good standing. The anarchist, of course, believed in complete individualism but when one of her group was tarred and feathered . . . she sent for the police.”1
Van Vechten’s photos of Goldman are some of the most famous images of the woman who has been called the mother of anarchism in America. Goldman liked the photographs, which, in a letter to Van Vechten, she referred to as “the splendid work you have done with my mug.”2