By Francesca Panseri
During the winter of 1927, in the French coastal city of Saint-Tropez, the anarchist Emma Goldman (1869–1940) began writing her autobiography, Living My Life (1931). The cottage she stayed in was provided by Peggy Guggenheim.
During that winter I met Emma Goldman and Alexander (Sasha) Berkman. They were glamorous revolutionary figures and one expected them to be quite different. They were frightfully human. Emma was very vain and it took me years to see through her. First I worshiped her and when later I was disillusioned she did not like it and she revenged herself by leaving me out of her memoirs.
Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century (London: Andre Deutsch, 1979), p. 76.
Who is Emma Goldman?
Emma Goldman was an intense, courageous, and freethinking idealist. She was an anarchist and a political activist, who believed in and fought for freedom of expression, the emancipation of women, social equality, and free love.
Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in 1869 in Kaunas, Lithuania, her childhood was marked by religious and gender oppression. Although her father opposed her intellectual training, from a very young age she managed to develop her own critical conscience by reading and observing the political and social realities that surrounded her. In 1886 she left Russia for the United States, the land of promised freedom. There she discovered the poetry of Walt Whitman, but also living conditions and a mindset she considered even more backwards than Russia, especially for the working classes and women. In the aftermath of the violent Chicago Haymarket affair that same year, Goldman decided to liberate humanity from the dominant capitalist, patriarchal, and hierarchical structures of society. In New York in 1889, she met the famous anarchist writer, Alexander Berkman, who became her lover and lifelong friend. She began giving public speeches on social and gender equality, which were regularly interrupted by the authorities. She founded the anarchist journal Mother Earth (1907–15), for which she wrote essays on socialism, war, sexuality, and feminism, later collected and published in Anarchism and Other Essays (1910).
She was imprisoned on more than one occasion for her revolutionary ideas and initiatives, and in 1919 she was deported from the United States to Soviet Russia, where she remained until 1923. She thus had the opportunity to closely observe the consequences of the Bolshevik revolution. She was deeply disappointed and became one of the few voices of the European Left to criticize the Russian experiment. She continued to support the battles of anarchists everywhere until her death in Canada in 1940. She is buried in Chicago near the graves of those executed after the Haymarket affair and other famous radicals and revolutionaries.
What made her credible was the fact that that every battle she fought in society was first and foremost a battle that she fought within herself. She was consistent in her idea that social change must be brought about by individuals. Her determined fight for the rights of women was particularly relevant and openly contrasted with the suffragist movements at the time, which she considered bourgeois and essentially ineffective. For Goldman, feminism was not an attempt to pursue social equality and political rights bestowed by external authority. Instead, it was an internal transformation that needed to take place first in women and later in men, with the knowledge that a woman was in charge of her own body and her mind. Furthermore, no one else could condition or direct her development. This process of liberation could not and would not take place against men, to their detriment, but was reciprocal—freedom for both sexes promised happiness and liberation to different, yet complementary human beings. In building relationships between the sexes, love plays a fundamental role and for this reason it must be freed from procreation. Goldman was an early advocate for educating women about contraception and birth control. Therefore, free and equal women and men can weave fair and sincere relationships, love and feel loved, and collaborate in building a better and fairer society.