Emma Goldman was born in Kovno, Russia and emigrated to live with a sister in Rochester, New York when she was fifteen. Her family’s financial hardships forced her to leave school and work in a factory; her first job in America was as a seamstress in a clothing factory.
Goldman´s political consciousness was shaped by reading (Cherychevsky, Kropotkin), by her first-hand knowledge of miserable working conditions and, most dramatically, by the violent outcome of the 1886 Haymarket demonstrations on behalf of the eight-hour workday at Haymarket Square in Chicago, when, despite an absence of proof, four Anarchists were executed for allegedly causing the deaths of seven policemen. In 1889, Goldman moved to New York where she became a protégée of Johann Most, the editor of an Anarchist paper. From 1906 until 1917, she and her partner, Alexander Berkman, edited and published their own paper, Mother Earth. She wrote five books: Anarchism and Other Essays (1910); Social Significance of the Modern Drama (1914); My Disillusionment in Russia (1923); My Further Disillusionment in Russia (1924); Living My Life (1931).
In her writing and public speaking Goldman was a gadfly. She championed free speech, birth control, women’s equality and labor unions. She said: “The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause, as, for instance, the black man’s right to his body, or the woman’s right to her soul.” Today we take these rights for granted, but a century ago her words challenged the national conscience. Another of her bold statements still resonates today: “…if the production of any commodity necessitates the sacrifice of human life, society should do without that commodity, but it cannot do without that life.”
Emma Goldman was arrested and detained several times for her activism, but her most severe punishment--two years in prison--was for obstructing the draft during World War I. In 1919, she and Berkman were deported to Russia where she was able to witness the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution. At odds with Bolshevik dictatorship, she left again in 1921. She was permitted to re-enter the United States on a speaking tour in 1924. Marriage to a Welshman gained her English citizenship, and she lived in London during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Goldman visited Spain several times during the conflict, where she sought refuge for women and children displaced by the war and spoke out against the forces of Fascism. She died in Toronto in 1940 and is buried in Chicago, not far from Haymarket Square.