Emma Goldman: Anarchist Badass

This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.

Emma Goldman began her activism before the turn of the century, but the causes she fought for—and her approach to activism—remain resonant today. Here are just a few ways Goldman’s work reflects contemporary feminism.

1. She fought for the fair treatment of factory workers. Goldman emigrated from Russia at 16 and worked in a factory in upstate New York; she got her early activist education from fellow factory workers. One hundred years later, we’re still fighting to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, something that’s an especially relevant feminist issue when you consider that over two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women.

2. She had to deal with sexist media attacks. As we all know, ad hominem attacks on women (and especially those focused on appearance) didn’t start with Hillary Clinton; they’ve persisted for centuries. The criticism Goldman faced from the mainstream media, though, was one of her inspirations for starting her radical paper, Mother Earth, which boasted a huge circulation and got the word out about anarchism and equality.

3. She understood the importance of class unity in social justice movements. Just like Occupy Wall Street united the 99 percent against the exploitative 1 percent, Goldman realized that the middle class needed to be included in the anarchist struggle that was being pushed by the working class for it to gain momentum. As Rodger Streitmatter writes in Voices of Revolution:

Only through the cooperation of the middle and working class would the people of America ‘establish a real unity,’ the dissident journalist [Goldman] wrote, and ‘wage a successful war against present society.’

4. She defended sex workers. Goldman understood that women weren’t just choosing to be prostitutes—they weren’t being given fairer, better-paid options. She asked in 1910,

What is really the cause of the trade in women? Not merely white women, but yellow and black women as well. Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labor, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution.

5. She used her voice to amplify the voices of others. She never took the easy way out, defending factory workers and soldiers and even the presidential assassin who claimed that she was his inspiration. She got arrested dozens of times until she was deported from the U.S., but never gave up on her activist causes. Goldman provided a focus for the burgeoning anarchist movement, and with the independent publication of Mother Earth she kept her readers active and informed.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user douglas_of_sweden licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Alexa Salvato is an undergraduate journalism student at Ithaca College. She is a section editor for Buzzsaw magazine and the community outreach chair of Feminists United. She anticipates a future as a writer and educator.