Feminist Frequency features The Revolutionary Life of Emma Goldman

By Tariq Khan, BRRN

This short video on Emma Goldman is useful as an introduction, is well produced, is appealing, and will likely spark people’s interest in learning more about Emma Goldman. That last point alone makes it worthwhile. However, be aware that it waters Goldman down to make her palatable to a liberal feminist audience.

Anti-capitalism was central to Goldman’s analysis of social institutions, but this film does not use the word capitalism even once, instead saying Goldman rejected “business interests.” She was also far more antagonistic to the suffrage movement than this makes it seem. She saw the suffragists as bourgeois individualists who had no connection to the kind of working-class immigrant women and men that Goldman organized with. She saw that working-class men had the right to vote, and were still oppressed and exploited, so what good would that same right do working-class women?

Goldman called for a revolutionary people’s movement organizing to destroy an unjust system, rather than further assimilating middle and upper-class women into an unjust system. This video frames it as though she agreed with suffrage but felt it was less important than other kinds of organizing. In reality, she wrote that “suffrage is an evil” which “has only helped to enslave people.”

One correction: the video calls Goldman heterosexual, however this is not accurate. She had women lovers, such as Almeda Sperry. The real Goldman was far more dangerous and radical than what may appeal to mainstream liberal feminists. She was openly and proudly anarchist. She defended revolutionary violence. She took part in an assassination plot to kill industrialist Henry Clay Frick as revenge for the Homestead Massacre. She refused to denounce Leon Czolgosz’s assassination of U.S. President McKinley. She took part in weapons smuggling operations, a bold prison break plot, support work for armed Mexican anarchist insurgents and Russian insurgents, among several other serious revolutionary endeavors that a middle-class liberal feminist might find off-putting.

While middle-class feminists performed “respectability politics,” Goldman shamelessly taunted US-American Christian values. She fought not simply for some ambiguous and individualistic notion of “personal freedom,” but for anarchism her entire adult life from her humble origins as a Russian immigrant garment worker. To learn more about Emma Goldman, start with her autobiography Living My Life. See also: 1) Anarchism and Other Essays, 2) Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, 3) all volumes of Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, and 4) Anarchy!: An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth. There are also several biographical and theoretical studies of Emma Goldman’s life and ideas by historians and political theorists such as Richard Drinnon, Candace Falk, Paul Avrich, Kathy Ferguson, and Theresa Moritz, among many others.