Saturday, October 8, 2011

Emma Goldman: Dictionary Definition of the Phrase "Incredible Badass" (part I)

As Steampunk Emma Goldman, I feel like it only makes sense for me to talk about the historical woman herself, and the truly amazing things she did in her life. Like all the articles on this blog, this will be a brief overview, and an explanation of why the figure being discussed can, and should, be a source of inspiration for modern activists. Most people will get one entry each, but I'm going to be dividing up Emma Goldman's into several parts, because I'd like to go extra in-depth. Don't like this blatant favoritism towards Emma Goldman? You probably shouldn't be on Steampunk Emma Goldman's blog. The good news is, while I’m biographizing Emma, I’ll be doing two articles a week, not one. One about her, one about someone else amazing.

Emma Goldman, like many future badasses, did not come from a happy home environment. She was born in 1869 to an Orthodox Jewish couple in what is now Lithuania (then the Russian Empire). Her parents’ marriage had been arranged, and her father seemed to have been selected by the matchmaker primarily for his misogyny and violence. He was abusive, and Emma got the worst of his beatings, because, as her biographers say, she was more rebellious than her siblings. This should surprise no one who knows a thing about Emma Goldman. Her siblings would have had to have been Milton's Satan to be more rebellious than Emma.

Her attempts to get educated met with resistance from her father, and by "resistance" I mean throwing her school books in a fire and talking like an offensive, outdated Old Country stereotype ("all a Jewish daughter needs to know is how to make gefilte fish, cut noodles fine, and give the man plenty of children!" he said, apparently in an effort to sound like an evil version of Tevye.) and she had trouble within the school itself, including unwanted sexual advances from a teacher. Emma got herself educated anyway, though it would take a stint in jail for her to really complete her reading list. We'll get to that.

Her father tried to push Emma into an arranged marriage at 15. Perhaps having seen how well that had worked out for her mother, Emma refused. During this time she was working in a corset shop. Sometime when she was working there, she was sexually assaulted, probably raped, by a male acquaintance, in an incident she would later write about but find too traumatizing to discuss in detail.

Somehow, Emma's early life made of her a staunch feminist. Hard to see how her experiences could have left her feeling that women were not being treated well by society, but there you go. She and her sister, Helena also started to get emotionally involved with the news, specifically, with the aftermath of the Haymarket Affair. When the anarchists in Chicago were hanged, Emma and Helena wept openly. While they were doing so, another woman, who had come to her father's house (the family was in Rochester, NY by this time) to discuss the news, sneered at them, referring to the dead men as "murders." Emma, being well-versed in reasoned political discourse, was, in her words "with one the woman's throat." She was pulled back, wrenched herself free, "grabbed a pitcher of water from the table, and threw it with all my force into the woman's face. 'Out, out,' I cried, 'or I will kill you!'" Let it never be said that Emma Goldman was shy about expressing her views. This marks the first, but not the last time that Emma would use a drinking vessel to share her opinions with someone. (Teaser for Part II!)

Not to get too in depth in terms of this early period, by 1889, Emma had been married, divorced, re-married, re-divorced, kicked out of her parents' home, and arrived in New York City, alone, with five bucks and a sewing machine. She immediately started hanging out with a revolutionary crowd on the Lower East Side, meeting up on her first day with Alexander Berkman, a famous anarchist, and like her a Russian Jew, who may also accurately be described as the great, but by no means the only, love of Emma's life. She also met Johann Most, a German anarchist, and an inspirational figure to her, particularly in terms of his discussion of "propaganda of the deed," the use of actions, including violence and destruction to achieve political ends. She idolized him, and when she started doing public speaking and lectures, she was disappointed in herself to realize that she was basically just saying what he always said. Johann Most liked that just fine. Emma Goldman would not be the basis for this blog if she were the type of person to go around parroting what some other guy said, though.

At an early speech, an old man pointed out to her that it was all very well working for a great future, but if he was going to see any benefit from his work he needed reform. Persuaded by the idea that it was valid to try and actually help people in the present, rather than work solely towards a future revolution, something Most was decidedly not down with, Emma began speaking for herself, instead of just repeating Most's ideas. This pleased him not one bit, but Emma was never one to let others dictate her point of view. She would, for the rest of her life, continue to work for both reforms and revolution, and would do work to improve the lives of people shat on by society, for example by feeding the homeless, something some anarchists and communists considered counterproductive, as lessening the suffering of poverty was seen as delaying the revolution. Emma, to the other hand, was not an asshole.

Most started to piss Emma off in more ways. He was always disdainful of women in the anarchist movement, saying that they were just in it to meet a man, and that when they did they took themselves, and the man, out of the movement. After Emma started speaking, she asked him whether he thought she had done well. He said that yes, but he was interested in her as a woman at the moment, not as a speaker. And proceeded to try to hit on her. Emma was having precisely none of that. "I flared up," she said, "declaring I would not be treated as a mere female. I blurted out that I would never again follow blindly...that the five minute speech of the old worker had convinced me more than all of his persuasive phrases." He called her a lot of names, mostly pertaining to various animals, and used the phrase "who is not with me is against me," which is just never a good sign. When he realized she was more into Berkman than she was into him, he demanded to know what she could possibly see in that "Russian Jew."  Emma, somewhat offended, reminded him that she was one of those too.  She got the hell out of that situation.

If you think that's the lowest their relationship could possibly sink, wait till you see what happens after the Homestead Strike. (teaser for Part II!)

During the time she was becoming known as a speaker, Emma was also living the ideal of free love, carrying on sexual relationships with both Alexander Berkman, whom she calls "my pal, Sasha" in her autobiography, and an artist named Fedya, who provided her with the beauty in life that she constantly desired. Sasha was cool with that, more or less. Meantime, she and Sasha (I’ll be calling him that too, because it takes fewer keystrokes) were doing piece-work to support themselves, sewing for as much as eighteen hours a day. Eventually, the three of them opened a cafe and ice cream shop together to pay the bills. It's not her most famous trait, but Emma Goldman was apparently a pretty rockin' cook.

The whole beauty thing, the reason she was so into Fedya, is a really important aspect of Emma Goldman's personality, philosophy, and legacy. Probably her best-known quote is a paraphrase of something she said in her autobiography, usually worded in the fitting-on-a-dorm-room-poster sentence "If I can't dance, I don't want to be in your revolution," or "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution." The actual quote comes from an incident where the young Emma was at a party, and another anarchist, a cousin of Berkman's, basically yelled at her for having too much fun. He told her that she was hurting the Cause (her capital letter, and, presumably, his. Sometimes you can hear capital letters when people talk) by dancing with such "reckless abandon."

Emma responded, first by telling him to "mind his own business," which is always a good diplomatic start. "I did not believe," she said, "that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to behave as a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things. Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world--prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal."

It doesn't fit as well on a poster as the common paraphrase, but it has to rank as one of the coolest things ever said, and it really emphasizes what made Emma Goldman truly special. Her conviction in her ideals wasn't dependent on support from anyone, not even her fellow radicals. Her belief that beauty was a human right was a source of constant struggle for her from the beginning of her life; she was once fired from a job in a factory when she asked for higher wages because, she said, while she could feed and house herself she couldn't afford the occasional luxury of a book, theater ticket, or flower. The boss who fired her noted that she had expensive taste, for a factory girl. Even Sasha used to criticize her love of frivolous extravagances like flowers, but Emma never once allowed anyone to make her feel guilty about her desire for the proverbial bread and roses. When Sasha criticized her for spending money on "luxuries," Emma responded simply "Beautiful things are not luxuries. They are necessaries."

Her love of beauty contradicts the image that Emma's enemies tried to paint of her as a wild-eyed, single-minded fanatic. Emma Goldman was a woman who took great pleasure in life, and who felt that life without pleasure was oppressive, and inherently contrary to her political and philosophical goals. On a personal note, I'd say that's one of the reasons I don't think she'd mind Steampunk Emma Goldman. We're having fun as we get political. I believe she could find it in her heart to respect that.

Here endeth Part I. Tune in for Part II, where people start getting shot.

Specific Lessons for Modern Activists: Oppressive religious upbringings breed either super-religious people, or rebels. Beautiful things are not luxuries, they are necessaries. And if a guy thinks all women are only out to land a man, chances are there's only one thing he wants from women, and it ain't her voice in the revolution, if you know what I’m saying (you know what I’m saying.)

Read more about Emma Goldman in Chapter II, here...


  1. thank you for writing this, I didn't realize how awesome this lady was. truly Emma Goldman is an inspirational figure to us all!

  2. Hi Miriam,
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