11 February 1916 – Red Emma

Forty-five year old feminist, anarchist, and civil rights activist Emma Goldman is arrested today as she begins a public lecture on birth control in New York City. She is charged with violating the 1873 Comstock Law, which is named for Anthony Comstock, the former postal inspector who lobbied for its passage and enforced his eponymous statute through the auspices of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which he ran until his death last September. Goldman is accused of ‘transporting obscene, lewd, and lascivious materials’ through the mail. In 1916, simply sending someone information on contraception is a crime in the eyes of federal courts.

Speaking to the press afterwards, she is unrepentant. “When a law has outgrown time and necessity, it must go, and the only way to get rid of the law is to awaken the public to the fact that it has outlived its purpose. And that is precisely what I have been doing and mean to do in the future.” Seeking “the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government,” she is described in The Nation magazine this month as

[the] prophetess of anarchy—the real article, warranted one hundred per cent, pure, name stamped on every package…. In the United States, whither she came with relatives as a young woman, she first emerged from obscurity in 1893, when she was arrested on a charge of inciting to riot by a speech made at a gathering of habitual miscontents in Union Square, New York….

The trial served to bring out in a most illuminating way her vagaries on various subjects, including the facts that she was an atheist and a disbeliever in all government and law, divine or human; that her pet hobby was that the rich are the oppressors of the poor and the ultimate cause of all the suffering and crime in the world, against which the poor are justified in revolting…and that her mission in life was to make the poor understand that the well-to-do are accountable for their poverty, and thus to promote the social revolution….

Most newspaper readers are so accustomed to thinking of Emma Goldman as simply a human firebrand that it is hard to make them realize that by calling she is a dress-maker and a trained nurse. She is a small, wiry woman, about fifty years old, who might be passed anywhere in a crowd without notice. Her sharp black eyes, intense expression, and rather coarse mouth have nothing distinctive about them at the first glance, though they become more significant with familiarity, and her eyeglasses, framed in part by sharply marked brows, give her an air of active mentality which is lacking in some others of her general type. Her face is too symmetrical to be classed as that of a natural “crank,” but you have only to talk with her for five minutes in order to discover how strong an appeal the theatrical side of social chaos makes to her. Smiles she reserves mostly for sneering purposes.

Rather than pay the $100 fine and go free, Goldman chooses to spend two weeks in a prison workhouse alongside those she deems victims of an unfair society. It is typical of her style that Goldman turns the state’s punishment into yet another form of protest against its policies.


Emma Goldman with her partner Alexander Berkman, who served 14 years in prison for the attempted murder of an industrialist

Born to an impoverished Jewish family in Kaunas, a Russian city in what is now Lithuania, Goldman emigrated to the United States as a teenager in 1885, settling in Rochester, New York. Work in a factory introduced her to the labor movement, and she was soon leading protests of unsafe workplaces and agitating for the eight-hour workday. When anarchist workers held a violent confrontation with police in the Haymarket Riot of 1886, after which four were hanged, Goldman was inspired to move to New York City and join the anarchist movement.

This was how she met her lifelong lover and fellow Russian emigre Alexander Berkman. But their relationship was put on hold in 1892 when Berkman attacked railroad and steel financier Henry Clay Frick with a dagger and pistol in hopes of inspiring the workers at Carnegie Steel to rise up against their oppressor, only to be knocked down and beaten unconscious by those he sought to liberate. Convicted in a four-hour trial where he tried to represent himself and the jury never even left their box to deliberate, he would spend the next fourteen years in prison. But Goldman was not dispirited. She embarked on a public speaking career, campaigning for worker’s rights, founding the anarchist journal Mother Earth, and even serving ten months in prison for inciting a riot. After Leon Czogolsz credited her with inspiring him to assassinate President McKinley, she adamantly pressed for his rights of due process anyway.

Arrested and jailed many times (see the mugshot from 1908 at top), Goldman was training as a nurse and midwife during a stretch of time in prison when she decided that unwanted pregnancy was a scourge on the women of New York City. Seeing contraception as an important means of female empowerment, Goldman then made a new partner in Margaret Sanger, who had recently coined the term ‘birth control,’ during 1914. She then spent all of 1915 on a countrywide lecture tour to promote contraception technology. Though she and Sanger part ways this year, the latter will go on to found the organization still known today as Planned Parenthood.

Nor will this be the end of her career as a professional agitator, for Goldman has also become a vocal opponent of ‘preparedness,’ the movement to enlarge and equip the American military for modern warfare. In 1917, she and her partner Berkman will be arrested and convicted for opposing the draft; deported to Russia, they will quickly turn against the excesses and oppression of the Bolsheviks and flee their natal land once more, living in England, France, and Canada instead.

Despite the war raging in Europe, this is a time of great strides forward for women. Yet some things only change slowly, and it is not until 1936 that federal courts finally change their interpretation of anti-obscenity laws and uphold the right of doctors to import and prescribe contraceptives.