The First Amendment Failed Emma Goldman

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Emma Goldman, a woman who’s been cast as a violent insurrectionist and an admirable idealist.

Photo portrait of Emma Goldman
(George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress))

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Draft dodgers, birth control activists, and free love advocates were the welcome company of Emma Goldman. This might sound like a group of garden variety freaks from the Summer of Love, but Goldman’s time in the public eye spanned the turn of the last century and the First World War.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of her birth, and the legacy of the woman described as a “severe but warm-hearted schoolteacher” has been cast as one of either violent insurrection or admirable idealism. Her views, spread by her long speaking tours and writings in her anarchist magazine, Mother Earth, predicted a politics in America that would resurface after her death. Her fight for free speech inaugurated the national discussion of First Amendment rights in opposing war.

On May 18, 1917, Goldman gathered a crowd of 8,000 to form the No-Conscription League. She spoke against the United States’ mandatory conscription for World War I: “We believe that the militarization of America is an evil that far outweighs, in its antisocial and antilibertarian effects, any good that may come from America’s participation in the war. We will resist conscription by every means in our power, and we will sustain those who, for similar reasons, refuse to be conscripted.” As was the case with many of her public speeches, Goldman’s rally was busted by police.

Writing of the event in her magazine, Goldman claimed the “uniformed patriots who came to break up the meeting soon slunk courageously away.” A month later, however, U.S. Marshall Thomas McCarthy and other special agents raided the New York office of Mother Earth. Goldman reportedly called up to her partner Alexander Berkman, “Some visitors are here to arrest us,” and changed into new clothes and a festive hat in which to be led away. She was accustomed to arrest and release in her career of rabble-rousing, having been charged with “inciting to riot” among other things since her entry into radical politics.

This time, however, she wouldn’t get such an easy break.

Goldman and Berkman were tried that summer in federal court and sentenced to two years each in prison with $10,000 fines. The trial, documented in Mother Earth, saw Goldman arguing their innocence on the grounds of free speech: “The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people is the greatest and only safety in a free society.” A former U.S. Army colonel wrote the court from Portland in support of the two anarchists: “I can be quoted as believing with her that conscription utterly belies democracy, and punishment for criticising the government marks an autocracy in spirit, no matter what the form. Thousands here share this view.”

The couple was found guilty of conspiracy and “spirited away” to prison. Their attempt to appeal the case to the Supreme Court the next year was unsuccessful, and Goldman and Berkman were then deported to Soviet Russia on the Buford among about 250 others during the First Red Scare of 1919.

On the day of their arrest, Woodrow Wilson had signed the Espionage Act into law, which sought to silence criticism of the war by prohibiting “interfering with the armed forces and its recruitment efforts.” It would seem that the anarchist duo was in clear violation of Wilson’s new law, despite their free speech defense. In fact, according to the Columbia Journalism Review, “Goldman’s appeal to the court marks the final time justices encountered a clear First Amendment question and ignored it, instead deciding the case on different legal grounds.” Several Espionage Act-related cases were heard starting in 1919 as the court began to more clearly define the scope of the First Amendment. In 1920, the Sedition Act was struck down, then, in decades to come, the court would move to protect speech and press more broadly.

Many publications — including this one — derided Goldman for her leftist politics and celebrated her deportation. American “patriots” figured she was gone for good, and her Bolshevik ideals beaten. Goldman’s views on feminism and anarchism, however were revived in the 1960s and ’70s when a renewed interest in both deemed them relevant again.

Goldman on birth control:

For ages, [woman] has been on her knees before the altar of duty as imposed by God, by capitalism, by the state, and by morality. Today she has awakened from her age-long sleep. She has shaken herself free from the nightmare of the past; she turned her face towards the light and is proclaiming in a clarion voice that she will no longer be a party to the crime of bringing hapless children into the world only to be ground into dust by the wheel of capitalism and to be torn into shreds in trenches and battlefields. (“The Social Aspects of Birth Control,” Mother Earth, April 1916)

On marriage:

Can there be anything more degrading, more humiliating, than a lifelong proximity between two strangers? No need for the woman to know anything of the man, save his income. As to the knowledge of the woman — what is there to know except that she has a pleasing appearance? We have not yet outgrown the theologic myth that woman has no soul, that she is a mere appendix to man, made out of his rib just for the convenience of the gentleman who was so strong that he was afraid of his own shadow. (Marriage and Love, 1911)

On conscription:

What becomes of the patriotic boast of America to have entered the European war in behalf of the principle of democracy? But that is not all. Every country in Europe has recognized the right of conscientious objectors — of men who refuse to engage in war on the ground that they are opposed to taking life.

Yet this democratic country makes no such provision for those who will not commit murder at the behest of the profiteers through human sacrifice. Thus the “land of the free and the home of the brace” is ready to coerce free men into the military yoke. (“The No-Conscription League,” Mother Earth, 1917)

While the hippies might not have been prepared to smash the state and abolish property, Goldman’s words appealed to a new generation because of her radicalism that separated her from many public figures of the time. While many male philosophers and activists were remembered, Goldman’s legacy wasn’t dredged up until a new feminist movement required the buried voices of its ancestry. “Goldman, like other early twentieth century radicals, agitated for economic and social justice, but she also lectured about subjects that few others dared to mention even in private,” writes Rochelle Gurstein, a history scholar at Bard College.

Though usually remembered for her kindness, Goldman displayed a toughness and impatience with incompetence that surfaces in accounts of her. “Our movement had lost its appeal for me; many of its adherents filled me with loathing,” she writes in her memoirs. “They had been flaunting anarchism like a red cloth before a bull, but they ran to cover at his first charge.” Unlike her comrades, charging into conflict headfirst with her convictions, Goldman was the bull.



Emma Goldman’s No-Conscription League and the First Amendment by Erika J. Pribanic-Smith and Jared Schroeder

Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Live by Vivian Gornick

Anarchy!: An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth edited by Peter Glassgold

Living My Life by Emma Goldman


Featured image: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

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  1. Ms. Goldman is yet indeed another remarkable American woman who should be written about and remembered in the 21st century. Nicholas Gilmore has done that here in this fascinating feature on a woman who was NOT afraid of charging head first into conflict with her convictions as he states. Far from it!

    She took the bull by horns, consequences be damned! A wise and eloquent woman, her words have much to say in the present. Having passed away in 1940, she likely couldn’t have predicted seeing the fruits of her labor help bring about positive change in the late 1900s that they did, even though there’s still much to be done in her various causes now and in the future.

    Ms. Goldman was likely left out of history books for the important things she accomplished and helped put into motion that wouldn’t be realized within her lifetime. Why? Because she was a woman. The Saturday Evening Post appreciated these women at the time, and gave them a voice in the mass media it represented!

    In discussing such women, lest we not forget Fanny Fern that Ben Railton profiled in March 2018 on this website. Her causes helped lead to women finally being able to vote, though not until nearly 50 years after her passing in 1872.

    Her wit and wisdom still has much to say in the 21st century. In the 15 months since the feature appeared, I’ve delved into her written words otherwise giving me insights into the plights of both women, men, and much more. Simply go to the search bar and get ready to gain new knowledge from this timeless, fascinating woman.


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