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Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine called “Was My Life Worth Living?” (December 1934), which her editors said “might be regarded as her last will and testament.” Her assessment: “I think my life and my work have been successful.” Not six years later, she died.

Goldman was born into Alexander II’s Russian Empire on June 27, 1869, “with the love for freedom and the intense hatred of injustice.” She often dreamed of dancing herself to death (“what more glorious end!”) to escape her father’s repressive influence. After the tsar was assassinated in 1881, her family fled Russia amid a spate of retaliatory pogroms and settled in Rochester, New York, where Goldman followed coverage of the Haymarket affair, a confrontation between protesters and police at a labor demonstration that resulted in multiple deaths and injuries. “The men were murderers. It is well they were hanged,” a visitor to the household opined after the execution of four of the protesters. “With one leap I was at the woman’s throat,” Goldman recalled. “‘Out, out!’ I cried, ‘or I will kill you!’” She awoke the next morning with “the distinct sensation that something new and wonderful had been born in my soul.”

Defining anarchism as “the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary,” Goldman soon established herself in New York’s nascent anarchist movement. She opposed sexual and racial inequality, capitalism, religion, marriage, and morality. Alexander Berkman, with whom she attempted to assassinate the anti-union industrialist Henry Clay Frick, had a cousin who once reproached Goldman for dancing. “I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy,” she recalled. “I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it.” This was later paraphrased on T-shirts and bumper stickers as “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.” J. Edgar Hoover was reported to have called her one of “the most dangerous anarchists in America,” and she was deported to Russia in 1919.

Goldman initially supported the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War, but both fell short of her ideals and lost her allegiance. “Revolution is indeed a violent process,” she wrote in My Further Disillusionment in Russia (1924). “But if it is to result only in a change of dictatorship, in a shifting of names and political personalities, then it is hardly worth while.” Her autobiography Living My Life was published in two volumes (at nearly one thousand pages) in 1931 and then as a single volume in 1934. On February 17, 1940, while playing cards with friends, she suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak for the final months of her life. Her last words, spoken to a partner in the game, were, “God damn it, why did you lead with that?” She died on May 14, 1940, and her body was readmitted to the United States to be buried in Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery, near the graves of Haymarket protesters.

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December 1934