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Emma Goldman: an intimate life.

For a while, back in California, all my friends had cuts named Emma. I do remember an occasional dog (like Candace Falk's "alternately wild and loving" Red Emma Goldman), hamster, affinity group (I once marched past the White House behind something called the Emma Goldman Brigade) and Feminist auto-repair colective, but in general my Emmas were cats, domestic and mysterious. In those circles Emma Goldman was a household name, a symbolic presence, our Jewish grandmother. This forbidding feminist icon stared relentlessly from T-shirts, vowing to boycott any revolution that wouldn't let her dance.

Certainly, I knew Goldman as a face on a T-shirt long before I knew anything about her politics. For 1960s children who thought rock music would help end a war--"Strike because there's no poetry in your classes," read my favorite poster of the time--the dancing anarchist was a spiritual ally. We protested in her name without knowing much about her own fight against conscription and "all wars by capitalist governments." When feminists discovered that the personal was political, Goldman became a model, and one whose views seemed strikingly contemporary. While other activists were fighting for the vote, she was championing "free love," birth control and independence from those "internal tyrants, far more harmful to life and growth," that stifled women's emancipation. Goldman's thoughts on "Marriage and Love," published in 1910, ripened on our own tongues:

Marriage is primarily an economic arrangement, an insurance pact. It differs from the ordinary life insurance agreement only in that it is more binding, more exacting. . . . If, however, woman's premium is a husband, she pays for it with her name, her privacy, her self-respect, her very life, 'until death doth part." Moreover, the marriage insurance condemns her to life-long dependency, to parasitism, to complete uselessness, individual as well as social.

As Alix Kates Shulman observed in 1970, "Some parts of Emma Goldman's program sound as though they were thought up last month. That this is so testifies as much to the difficulty in changing the system as to Emma Goldman's insight."

Indeed, today, Forty-four years after her death in exile, we might welcome Goldman's clear, eloquent voice as our political leaders speak casually of Armageddon:

Religion! How it dominates man's mind, how it humiliates and degrades his soul. . . . Break your mental fetters, says Anarchism to man, for not until you think and judge for yourself will you get rid of the dominion of darkness, the greatest obstacle to all progress.

As demagogues market home-grown pride, some of us remember Goldman's words of more than seventy years ago:

Indeed, conceit, arrogance, and egotism are the essentials of patriotism. . . . Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.

As our re-elected President eyes Nicaragua, Goldman's words are depressingly appropriate:

We Americans claim to be a peace-loving people. We hate bloodshed; we are opposed to violence. Yet we go into spasms of joy over the possibility of projecting dynamite bombs from flying machines upon helpless citizens. . . . Yet our hearts swell with pride at the thought that America is becoming the most powerful nation on earth, and that it will eventually plant her iron foot on the necks of all other nations.

In fact, however, Emma Goldman--once known as "the most dangerous woman in America"--has been largely forgotten in 1984. None of my New York University students had even heard of her (although one thought she might have been prime minister of Israel). The "anarchist Queen" whose name was once enough "to produce a shudder"; the radical who, according to her 1961 biographer, Richard Drinnon, was viewed as "a mythical monster," a "female anti-Christ," "a vampire, ready to kill again, lick up the blood, and batten on the corpse," and "a national enemy"; the women despised by J. Edgar Hoover and denounced by The New York Times as "among the most virulent and dangerous preachers and practicers of the doctrines of destruction"; the orator so feared by the United States that she was deported in 1919--that Emma Goldman has faded not even into history, but into feminist pop culture. Holly Near now sings a song about "dancing, Emma . . . at our revolution."
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Author:Sternhell, Carol
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 24, 1984
Words:734
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