A brief biography of the turn-of-the-century anarchist once considered the “most dangerous woman in the world.”
Gornick (The Men in My Life, 2008, etc.) aptly condenses the life story of the fiery radical and presents a vivid snapshot of Gilded Age liberal activism. Born in 1869 in the Russian city of Kovno, Goldman immigrated to America with her sister in 1885 and landed in the wretched sweatshops of Rochester, N.Y. Goldman soon became enamored of the local hordes of social agitators, and she was captivated by the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. Moving to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Goldman fell in with a group of liberals, including the anarchist Alexander Berkman and newspaper editor Johann Most, who launched her speaking career. These were heady times for radicals both domestically and abroad. The American Socialist Party numbered more than 100,000 members in the first decade of the 20th century, and “Red Emma’s” fervid lectures were regularly attended by thousands. When Goldman was deported in 1919, she landed right in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution (and quickly became an early critic of the Bolsheviks). The idiosyncratic Goldman often ended up on the wrong side of history—e.g., she was a proponent of birth control but no friend to suffragists, and she remained obsessed with Spanish Civil War refugees when the rest of the world was turning its attention to Hitler and the Jews. But her undying belief that the personal is political would make her an important figure in radical politics more than a century after her birth.
Such a slim volume necessarily glosses over details that would dramatize Goldman’s larger-than-life persona, but Gornick lucidly presents her subject’s significance within a fascinating historical moment.