This Was the Most Dangerous Woman in America

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This Was the Most Dangerous Woman in America
This Was the Most Dangerous Woman in America

A sign of the increased popularity of socialism in the United States is the Public Broadcasting System’s airing of a biography of Emma Goldman on its “The American Experience” series.

For those unfamiliar with Emma Goldman, she was a self-described revolutionary. The depths of her radical egalitarianism and hatred of religion can be seen in this quote from her 1917 book Anarchism and Other Essays:

“Anarchism, then, really stands for 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. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals…”

Or the following from her essay “The Philosophy of Atheism” published in 1916:

“The philosophy of Atheism represents a concept of life without any metaphysical Beyond or Divine Regulator. It is the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world, which, with its spirits, oracles, and mean contentment has kept humanity in helpless degradation.”

A sixteen-year-old Goldman entered the United States, after leaving Russia in 1885. Eventually settling in New York City, she heard about a radical group and sought it out. Within this group was Alexander Berkman, with whom she carried on an illicit relationship.

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Through Berkman, she became known on a broader stage. In 1892, Berkman attempted to murder steel mill owner Henry Clay Frick to avenge the deaths of strikers at Mr. Frick’s1 Homestead Steel Mill. Because of her association with the now-famous Berkman, Goldman gained a certain notoriety and became popular among radicals. She made a career out of writing and lecturing. She later influenced Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901. Newspapers presented her as the evil eminence behind the insane killer. Goldman was arrested after the assassination but was released because there was no evidence of a direct connection with the president’s death.

During the second decade of the twentieth century, Goldman associated with Margaret Sanger, the eugenicist and founder of Planned Parenthood. Both were arrested in 1916 for violating a law that forbade the teaching of methods of contraception.

When the United States entered World War I, she was an outspoken opponent of the war. She urged young men to resist the draft. Her other activities violated the Espionage Act of 1917. Thus, she was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. After her release, she was deported along with Berkman and over two hundred other foreign-born radicals.

Before visiting the Soviet Union, Goldman favored Soviet communism. She soon became disillusioned at the despotism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Goldman left the U.S.S.R and became a kind of international vagabond, living off of her writings and donations from wealthy Americans. She died in Canada in 1940.

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Her whole life was devoted to disorder, class hatred and revolution. It was interesting to see how PBS depicted such a life.

Throughout the film, the tone was sympathetic. The film begins with the deportation, clearly the lowest point in Goldman’s life. Many of the words used to describe it are her own, conveying her being “devastated” over losing a country that she claimed to love. None of the several historians who provided commentary were opposed to her goals. The most critical thing said about Goldman was that she was “jaw-droppingly naïve.”

Perhaps the best way to convey this treatment is to use some of the phrases used to describe this life dedicated to revolution:

  • Condemned capitalism, denounced marriage, and crusaded for birth control
  • A woman of uncompromising single-mindedness
  • Whenever the state became too powerful, when it became too intrusive in people’s life (sic), when it became too cruel, Emma’s voice was there
  • Her whole life was operatic, flamboyantly larger than life
  • Passionate defiance
  • Dedicated to free speech, free thought, free love

All of these phrases and more came from the first three and a half minutes of the program.

Perhaps even more interesting are the stories left untold. Describing a seventy-year life span in one hour requires leaving out something. What the filmmakers decided to omit also revealed their intentions. In this film, three omissions are perhaps the most telling.

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The most important may be her admiration of Freidrich Nietzsche and her association with Margaret Sanger. Both characters are difficult for modern-day radicals for very similar reasons. Nietzsche’s concept of the “ubermensch” and Sanger’s eugenic racism were very much part of the philosophy behind the Nazis. Any ideological association with Adolf Hitler is the kiss of death in the modern world, and these filmmakers surely know it.

Another curious omission was the fact that this woman who denounced marriage was twice married. The first marriage—after her arrival in the United States but before she moved to New York City—was probably omitted as it did not appear essential to the story. Of course, by deeming the marriage unimportant reveals something of the worldview behind the film. The other marriage, while one of convenience, did have some significance. In 1925, Goldman married a Scottish anarchist named James Colton, at least in part to gain the advantages of a British passport.

A last potentially important fact that was left out of the film was that Alexander Berkman committed suicide. His death is mentioned, but the fact that it was by his own hand is not.

Despite these glaring omissions, the film does have the merit of helping those who fight revolution understand the twisted minds of revolutionaries. Emma Goldman personified so many aspects of radicalism as it existed in the early twentieth century, that a look at her life is helpful, especially since her life is now so obscure.

The filmmakers also show admirable restraint when discussing her immoral relationships. Given her ardent support for “free love,” the filmmakers could have portrayed such episodes in pornographic detail. This film does not do that. The two affairs that are mentioned are necessary to an understanding of Goldman’s life.

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Many radicals at the turn of the twentieth centuries are largely forgotten today. However, this is done to the peril of those now living. It would be well to reflect on the errors of Antonio Gramsci, the theorizer of cultural Marxism or Roger Baldwin, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, among others. Those errors are very much alive today. During her lifetime, Emma Goldman was referred to as “the most dangerous woman in America.” As many of her radical ideas are now being seen as “mainstream,” it helps to understand the one mind that played a role in that process.


  1. Henry Clay Frick’s partner in this enterprise was Andrew Carnegie, who was in Europe when the strike and attempted murder took place.

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