Emma Goldman: Queen of the Anarchists & Anti-Role Model

In the 1990's, young women have a much greater variety of role models to choose from than they did just ten years ago. When I was a fifteen year old punk rock girl, I had to search for role models. They were there -- Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Jodie Foster -- but they were rarefied. The mass media defined them as the exceptional women, the super women, polished and hardened to the point of being inhuman. I was lead to believe that it was impossible to fulfill such a demanding role. When I first read about Emma Goldman (1869-1940) I thought she too was another "super woman," until I read her autobiography, Living My Life. Struck by her aggresive and direct, yet kind and nurturing voice, I discovered that strength did not come easily for Emma; her confidence, spirit, and heart were constantly being broken. But she always, eventually, got back up. She was a force of will (or as my friend Jill has put it, she threw herself "headlong into uncertainty")."I am Emma Goldman, the anarchist," she would proudly proclaim; others often jokingly called her "The Queen of the Anarchists." Once in Spring Valley, Illinois, she was given a beer barrel and asked to baptize nineteen babies in "true anarchist fashion." Born in Lithuania to Russian-Jewish parents, Emma came to New York City at seventeen years of age. She quickly joined the ranks of radical intellectual circles and over the years became friends with such figures as Alexander Berkman, Johann Most, Voltairine de Cleyre, Peter Kropotkin, Rebecca West, Mikhail Bakunin, and others. She worked as a nurse, midwife, seamstress, writer, political organizer, and fundraiser. She traveled the U.S. giving lectures and riotous speeches on anarchism, drama, free love (meaning love outside marriage), birth control, the oppressive institutions of the church, marriage, education, prisons, and specific labor reform issues. In 1906, Emma and Alexander Berkman started the magazine (more like a zine) Mother Earth because Emma felt that her speeches weren't getting her message out to enough people. She suffered imprisonment several times and eventually was deported, in 1919, basically, for being an anarchist. "The land of the free" wasn't, so she went back to Soviet Russia only to find that the revolution had taken fascistic turns. Consequently, she moved to England and then Canada, and wrote My Disillusionment With Russia and My Further Disillusionment With Russia.The mainstream newspapers demonized Emma most of her life, calling her, "The Most Dangerous Woman in America," "A Murderess," and the notorious, "Red Emma," which was extremely irritating because even though Emma had communist leanings, she didn't want to be identified as a communist. The negative public attention both saddened and fed her. When she was sad she would remind herself of her ideal, anarchism, and throw herself into her work. She was constantly educating herself through reading and conversation. Her recipe for anarchism included a base of Marx, Proudhon, Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Emerson, with a spicy sauce of Freud, Nietzsche, Max Stirner, Ibsen, and George Sand. From Proudhon came "property is theft." From Kropotkin came the need to replace authoritarian hierarchies. From Freud came the need to express rather than repress sexual desires. From Nietzsche came Emma's sense that truth came from consent, that "truths" are illusions we've forgotten are illusions.Emma attacked the illusion that a government is necessary. "The State," she said, "is nothing but a name. It is an abstraction. Like other conceptions -- nation, race, humanity -- it has no organic reality." She believed that the government and the state develop out of the desire of a few to take advantage of the many. Like Kropotkin, she proposed the formation of smaller social groups, associations, co-ops and collectives. According to Emma, the best way to undermine the government and the moral order was to refuse to give them authority in the first place. That is to say, the government cannot exist without the consent of the people whether that consent is "open, tacit or assumed." In her essay, "The Individual, Society and the State," she writes, "Constitutionalism and democracy are modern forms of that consent; the consent being inoculated and indoctrinated by what is called 'education,' in the home, in the church, and in every phase of life. That consent is the belief in authority, in the necessity for it." That belief in authority rests on the belief that people are inherently evil and too incompetent to know what's good for them.Emma had incredible faith that with the proper nurturing, humans were kind, cooperative creatures and so asserted that "the individual is at the heart of society." She understood that individuals are taught to consent not only to the government but in conjunction with this, to the roles assigned to them, particularly race, gender and class roles. She claimed that our sense of identity must change as well as our social and political systems if greater freedom is to be achieved, and believed that anarchism went beyond economic change to "every phase of life." But don't get me wrong. Though Emma believed in "individuality," she didn't believe in what she called "rugged individualism," liberalism, the kind of individualism that dismisses the difficulties of overcoming psychological oppression. She spent her life speaking, writing, and teaching because she recognized that educating oneself about prescribed roles is a never-ending and difficult process. It took me a long time to recognize the power my childhood mass media role models had over me. It's easy to tell yourself to get over it, but sometimes you don't even know that you have something to get over -- the process takes time and understanding. For Emma, "The individual is not merely the result of heredity and environment, of cause and effect. He is that and a great deal more, a great deal else. The living man cannot be defined."Emma's acceptance of uncertainty, this very lack of definition, this lack of belief in the authoritative definitions of who she should be, as a woman and a worker, in turn of the century America, gave Emma the room to construct herself, to take political agency, to be a punk force of will. In other words, since she didn't believe anyone else's definitions of herself, she was free to write her own. With determination, Emma was able to understand and thus challenge the way that individuals were constructed by mass media, legal, political, class, race, and gender scripts. Emma's project exemplifies much of anarchist and current feminist thought. She is an ideal role model because she is a sort of anti-role model. She hasn't taught me to be "like her," but to be brave enough to be myself. When I lose that feeling of my own power, I turn to Emma for her determination, ability to love, and her adaptability. In Emma's words, "I must drain the moment and then let the goblet fall to the ground!"

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