American Political Voices: Biography Of Emma Goldman

As founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Emma Goldman was a highly scandalous political voice in the early 20th century. Information on her life, career and influence.

As one of the most dynamic women ever to influence women's roles in society, Emma Goldman was a highly scandalous political voice in the early 20th century. As founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Goldman had far more power and influence in the political arena than most women of her time. In fact, her political power and vociferousness towards women's rights were virtually unprecedented. She promoted ideas and concepts that shocked both men and women who were not used to such forward thinking. From sexual equality to civil rights to birth control as a workingwoman's issue, Emma Goldman was one feminist who stood her ground even in the face of violent opposition.

Goldman devoted a large part of her lectures to the issues of women and birth control, a topic that angered many conservatives and resulted in several stints behind bars. Ironically, it was her boyfriend Ben Reitman whose six-month sentence for public advocacy of birth control became documented as the longest jail sentence served by any birth control activist in the United States before l920.

Equally unprecedented were Goldman's ideas about birth control being a workingwoman's issue. After all, these are the people for whom an unwanted pregnancy would have the greatest impact. This did not mean that women were the only ones who should be advocating her views. Goldman always resolved that birth control was a social, economic and political issue marked by years of repression by male political powers. By calling it a workingwoman's issue, she is ratifying the importance of placing the ultimate decision in the right hands.

While it was her experience as a nurse and midwife that initially led Goldman to relate birth control to a woman's freedom, her upbringing is said to have affected her attitudes as well. However, "blaming" her rough childhood is an insult to a woman who developed her own beliefs through her own experiences. Trying to place blame is equivalent to saying there was something wrong with her just because she voiced her opinions and instigated change. Dissenters have been trying to explain away her deviant behavior and write it off as a character flaw for decades. In truth, her views simply frightened many men because they empowered women. Theodore Roosevelt called her a "madwoman... a mental as well as a moral pervert", the New York Times said she was a "mischievous foreigner... apart from the mass of humanity". The San Francisco Call said she was a "despicable creature... [a] snake... unfit to live in a civilized country". The government called her the "ablest and most dangerous" anarchist in the country. These accusations were an overt attempt to discredit Emma Goldman and diminish her audience. It didn't work.

By placing the issue of birth control in the capable hands of the working woman, Goldman was taking it out of the controlling hands of the government. She believed a woman had just as much a right not to bear children as a baby had a right not to be born. Goldman argued that nothing alters the direction of a woman's life more than bearing a child, so why should the government have the right to steer the course of a woman's personal choices? Moreover, she believed that a woman should be allowed to put career before family if that is what she chooses to do. Society condemned women who did not take on traditional roles, which was exactly the premise Goldman desired to change. She believed in freedom of every individual, not just women. But at the time, women were the one's who were not being given freedom of choice. Therefore Emma Goldman sought to counteract that trend by exercising her right to freedom of speech.

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