Skip To Content
Aired May 21, 2019

Emma Goldman

Film Description

For nearly half a century, Russian emigrant Emma Goldman was the most controversial woman in America, taunting the mainstream with her fervent attacks on government, big business, and war. To the tabloids, she was "Red Emma, queen of the anarchists," but many admired Goldman for her defense of labor rights, women's emancipation, birth control, and free speech.



Written, Produced and Directed By
Mel Bucklin

Associate Producer
Liz Renner

Edited By
Ralph Hammack, Jr.

Director of Photography
Eddie Marritz

Original Music By
Brian Keane

Narrated By
Blair Brown

Linda Emond
Denis O'Hare

Post Production Editor
Doug Carlson

Graphic Design
Scott Beachler

Post Production Sound
Werner Althaus

Paul Avrich
Stephen Cole
John Patrick Diggins
Richard Drinnon
Oz Frankel
Alice Kessler-Harris
Margaret Marsh
Barry Pateman
Lewis Perry
David Rabban
Alice Wexler

Senior Creative Consultant
Michael Winship

Sound Recording
Mark Mandler
David Goodale
Jim Lenertz

Assistant Camera
Ross Sebek
Jerry Risius

Steadicam Operator
John Beck

Ned Hallick
Foster Collins
Pat Aylward

John Roche
John Dimond

Ben Fossberg
Dan Smith
Peter Russell

Jib Camera Operator
Robert Balton

Scenic Design & Props
Art Kuhr
Paula Clowers
Zachary Lane
Collection of Don Cunningham
Collection of Don Rock

Howell Theatre -- University of Nebraska at Lincoln
Omaha Community Playhouse
University of Nebraska at Omaha

Jill Anderson
Nathaniel Carlson
Kevin Lawler

Production Secretaries
Pat Richmond
Pat Andersen

Production Assistants
Michele Wolford
Julie Almendral
Sashka Koloff
Bill Johnson
Jake Weed

Rebecca Varilek
Abby Shepard
Candace Boyer

Lewanne Jones
Bonnie Rowen

Archival Sources
American Newspaper Repository
Billy Sunday Archives, Grace College
Brown Brothers
Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
Chicago Historical Society
City Archives of Philadelphia
Cleveland Public Library
Collection of Jerry Beck
Collection of Lisa Baskin
Collection of Barry Pateman
Culver Pictures, Inc.
Davidson Library, University of California at Santa Barbara
Denver Public Library
Dmitriev Photo Archive, Nizhny Novgorod City Museum
Emma Goldman Papers, University of California at Berkeley
Getty Images
International Institute for Social History, The Netherlands
John E. Allen
Labadie Collection, University of Michigan
Library of Congress
Museum of the City of New York
Mystic Seaport Museum
National Archives
New York Historical Society
New York Public Library
Old News, Inc.
Rivers of Steel Archives
Russian Archives for Film & Photo Documents, Krasnogorsk
Slava Katamidze Collection
Tamiment Library, New York University
The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
Unite Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University
University of Illinois at Chicago, Ben L. Reitman Papers
Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

Special Thanks To
Nicholson Baker
David Ballentine
Richard Ballentine
City of Beatrice, Nebraska
Howard Besser
Mecca Reitman Carpenter
City of Fairbury, Nebraska
Candace Falk
William Fishman
Fremont & Elkhorn Valley Railroad
Peter Glassgold
Audrey Goodfriend
Julie Herrada
Alice Kates-Shulman
Tuli Kupferberg
Tony Kushner
Ora Laddon and Mathew Robbins
June Levine
Alfred Levitt
National Park Service, Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
Victor Navasky
Jeremy Pikser
Rick Prelinger
Harold Ramis
Stephen Rebello
Fermin and Philip Rocker
Franklin Rosemont
Save Ellis Island
Irene Selver
Sidney and Clara Solomon
Michael Stricks
The Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer
Evelyn and Norman Tabachnick


Post Production
James E. Dunford
Gregory Shea

Series Designer
Alison Kennedy

On-Line Editor
Mark Steele
Spencer Gentry

Sound Mix
John Jenkins

Series Theme
Mark Adler

Business Manager
John Van Hagen

Project Administration
Nancy Farrell
Vanessa Ruiz
Helen R. Russell
Rebekah Suggs

Jay Fialkov
Maureen Jordan

Director, New Media
Maria Daniels

Project Coordinator, New Media
Ravi Jain

Daphne B. Noyes
Johanna Baker
Leslie Sepuka

Coordinating Producer
Susan Mottau

Series Editor
Sharon Grimberg

Vice President, National Programming
Margaret Drain

Executive Producer
Mark Samels

A production of Nebraska ETV Network for American Experience

© 2004 WGBH Educational Foundation and Nebraskans for Public Television, Inc.
All Rights Reserved


NARRATOR: On a cold December morning in 1919, just after 4:00 am, Emma Goldman, her companion Alexander Berkman and more than two hundred other foreign-born radicals were roused from their Ellis Island dormitory beds. In the freezing darkness, the deportees began a journey into exile. Thrown out of the United States for her opposition to the First World War, and especially for her political beliefs, Goldman claimed she was proud to be selected for the honor of deportation. Privately, she was devastated.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman [softly whispered]: One does not live in a country thirty-four years and find it easy to go. I found my spiritual birth here. All I know, I have gained here. Through the port-hole I could see the great city receding into the distance. It was my beloved city, the metropolis of the New World.

NARRATOR: For nearly thirty years, Goldman taunted mainstream America with her outspoken attacks on government, big business and war. Goldman condemned capitalism, denounced marriage, and crusaded for birth control. The newspapers called her a "modern Joan of Arc." A heretic. A woman possessed of an uncompromising single-mindedness.

OZ FRANKEL, Historian: Personally she could be obnoxious. She could be ruthless. She could be vindictive.

ANDREI CODRESCU, Poet: A plain Russian Jewish girl. But with some magnetism.

ROBERT ROSENSTONE, Historian: I think she was a serious political theorist who actually thought through an anarchist movement, you could create this kind of self-governing world...

BARRY PATEMAN, Historian: Whenever the state became too powerful, when it became too intrusive in people's life, when it became too cruel Emma's voice was there...

ALICE WEXLER, Biographer: Anarchism was often associated with violence and terrorism, and that's the image that people have today.

MARTIN DUBERMAN, Playwright: I think her whole life was operatic. Meaning flamboyantly larger than life...

NARRATOR: Goldman's story is one of passionate defiance. The story of a life dedicated to free speech, free thought, free love. The story of an exceedingly dangerous woman.

AL ORENSANZ, Sociologist: I think she was a difficult person, maybe a dangerous woman, to everybody...she was totally unacceptable.

Act One

NARRATOR: Emma Goldman crossed three seas to reach the promised land. In 1885, the feisty sixteen-year-old Russian girl had just escaped an arranged marriage by threatening to drown herself in the Neva River. America, she hoped, would be her salvation.

BARRY PATEMAN: ...the land of hope, the land of opportunity, a land of infinite possibility. When you come into this country, all things are possible for you. All things are possible. You can forget the past; you can have a brave new world...

TONY KUSHNER, Playwright: ...and for a radical like Emma Goldman, a revolutionary like Emma Goldman, the volatility of this country seemed like a great opportunity for creating a genuinely new world, for creating whatever was going to come after capitalism. And I think that she entered this world as did many politicized people, political radicals, coming here feeling that this was the place where the revolution could be born.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: It was the 15th of August, the day of my arrival in New York City. All that had happened in my life until that time was now left behind me, cast off like a worn-out garment.

NARRATOR: Cast off was a miserable childhood in St. Petersburg -- where she lived under the tyranny of a Czarist regime, and under the thumb of a father anxious to rid himself of his unwanted, rebellious daughter. She had also just walked away from four years of factory work in upstate New York, and walked out on a brief, loveless marriage to an immigrant like herself.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: I was twenty years old. My entire possessions consisted of five dollars and a sewing machine. I had no friends, but I carried the address of Die Freiheit, an anarchist newspaper.

NARRATOR: Within a day of her arrival, Goldman walked into Sach's Café...

STEPHEN COLE, Historian: She's walking into a place -- one can imagine it -- tumultuous, full of people, writers, working men, printers, people working in textile shops. All there after a day's work from a political meeting, talking about politics, the hubbub, the smell of beer, the amazing number of languages being spoken. She came home when she came to Sachs.

NARRATOR: Sitting at a nearby table was Alexander Berkman. Berkman, called "Sasha" by his friends, had been in the country only a year. He would become the stillpoint of her life.

MARTIN DUBERMAN: He was quite standoffish at first. He didn't think women were reliable revolutionaries. He thought women attended radical meetings in order to look for men, and once they found men they were gone, and took the men with them.

BARRY PATEMAN: He's young, he's ferocious, he's charming, he's dedicated, he lives and breaths anarchism. She's aware that something's happening in her. She may not even be aware of it, maybe we're saying too much. You've suddenly changed and you're there. And now you are with other people; you're not alone. It must have been a fantastic time for her.

NARRATOR: Soon the German anarchist Johann Most entered Goldman's life. Most would become her mentor. And her idol.

BARRY PATEMAN: Most seems to have been a brilliant orator. Sarcastic, biting, funny, witty, vicious use of language. The reptile brood, "extirpate the reptile brood," he'd say about the middle class and the upper class. And Emma says of him he stirred her very soul when she heard him speak.

NARRATOR: An advocate of insurrection and revolutionary violence, Johann Most had a large and devoted following within the American anarchist movement. As a group, American anarchists were idealistic, articulate, and organized. Though few in number, they had surprising influence.

BARRY PATEMAN: It was an enormously powerful, well-directed movement. They talked about equality of everyone regardless of race and sex. They talked about the free production of goods on a cooperative associative level. They talked about getting rid of the state. And they also talked about the need for education, equal education regardless of who you were. They were astonishing claims in 1883.

NARRATOR: In 1886, the anarchist movement captured headlines around the country. Falsely accused of a bombing in Chicago's Haymarket Square, four men, all anarchists, were put to death. Their trial and execution became a rallying point for firebrands like Johann Most, and galvanized a new generation of radicals.

OZ FRANKEL: Emma Goldman is baptized by violence so to speak. Or at least that's the way she sees her career as an anarchist. She becomes the anarchist after the five Haymarket martyrs are executed. And she feels great affinity with these five men. She later on in life calls them her parents. Intellectual parents.

ANDREI CODRESCU: For Goldman it must have seemed that, and for Berkman, it must have seemed that they finally had their founding stone. It was the place where they took their oath.

ALEX WEXLER: Very quickly, she found her own voice. Found that people responded to her because she spoke with such great conviction...

ANDREI CODRESCU: I think on stage she was possessed. From what I've read about her performances I think of her as a speaker who let herself go and inspired herself. I think she was from the school of "I can't wait to hear what I'm going to say next."

NARRATOR: At her first speaking engagement, Goldman panicked. Unable to remember her topic -- the campaign for the eight-hour day -- she spoke instead of her great ideal, anarchism.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: I could sway people with words ...words that welled up from within me, from some unfamiliar depth.

NARRATOR: To Goldman, anarchism combined an optimistic faith in human nature with an intense distrust of authority. She defined anarchism as "a new social order based on liberty and unrestricted by man-made law." In this anarchist world, government would be replaced by a spirit of free cooperation -- from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.

BARRY PATEMAN: That, I think was Goldman's bedrock belief when she moves into anarchism. That's the tradition that she's drawing on. So you've got this ideal which is the most extreme of all. You can't vote in anarchism. You can't get coalitions with various other groups to get anarchism. Anarchism is the most extreme of all. And therefore how that balances with needs and the feelings and the routines of everyday life was a huge problem for American anarchists and anarchists worldwide. How can I deal with the fact that I haven't got any rent? That's a huge gap.

KEVIN BAKER, Writer: Anarchism as a political philosophy is almost jaw-droppingly naïve. If freedom is a good inclination, if suspicion of state power is a good inclination, the question is how is that to translate into practical politics?

ROBERT ROSENSTONE, Historian: I think, she was a serious political theorist who actually thought through an anarchist movement, you could create this kind of self-governing world. Anarchism is sort of the noblest of all dreams. It seems to me in some ways it's almost a profoundly Christian dream, though people never talk about it that way.

EDGAR DOCTOROW, Novelist: Well, why do people stick with their god. It's what they have. It was her god, that revolutionary ideal. She was a very religious woman, if you think about it.

NARRATOR: But Goldman also believed that to create a more perfect society, acts of political violence were occasionally justified, a belief shared by her friend and lover Alexander Berkman. Violence would soon begin to dog her every step. June 1892. A strike at the Andrew Carnegie-owned steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania escalated into one of the bloodiest labor battles the country had seen. The Homestead strike came during a period of intense unrest. Thousands of men and women fought for the right to strike, to form unions, and to establish a forty-hour work week. They were met with force -- from police, from soldiers, and from the hired armed guards of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. On June 25th , workers called a strike. Henry Clay Frick, plant manager, closed the mill and locked them out. Then he called in the Pinkertons. Two weeks later, in the middle of the night, 300 Pinkertons crammed onto barges and were towed ten miles up the Monongahela River to Homestead. Armed workers were waiting on the river bank. At dawn, a pitched battle broke out. Twelve hours later, three Pinkertons and seven strikers lay dead.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: To us, it sounded like the awakening of the American worker, the long-awaited day of resurrection...

NARRATOR: In Alexander Berkman, it stirred something deeper. It was the moment for what anarchists called "propaganda by the deed" -- a political assassination. His target: Henry Clay Frick.

OZ FRANKEL: Emma and Sasha and their friends live in virtual reality. There is therefore an element of folly in their attempt to solve this country's problems by going to Pennsylvania and getting rid of this industrialist. And they do believe that by getting rid of Frick they'll ignite a revolution. But what neither of them have, Sasha, Emma, or any of their friends, is a cultural translator. Someone to explain to them the intricacies of this culture, the indigenous culture. And probably because it's a blindspot they really don't understand that there is a difference between living in United States and living in Czarist Russia.

NARRATOR: In the basement of their crowded tenement building, Goldman kept watch as Berkman mixed the explosives.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: What if anything should go wrong? But then, did not the end justify the means? What if a few should have to perish? The many would be made free. Yes, the end in this case justified the means.

NARRATOR: Berkman tested his homemade bomb on a remote beach on Staten Island. It failed. He decided to use a gun instead. Goldman wanted to accompany him. But he insisted she remain behind to explain his action to the world.

BARRY PATEMAN: It's Berkman who goes to kill Frick. It's Berkman who's obviously the chosen one. One senses in Berkman a great desire to be a martyr, to go down that road.

ALEX WEXLER: This was going to be an act of suicide. In other words he was a suicide bomber. That's how he envisioned himself and the idea of this act was that he was going to sacrifice himself. He was going to try to assassinate Frick, again who he saw as being a murderer essentially...

NARRATOR: Posing as an employment agent for strikebreakers, Berkman gained entrance to Frick's office. He pointed his revolver at Frick's head and fired. The bullet struck Frick in the shoulder. Berkman lunged at Frick, managing to stab him with a sharpened steel file before being dragged away. Frick stopped a deputy sheriff from shooting Berkman. "I do not think I will die," he gasped, "but whether I do or not, the Company will pursue the same policy, and it will win."

OZ FRANKEL: Berkman is a bit of a klutz, he tries his hands at, you know, making [a] bomb and he can't do it. He gets a revolver, he can't do it either. It's a bit of a radical pulp fiction with very crude elements and great emotions but very little experience and very little understanding of the place, and also of the time.

STEPHEN COLE: Workers had not risen in rebellion. Quite the contrary, they were appalled by it. This was an outsider who had come into the middle of their struggle and had managed almost single-handedly to undermine the support that they had.

KEVIN BAKER: The workers wanted better wages. Job security. Better working conditions. Recognition of their union. In other words, everything the workers wanted were ways in which they could advance in American capitalist society. They wanted a fairer America. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman wanted a different America. A different world.

NARRATOR: Within six months, the Homestead strike collapsed. Berkman was sentenced to 22 years. He and Goldman kept her role in the plot against Frick a secret. On a balmy fall day, Berkman began his sentence...

ACTOR READS Voice of Alexander Berkman: All is quiet. What will become of me? I don't know. The future is dark. My hand gropes blindly, hesitantly. I clutch desperately to the thread that still binds me to the living. It seems to unravel in my hands.

ANDREI CODRESCU: They were united by a great crime. And that is a life-binding event. The world begins in the fact of the crime which leads to the expulsion from paradise and then the constant need to return to it somehow. There are symbolic moments in her life that define almost the whole.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: Often, I wanted to run away, never to see him again, but I was held by something greater than the pain: the memory of his act, for which he alone had paid the price. I realized that to my last breath it would remain the strongest link in the chain that bound me to him.

NARRATOR: A year after Homestead, the United States was on the verge of economic collapse: Six-hundred banks closed, fifty-six railroads went bankrupt, 15,000 companies shut down, and the number of unemployed soared from 800,000 to more than three million.

DAVID THELEN, Historian: I think the panic of 1893 is the most important phenomena in the development of modern American history and particularly modern American radicalism. The Depression leads to the discovery that industrialization is creating a gap between the rich and the poor, a chasm between the rich and the poor, and that it's very dangerous. And it's very unsafe, and it's very unfair, and it's very unpatriotic.

NARRATOR: Goldman helped organize mass meetings and hunger demonstrations. On August 21st, 1893, she led a march of one thousand to New York's Union Square, carrying a red banner.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: Go into the streets where the rich dwell. Ask for work. If they do not give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take bread."

BARRY PATEMAN: You want bread, go and take it. You're starving, go and take it. Make restaurants feed you. Make bakeries give you food. And she'd been very powerful to the extent that people had been very, very impressed by her oratory and her power.

NARRATOR: Just twenty-four, Goldman was already recognized as a professional agitator. Her talk of insurrection...of doing without government...of encouraging the unemployed to take matters into their own hands...of thousands of workers going door to door demanding food was terrifying to authorities. She was arrested and charged with "inciting to riot."

TONY KUSHNER: Anarchism is an immensely exciting, poetic, intoxicating, fantastical idea. And so of course she scared the shit out of people. And she intended to.

DAVID THELEN: I think what made her so scary to those people to whom she was scary, and probably is exactly what made her appealing to those people who found her appealing, which is that she was an incredibly free spirit.

OZ FRANKEL: She's in the public eye. She's famous, she's notorious. She's often referred to as the "famous anarchist." She's visible. And there's something about that that she enjoys; but there's something about it that's also is politically important because it's also a way to talk about anarchism.

NARRATOR: Goldman was sentenced to one year in prison. She used the time to educate herself, reading Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. She also trained as a nurse. When she was released in the summer of 1894, Goldman was met by a crowd of 2,800. She told them she'd been imprisoned for talking. She would soon begin talking again. This time about psychological repression and Sigmund Freud. She began speaking about marriage, female emancipation, and sex.

OZ FRANKEL: Emma Goldman was the big Boogieman of turn-of-the-century America, especially since she combined this danger of being militant and volatile and out of control and prone for violence with this doctrine of free love that people in their mind associated with also free sex so this was a combination of violence and sex was very titillating, very interesting...

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: I demand the independence of woman; her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases. I demand freedom for both sexes. Freedom of action. Freedom in love. And freedom in motherhood.

AL ORENSANZ: She was totally unacceptable. Not just to the status quo, not just to the bureaucrats. But to the progressive people, to the educated people, to everybody.

NARRATOR: She was aware, however, of her ability to generate strong passions. "You cheer for me, you follow me," she told a reporter in the spring of 1901, "but you'd hang me if your mood changed." In May 1901, Goldman gave a lecture entitled "The Modern Phase of Anarchy -- an incendiary talk on political assassination and the glory of martyrdom." Leon Czolgosz, a young would-be anarchist, sat in the audience listening attentively. Four months later, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, Czolgosz worked his way through the crowd and shot President William McKinley twice in the chest at point blank range.

KEVIN BAKER: Czolgosz told the authorities that Emma Goldman had set him on fire when he went to hear her speak. And this immediately led to a condemnation of Goldman throughout the country. She was actually in danger of her life. And it led to the arrest of any anarchist or any perceived radical the police could get their hands on.

NARRATOR: Goldman was arrested and interrogated. After the death of McKinley, and after authorities failed to turn up evidence connecting her to the assassination, she was released. To the horror of a grief-stricken public, she threw herself into an impassioned defense of Leon Czolgosz:

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: As an anarchist, I am opposed to violence. But if the people want to do away with assassins, they must do away with the conditions which produce murderers.

KEVIN BAKER: Goldman's defense of Czolgosz, I think very much damaged the anarchist movement. But it damaged it in a sense of once again, going back to the central question of, Were anarchists for violent overthrow of the government or not? This is the thread that leads constantly through anarchism's debate over just what it was and how it intended to bring about its utopia.

ALEX WEXLER: To my mind there is no question that she romanticized Czolgosz as an isolated lone heroic individual. She identified him I think with Berkman, and that was one of the reasons why she couldn't bring herself to criticize him.

NARRATOR: In a speech to Congress, the new President Theodore Roosevelt declared "The anarchist is the enemy of humanity, the enemy of all mankind." Goldman was vilified. Many labor unions distanced themselves from the anarchists to safeguard the modest successes they'd won over the years. Some of Goldman's own comrades accused her of causing the movement irreparable harm. Even Berkman denounced Czolgosz, who was put to death in the electric chair. In 1902, Goldman withdrew from the movement that had been the center of her life. Now thirty-two, she began working as a nurse in the tenements of the Lower East Side. Her patients knew her as "E.G. Smith."

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: It was bitter hard to face life anew. Our movement had lost its appeal for me. Still more harrowing was the gnawing doubt of the values I had so fervently believed in. I had lost my identity...

Act Two

NARRATOR: Goldman's isolation didn't last long. She soon made her way back to the lecture platform, even though she'd been branded the "high priestess of anarchy" and was still considered by many the most dangerous woman in the country.

KEVIN BAKER: Only in America could somebody who'd been associated with the death of the beloved president be able to come back and have a career as a public speaker.

NARRATOR: She began speaking in union halls, ladies clubs, and private homes all across Manhattan. Among her new passions was an old subject: The struggling revolution in Russia. In 1903, the Czarist regime began a wave of pogroms against its Jewish population. Hundreds of Jews were killed in Kishinev alone. Two years later, on a day forever known as "Bloody Sunday," political dissidents demonstrating in front of the Winter Palace were massacred by troops. The events stunned the world.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: Now that I had greater access to the American mind, I determined to use whatever ability I possessed to plead the heroic cause of revolutionary Russia.

NARRATOR: For the next two years, she toured the country drumming up support for her homeland. Her talks on Russia, on the rights of workers, on civil liberties, and even on anarchism drew large, sympathetic crowds.

ALEX WEXLER: She found the world was catching up with her. Here were people with an interest in what Goldman had to say because there was this growing awareness of the social costs of capitalism.

NARRATOR: In the spring of 1906, Goldman revived a dream to publish a magazine devoted to politics and literature. Its high-spirited prose, she wrote, "would voice without fear every unpopular cause." She called her new magazine Mother Earth.

CHRISTINE STANSELL, Historian: Goldman in thinking about making herself into a practitioner of arts and letters, a woman, an emigrant Jew, was really ahead of her time. The title, Mother Earth speaks to Goldman's ambitions, but I think also more deeply to her monumental fantasies of herself.

NARRATOR: Goldman's Manhattan apartment at 210 East Thirteenth Street became the informal headquarters of her new magazine. It also served as a haven to an extended family of writers, artists, and journalists. Goldman called it, "the home for lost dogs."

ANDREI CODRESCU: She was an Earth Mother. A term that in the sixties really came to mean the bountiful woman at the center of the commune that feeds everybody and makes sure they don't eat too little.

MARTIN DUBERMAN: I think it was her sheer force of personality. Plus she was a very motherly person. I mean she took care of people. She told them what to do. She told them, you know, how to run their lives. She told them what was needed. She enveloped them.

NARRATOR: The circle of friends and associates who congregated in Goldman's apartment would soon be joined by Alexander Berkman. In May 1906, Berkman walked out of the Allegheny County Workhouse. For the first time in fourteen years, he was a free man.

KEVIN BAKER: When Berkman comes out of prison finally, he's much more oriented toward trying to achieve anarchism through the labor of movement, in which he sees great possibilities in. Goldman's orientation is much more for a kind of a movement that cuts across class lines. That attracts the middle classes to anarchism.

ACTOR READS Voice of Alexander Berkman: Her mind has matured, but her wider interests antagonize my old revolutionary traditions. I sense a foreign element in the circle she has gathered about her, and feel myself a stranger among them.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: I was a woman of thirty-seven. I no longer fitted into the old mold as he had expected me to. Sasha felt it almost immediately.

TONY KUSHNER: His release was such a relief in some ways, and so much less than what she had hoped it would be ... always a sense that she loved him more than he loved her. I don't know if that's fair. But that she carried a torch in a certain sense all the way through, that he mattered to her in a certain way as a man and as a body, that she didn't necessarily matter to him.

NARRATOR: Berkman and Goldman briefly attempted to resume their romance, but it was not to be. He assumed day-to-day management of Mother Earth. She returned to the lecture circuit. In the spring of 1908, now forty years old, Goldman met someone else -- a flamboyant young doctor, ten years younger than herself. A man of considerable life experience, he was a budding social reformer, a whorehouse physician, and a former hobo.

ALEX WEXLER: Ben Reitman was a doctor and a hobo. She fell in love with him almost instantly and it was really, you know, a great magnetic flash between them.

CHRISTINE STANSELL: It was another one of those Goldman flashes, like coming to New York and finding what she wanted the very first day. It was apparently love at first sight, or certainly alchemy at first sight.

ANDREI CODRESCU: There is something very American about Reitman because he was filled with a kind of raw energy. He didn't give a damn about what people thought and he was a great manager. So there was a great deal of charm to this creature who was also weak and insecure and a mama's boy and all the flaws that she recognized as being so truly awful. And yet she loved him so...

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: "I dreamed that Ben was bending over me, his face close to mine, his hands on my chest. Flames were shooting from his finger-tips and slowly enveloping my body. I made no attempt to escape them. I strained towards them, craving to be consumed by their fire."

ALEX WEXLER: He was quite a liability. He was compulsively unfaithful to her. He ran around with other women, he humiliated her, he embarrassed her. I think that she had a very idealistic view of how people should act and then her feelings didn't always go along with her theories. One of the things that's appealing about her is that she didn't put theories over life. She tried to live up to her ideal but often found that she couldn't and was very honest about it.

ANDREI CODRESCU: It was hard to reconcile this particular passion with her stated ideology about free love and the right of everyone to move as they please. And I think she tried to feel no jealousy and she tried to think of Reitman as a creature apart and tried to think of him as someone who was hers when they were together on the road. At the same time she fell prey to the most sentimental romantic claptrap. The same stuff that she denounced in her talks.

NARRATOR: For almost a decade, Goldman and Reitman spent nearly half of every year on the road, maintaining a relentless schedule of radical agitation from coast-to-coast. In one six-month period, she delivered 120 lectures before 40,000 people in 37 cities. With Reitman as her manager, she became one of the most sought-after public speakers in America. Her messages reached beyond the faithful, attracting middle- and upper-class audiences. Her lectures also drew the attention of police detectives.

OZ FRANKEL: There's a kind of aura around her. There is kind of expectation that something will happen when she comes to town. Wonderful things, hilarious things, horrific things...

MARTIN DUBERMAN: I think Emma Goldman frightened or at the very least puzzled a lot of people because she was a powerful woman and a powerfully built woman, especially as she got older. She put on considerable weight. I mean, she appeared like a tower of concrete upon the platform.

ANDREI CODRESCU: She has something in common I think with American tent preachers, with great con men and hucksters of the 19th century who were able to sell snake oil to an audience by bringing them to a frenzy.

OZ FRANKEL: Being in the public sphere is a way to transform people. To make them change their lives, change their opinions...

NARRATOR: She lectured on anarchism to Congregationalists in Cleveland, on violence to Single Taxers in Houston, and about sex to lumberjacks in Eureka.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman [cross-faded in chorus]: Society considers the sex experiences of a man as attributes of his general development, while similar experiences in the life of a woman are looked upon as a terrible calamity... I intend to speak in Philadelphia. I intend to insist on my right of free speech. If the police stop me, then it is up to them to explain why... As long as I live I must be a crusader. What I think, what I feel, I must speak. Not for a hundred, not for five hundred years will the principles of anarchy triumph. But what has that to do with it?

STEPHEN COLE: She must have tapped into something, some stream running through American society at that time. Because she gained converts, if not to anarchism then to her ideas, especially about free speech from all classes and from all areas of the country...

NARRATOR: Goldman's celebrity status didn't wash with everyone. Her closest comrades criticized her new circle of friends. One worried the movement was becoming too middle-class. "Instead of organizing the unemployed," he argued, "we rent comfortable halls and charge ten cents admission." Even government agents sent to spy on her understood her appeal. "She is womanly, a remarkable orator, tremendously sincere," one wrote in a report. "She is doing tremendous damage." At home in New York, unemployed workers, trade unionists, and socialists kept up a daily round of rallies and demonstrations. One of the biggest -- The Revolt of the Unemployed -- was brutally suppressed. Conflicts between capital and labor escalated. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, striking workers faced the rifle butts of the state militia. At the Standard Oil Company in Bayonne, New Jersey, workers striking for humane treatment on the job and a living wage were shot by hired guards. And in Ludlow, Colorado, striking coal miners and their families were gunned down by the local militia.

BARRY PATEMAN: It seemed that whatever happened you could get away with if you were rich. You could do anything. You could, you could kill women and children and nothing would happen to you. Ah, there you go. Tough. And so it just created this desire to strike back...

ACTOR READS Voice of Alexander Berkman: Anarchists have taught people that violence is justified in the struggle of labor against capital. Labor will ultimately knock the last master off the back of the last slave.

EDGAR DOCTOROW: Things are so bad that the radical reaction was in inverse proportions. The more violent and dangerous life was, the more violent and dangerous the radicals would be. They were always a mirror of disaster, the on-going disaster. They were more extreme then. And there was less rueful historical knowledge about the final counterproductive nature of violence.

NARRATOR: Goldman's position on violence was never totally clear. She rejected violence intellectually, but always her sympathies went to the motivations of those who committed acts of violence. "Violence never has and never will bring constructive results," she wrote. "But my mind and my knowledge of life tell me that change will always be violent."

STEPHEN COLE: She felt that violence sometimes was necessary because of the implacable opposition of governments and industrialists to workers. Over time she recognized that almost invariably however those acts were counter productive. You are giving them a sword if you talk about using a sword yourself.

NARRATOR: In 1915, Alexander Berkman started a publication of his own. He named his new magazine The Blast. Goldman went back on the road with Ben Reitman, this time to campaign for birth control. This tour would be their most successful ever. It was also quite illegal. Talking about sex and contraceptives in public was a crime.

BARRY PATEMAN: She sees birth control as a social issue. For her it was in a sense freedom to have whatever relationships they wanted, whatever life they wanted. It was critical. And it was also critical in terms of social change. Of empowering poor women.

NARRATOR: In February 1916, Goldman was arrested in New York and sentenced to fifteen days in the workhouse. Ten months later, Reitman was arrested. He received a six-month sentence -- the longest sentence served in the United States by a birth control advocate. After his release, Reitman confessed he'd fallen in love with a young woman he'd met in New York two years before. "I had been seduced by an ordinary man's desire for a home, a wife and a child," he wrote. His love affair with Goldman was over. In 1917, Ben Reitman and Anna Martindale were married. Goldman was stunned.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: I felt unutterably weary ... possessed only of a desire to get away somewhere and forget the failure of my personal life, to forget even the cruel urge to struggle for an ideal.

Act Three

NARRATOR: Between the summer of 1916 and the spring of 1917, the mood of the country darkened. The war in Europe was dragging into its third year, a year of military stalemates, trench warfare, and mud. When America entered World War One in April, 1917, Goldman saw it as a disaster.

BARRY PATEMAN: You cannot support any country in war when innocent (as she would see it) men would be slaughtered. Innocent families would have brothers, husbands taken away from them and slaughtered. No, you can't do that. That's the basis of your anarchism.

EDGAR DOCTOROW: The idea of nationalism appalled her. She though nationalism was a big scam. Her point of view was that these wars were a matter of the property interests of the upper classes that were sending the working classes out to fight for them. And that didn't make sense for a butcher's assistant in Hamburg to fight a butcher's assistant in London.

NARRATOR: Goldman was far from alone in her opposition to the war. Dozens of organizations throughout the country had argued the war was morally wrong.

OZ FRANKEL: The First World War was marked by the insecurity of the administration. I mean this is an administration that promised not to enter the war. Once it decided otherwise, it became very, very defensive, insecure and therefore insisted on consensus. Consensus by any means.

ROBERT ROSENSTONE:We're not a liberal society when we go to war. During the Civil War we weren't. Abraham Lincoln, one of our great presidents arrested hundreds of people who wrote against the war. And during the first World War there was a combination of vigilantism and official repression.

NARRATOR: In June, the Espionage Act went into effect. It decreed stiff fines and prison terms for anyone who obstructed the draft. A year later, the Sedition Law threatened those who defied the government with expulsion. J. Edgar Hoover, a twenty-three year-old law clerk enjoying a meteoric rise in the Justice Department collected information on foreign-born radicals. Hoover was anxious to bring what he called "intellectual perverts" like war resistors and anarchists to justice. He reserved a special loathing for Goldman. Once again, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman joined forces to organize resistance. Their lectures drew large, contentious crowds. In May 1917, they launched the No-Conscription League. It opposed "all wars waged by capitalist governments."

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: We believe that the militarization of America is an evil that far outweighs any good that may come from America's participation in the war. We will resist conscription by every means in our power.

NARRATOR: In its short life, the League organized three protest rallies. Eight thousand people attended the first meeting in Harlem.

BARRY PATEMAN: Those meetings are crackling with tension. By the time those speakers get onto that stage, there are catcalls, there are shouting, and there is an electric feel. There's five thousand, six thousand, ten thousand people outside some of these meetings, singing the Internationale and shouting insults and trading insults with those supporters of the war. It's an electric atmosphere.

NARRATOR: "The way in which Goldman and Berkman faced the war fury of 1917 , said a friend, "was the most stirring manifestation of sheer physical courage I have ever seen." But to the government, America's most famous anarchists had to be stopped.

ANDREI CODRESCU: Free Speech is always at risk and one of her great contributions is really to have pushed it as far as it did go. She used it a bit like her toy. To see what she could do with it before it broke. And then it did break in her hands.

NARRATOR: On the afternoon of June 15, a federal marshal and his deputies bounded up the stairs of Goldman's East 125th Street address and ransacked the place. The raiders made off with a "wagonload" of Goldman's papers, including what one detective called "a splendidly kept card index of 'Reds'" -- the subscription list of Mother Earth. Goldman and Berkman were charged with conspiracy to violate the Draft Act, a federal offense. At trial, Goldman pointed out the contradictions between fighting for freedom and liberty abroad and suppressing them at home. "If America had entered the war to make the world safe for democracy," Goldman insisted, "she must first make democracy safe in America." After thirty-nine minutes of deliberation, the jury announced a verdict: guilty. Goldman and Berkman spent twenty-two months behind bars, much of it tracking events in Russia. The "Great October" of 1917 had ended three centuries of Romanov rule virtually overnight. It was the culmination of a dream by both anarchists and Marxists, and a time to place partisan rivalries aside. Goldman and Berkman put their trust in the Bolsheviks.

OZ FRANKEL: There was also great hope. The Russian experience will lead to this future idealistic kind of society that she was hoping for. From the vantage point of 1919 that seemed quite feasible. At last the great moment arrived.

BARRY PATEMAN: Russia has started something that could leak into this country, that could take hold of this country and make it another Communist socialist country. And the people that we must target must be those who support the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution. And they did.

NARRATOR: Throughout the autumn of 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer directed roundups of radicals in what would come to be known as the "Palmer Raids." Thousands of arrests were made without warrants. Those arrested were held for weeks without bail, without access to counsel, even without notification of their families. Before it was all over, an FBI official declared, "I believe that with these raids the backbone of the radical movement in America is broken."

STEPHEN COLE: The government wanted people like Goldman and Berkman out of the country because they could be catalysts for what was seen as a potentially disruptive re-invigorated labor movement. And it's completely impossible to understand that separate from this Red Scare. They went hand in hand.

NARRATOR: On September 27th, 1919, America's most famous anarchist walked out of prison. Berkman soon followed. To Goldman, the America she greeted upon release reminded her of the Czarist tyranny she had fled at the age of sixteen. But by December 5th, Goldman and Berkman were prisoners again. This time at Ellis Island. They had already been served warrants for their deportation.

BARRY PATEMAN: She knows she's going to be deported. She believes it. Just like she knew that there was going to be hard, bad times as World War One crept into motion, she also knew that she was going to be deported. There was no question about it. She knew it and she expects to go.

NARRATOR: From her cell, Goldman wrote a friend how strange it was for one who'd lived and worked in the United States for more than half her life to be thrown out of the country for "mere opinion's sake."

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: Their mad rush in getting us out of the country is the greatest proof to me that I have served the cause of humanity, that I have never wavered or compromised.

ALEX WEXLER: Although she went with quite a bit of bravado, it was very, very tough and she had been living here for over 30 years. She was an American. And then to be kicked out like that was a tremendous shock.

NARRATOR: Early in the morning of December 21, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and 247 other immigrant detainees were suddenly awakened and told to prepare for departure. Searchlights swept the island as they were hurried down a long corridor. At 4:00 am, the deportees were loaded onto barges that ferried them to the S.S. Buford.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: One does not live in a country thirty-four years and find it easy to go. All the turmoil of body and soul, all the love and hate that come to an intense human being have come to me here. I have helped to sow the seeds, and hope to see their fruition, even if I will be too far away to participate in the harvest.

NARRATOR: As the Buford slipped from her berth, a group of newspaper reporters and congressmen cheered. "With Prohibition coming in and Emma Goldman going out," one of them quipped, "t'will be a dull country." On January 19, 1920, after crossing Finland in sealed railroad cars, Goldman, Berkman, and the other deportees reached Soviet Russia.

ROBERT ROSENSTONE: It seems like a great period of freedom and liberation and hope that the world will be different. If Russia can change, if Russia can democratize, if Russia can give hope to people, then there's hope for any, any country in the world. And this is at the end of a three and a half years of a very devastating world war, a blood bath of a world war.

NARRATOR: But what they found was devastation.

BARRY PATEMAN: When she got to Petrograd, I think she found the city to be a total surprise. And I think that part of the problem before we can even talk about the political situation is the fact that she was American. She had become Americanized. She had become used to a certain way of thinking, a certain way of being.

ALEX WEXLER: The economic conditions there were just absolutely devastating. People were dying of hunger. There was famine, there was disease. Russia had been propelled back into the, you know, medieval period practically by the destruction of the war.

ORLANDO FIGES, Historian: Horses lay in the street, dead because there was nothing to feed them. Rubbish began to collect in the cities because nobody could be dragooned into clearing them. Vermin spread. One could almost say that the rats were the only thing left to eat.

NARRATOR: Faced with growing unrest, the Bolsheviks cracked down hard on dissent. Goldman soon confided her disillusionment to a friend who was close to Lenin. "Suppression, persecution," Goldman wrote, "was it for this the Revolution had been fought?" Her friend arranged for Goldman and Berkman to meet Lenin.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: Lenin sat behind a huge desk. We were treated to a volley of questions (quoting Lenin:) "When could the social revolution be expected in America? Was the rank and file a fertile soil for boring from within? What about the I.W.W.?"

BARRY PATEMAN: And they argue for free speech. What about free speech? And he looks on them and he treats them rather like adolescents who are learning, you know, about life. And he says, look that's a very bourgeoisie notion, he says roughly. Here we are surrounded by enemies on all sides. What do you mean, free speech? The White Russians are attacking us. We've got traitors inside. We've got collaborators inside. We've got all sorts of people operating in this country. What do you mean, 'free speech?' You can't have free speech in this revolutionary situation.

ORLANDO FIGES: I think ultimately she's probably an enlightened fool in that she intellectualized a revolution she didn't really understand. And projected onto Russia her own hopes of liberation. Hopes, which I suppose were rooted in her own personal trajectories. And that was a pretty foolish thing to do.

NARRATOR: For Goldman and Berkman, the decisive moment came on March 16, 1921. That night, the Bolsheviks attacked Kronstadt, a naval base near Petrograd and the last bastion of anarchist dissent.

ORLANDO FIGES: Then to hear the cannon suppress the very people who had brought it about. Destroy the idea of democracy that they still until that moment had hoped might emerge from the revolution. To hear that, to feel it crushed must to a certain extent have destroyed something in themselves.

ANDREI CODRESCU: I think Russia shattered that. That was something very close to her core, to who she was. So clearly this was no place for Goldman. It was no place for Berkman. This was not a place for any kind of joy, leave alone a place for any kind of dissent. This was a place where vodka very quickly became a palliative for pain and not an occasion for dancing.

NARRATOR: In December 1921, after two years, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman left Russia. They vowed to tell the rest of the world of the Bolshevik terror.

BARRY PATEMAN: She did something that many of us find damned hard to do. She realizes she's been a fool. She realizes she's been wrong. She's realized she's made an error. Not just a casual error, but an error of huge awful magnitude to support the Bolsheviks. And she turns and she accepts that. She accepts it totally.

NARRATOR: Revealing the truth about the Bolshevik regime became a crusade for Goldman and Berkman. Their old enemies on the Right praised their analysis of a revolution gone wrong. Old comrades on the Left condemned them.

ORLANDO FIGES: So there must have been a sense of frustration. Hell, we've seen it but we can't convince but we can't convince people of how it really is and we can't uphold any real belief in socialism anymore. And that's a very tragic situation to be in I think. When you both lose everything you believe in and yet have no where else to go.

ANDREI CODRESCU: And so she found herself once again in no-mans land. So by her hand in fact she sent herself into an intellectual exile as well so she, she was a specialist of exile.

NARRATOR: For years Goldman lived with old friends in England, Canada and France. Then in the spring of 1927, she received a cable from the American arts patron Peggy Guggenheim. A group of friends had raised funds to buy her a cottage in St. Tropez, a then-obscure fishing village on the French Riviera. There, she could live and work. Berkman named it "Bon Esprit." At Bon Esprit, Goldman generated a mountain of correspondence with old friends. Her letters were filled with restless energy and longing for the United States. "You may as well know once and for all," she had written a comrade, "that I will never be able to free myself from the hold America has on me."

BARRY PATEMAN: That's where she had her own sense of who she was, was most developed when she was in America. And let's be quite frank, it's also where she had the adoring audiences and where she felt she could do something. For a political activist sitting in a little, on a hillside cottage in St. Tropez without the glamour that we associate with it now, where you can actually effect hardly anything is hell.

NARRATOR: After nearly forty years in the public eye, Goldman was welcome nowhere. Berkman shared her despair. "The truth is," he wrote, "our movement has accomplished nothing, anywhere." The bond between Emma and Sasha grew stronger during their years of exile, even though they lived apart. He was now in desperately poor health.

ACTOR READS Voice of Alexander Berkman: There is not much to congratulate one's self on, is there dear? Except that after all these years, our old friendship has remained unchanged, and indeed stronger and more understanding and intimate than ever. And that is a very great deal.

BARRY PATEMAN: The word we would use, they were comrades. And they were comrades, and comrades is a word we don't use anymore now except mockingly maybe. Or half in jest or cynically. But they were comrades. Their relationship was bigger than disagreement, bigger than sexual relationships, bigger than emotional entanglements. It was somehow all of those and more. And they were bound together. Emma says of him in 1928, he was a leit motif of her life.

ACTOR READS Voice of Emma Goldman: My dear, whom else should I write on this day but you. Only there was nothing to tell. I keep thinking what a long time to live. For whom? For what? But there is no answer. One thing, I can still find relief in housework and cooking. Let me hear from you, how you are Sasha dear. Affectionately, Emma. P.S. Do you want me to send you the Manchester Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement? Let me know. E"

NARRATOR: He never got her letter. In the middle of the night on June 28, 1936, Goldman received a telephone call from Nice imploring her to "come at once." Arriving in Sasha's apartment, Goldman learned that he had shot himself in the chest. He died that night.

BARRY PATEMAN: This great centerforce of her life is gone. I think it must have been in her life the most devastating personal loss she ever had. I don't think that, I know that.

NARRATOR: Two months after Berkman's death, friends came to see Goldman in St. Tropez. They found her distraught, even, they thought, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. One friend saw her walking alone in the garden at Bon Esprit, calling out softly, "Sasha, where are you?"


NARRATOR: With the loss of Sasha Berkman, Goldman wrote that the largest part of her life had followed him to his grave. During two decades of exile, she returned to the United States only once, following the publication of her thousand-page autobiography. Throughout her visit, the 64-year-old activist was dogged by the F.B.I. Even so, she lamented at the end of her stay, she would have returned to America if she'd had the choice. Emma Goldman spent the last few months of her life in Canada. On February 17th, 1940, she'd been sitting with two friends, laughing and talking, playing bridge. Suddenly, she collapsed in her chair...

STEPHEN COLE: She suffers a stroke. An ambulance is called, friends arrive. And one of them, Arne Thorn, remembers her on a stretcher being taken out. And the only gesture she could manage was to pull her skirt down over her knee.

BARRY PATEMAN: To be silenced and to lay there unable to speak. And no one else could do that to her. Not a government in the world could do that to her, you know. Not a government in the world could, and she must lay there. I think it's unbearably sad.

NARRATOR: On May 14th, 1940 Emma Goldman died. Denied entry into the United States for so many years, she was finally permitted, in death, to cross the border. She was buried in Chicago's Waldheim Cemetery, near the graves of the Haymarket martyrs.

ALEX WEXLER: She raised people's consciousness. You know, she transformed people's thinking. She made them question their own lives and their political assumptions and she spoke back to power.

OZ FRANKEL: Emma Goldman is recognizable to me because of the attitude, the chutzpah, the sense of humor, the energy which is always boundless. And also her soulfulness, which is so very Russian. Her ability to dive into great emotion but also to emerge out of them. There's something comforting about this persona, there's something reliable about Emma Goldman.

TONY KUSHNER: It's hard to imagine how the human heart can sustain that level of passion. And intense concentration on the possibility of change that becomes their heartbeat ... we're so sort of stuck in the gray middle. And you read her and she really lived her life on fire. And there's something utterly thrilling about that.

BARRY PATEMAN: If we look everything that she did. The fight for free speech, the fight for women to have control over their bodies, the fight...the fight against state intrusion in our life, the fight against totalitarianism, becoming the nettle of our conscience; she didn't do it for wealth, she didn't do it for money, she didn't do it for personal gain. She did it for all of us. And she's awkward, and she's ornery, and she's a pain. Great!

Additional funding for Emma Goldman provided by

  • funder icon