A Thank You Note to Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940) is one of the most under-appreciated figures in history. She fought for workers’ rights, for women’s rights, for birth control, for free speech, for peace.

(Check out the PBS documentary with more information here)

In a time when segregation was entrenched, when women couldn’t vote, when workers had few rights, when speech was far from free, Emma Goldman stuck to her beliefs, even when they landed her in prison, even when they got her deported. She was a true revolutionary in every sense of the word.

Goldman famously said, “It requires less mental effort to condemn than to think.” Nowhere is this more accurate than on the issue of marriage equality. With today’s progress for gay rights, I’d like to point out, and thank her for, her support of gay rights.

As Magnus Hirschfeld wrote, “she was the first and only woman, indeed the first and only American, to take up the defense of homosexual love before the general public.”

Her stance on homosexuality was so radical for the time that even most of her fellow anarchists disagreed with her. Goldman herself recognized homosexuality as “the problem most tabooed in polite society.”

She wrote in a letter to Hirschfeld, “It is a tragedy, I feel, that people of a different sexual type are caught in a world which shows so little understanding for homosexuals and is so crassly indifferent to the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life.”

In her autobiography, Goldman recalls a conversation she had with a doctor about the conviction of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde for “gross indecency” because of his homosexuality:

During our walk in the Luxembourg I told the doctor of the indignation I had felt at the conviction of Oscar Wilde. I had pleaded his case against the miserable hypocrites who had sent him to his doom. “You!” the doctor exclaimed in astonishment, “why, you must have been a mere youngster then [Goldman was 26 in 1895 at the time of the trial]. How did you dare come out in public for Oscar Wilde in puritan America?” “Nonsense!” I replied; “no daring is required to protest against a great injustice.”

As Howard Zinn wrote, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Don’t be on the wrong side of history. Follow Goldman’s lead. After all, she was right – “No daring is required to protest against a great injustice.”