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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Reading Emma Goldman: A Guide for Online Learning


The death of actress Maureen Stapleton, who won an Oscar for her portrayal in the movie, Reds, of the energetic and unforgettable activist Emma Goldman, reminds us how influential memoirs can be for students at all levels. Not only does one gain an appreciation of their contribution, it is possible to examine the mindset of an individual who acted as an agent for change. Whether one agrees with her strategies and tactics, or her politics is not really the point. The main issue for e-learners is engagement. The stories of real people are unforgettable. The following is a companion for reading and studying Emma Goldman.

Companion Reading Guide Emma Goldman's Living My Life. pages 624-641, 685-693. NY: Dover Publications, 1970.

In Emma Goldman's autobiographical writing, Living My Life, the belief that activism can bring about positive social change motivates Goldman and others to stage protests, publish radical flyers and publications, and practice civil disobedience. Advocating such causes as birth control for women, women's right to vote, child labor laws, the eight-hour workday, union organization, and free speech, Goldman lived in the maelstrom of controversy.

As an emigree from Russia (b. 1869), Goldman was familiar with the European anarchist writers and movements. Her memoir sheds light on her mindset. She is a woman focused on a goal, eager to help those around her be aware for the first time of the injustices and inequities they had blinded themselves to.

Although she worked for the rights of all women, Emma Goldman was outgrouped by law enforcement and the mainstream. Her ideas were economically destabilizing (the eight-hour workday, child labor restrictions). Worse, her notions were deeply troubling to conventional society's values. By maintaining a presence outside the "in-group," Goldman could see from a unique vantage point. She did not accept conventional explanations.

For example, when entering prison, a guard asked if she had any diseases, meaning sexually transmitted diseases. Explaining that she was referring to the "diseases immoral women get," the guard went on to tell Goldman that most of the women in the prison suffered from them. Goldman responded that "venereal diseases are not particular" and that many "respectable people" had them.

The events described by Goldman take place in 1917, just months after the United States entered World War I. As she is transported from New York City to the federal penitentiary for women in Jefferson City, Missouri, Goldman interacts with guards and prison officials, and explains her views and positions. This is not a good time for Goldman to be expressing her progressive opinions - Goldman describes the paranoia and patriotism that have gripped the land, and the new laws, such as the Espionage Act, which result in false imprisonments.

The mindset that this reading explores is that of consciousness-raising. It is one that refuses to accept the surface appearances of things as the only reality. It also refuses to accept the status quo, and always attempts to see through to the attitudes' impact on all members of society, particularly the impact on the weak, defenseless, or poorly informed, who are ill-equipped to fight back.

Goldman's narrative illustrates that it takes courage to open one's eyes to what is really going on. It is not easy to assess societal attitudes, laws, and economic practices from the point of view of its impact on various groups. An example is the Espionage Act referred to by Goldman. Although the greater goal was to protect national security, the reality was that it became a tool of ill-intentioned people to trap and/or turn in enemies (and irritants), and/or eliminate competition.

Emma Goldman was a prolific writer and wrote numerous essays and pamphlets on social reform, social justice, women's rights, children's rights, free speech, and other topics.

The movie, Reds, (1981, dir. Warren Beatty), portrays the anarchist movement. In it, actress Maureen Stapleton gives an Oscar-winning performance as Emma Goldman.

Activities for E-Learners.

*Evaluate websites of groups desiring to be change agents. How are they using images? Are they provocative? What values do they reflect? Which images or movie clips capture your attention first? What are their goals? How do you know?

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)

*Compare Cindy Sheehan with Emma Goldman. Watch Cindy speak and listen to her message. How does what she say seem the same or different than Emma Goldman?

Gold Star Mothers for Peace:

*Find other activists and change agents who seem to be a part of an "out group" that is countering the positions of the mainstream or the status quo. Would the Terri Schiavo Foundation qualify? Why or why not?

The Terri Schiavo Foundation.

Emma Goldman. Web Resources.

The Emma Goldman Papers.

American Experience: Emma Goldman.

Emma Goldman: Archives


Jewish Women's Archive: Emma Goldman

Maureen Stapleton (won an Oscar for playing Emma Goldman in the movie, Reds)

Guiding Questions

(By Elaine Bontempi, M.Ed)

1. Explain how the author's mindset was that of consciousness raising.

2. How did the author's cultural background influence her experiences?

3. Describe the community in which the author belonged.

4. Was the culture in which the author wrote an ascribed or acquired status? In which way did it change?

5. How did Emma Goldman conquer her oppressive situation?

6. Emma Goldman was considered to be a member of an outgroup based upon her beliefs. Explain this.

7. Explain how the government stereotyped and discriminated against Emma and her friend

8. Why were Goldman's ideas so dangerous to the stability of the US government?

9. Explain the contradiction in David, Emma's nephew, joining the US army. Why do you think that he did this?

10. What motivated Emma and others to stage protests?

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