Radical Figures in Health History: Emma Goldman

Posted on 8.15.2012 by Kelly

Inspired by a book I recently bought called Revolutionary Women: A Book of Stencils, I've decided to start a monthly feature profiling radical figures in health history. By examining the stories of radical healers, doctors, nurses, and activists for health justice I hope to develop an understanding of an alternative version of medical history.

This month I am profiling Emma Goldman, one of the most well-known anarchists who is often misquoted as having said some iteration of the phrase, “If I can't dance I don't want to be in your revolution.” Her actual quote, found in the autobiography Living My Life, Volume One, was of a similar sentiment but more verbose. In response to being told that as “an agitator” she should not dance, Emma responded, “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things.” Regardless of your political views I feel like this is something we can all agree on!

Emma was born in Russia in 1869 and had a childhood full of poverty and family strife. At age sixteen she left for America where she found work as a seamstress and factory worker. The event which raised her political consciousness and radicalized her was 1886's Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. A striking workers' protest for the eight-hour day was disrupted by a bomb thrown by an unknown person, and eight anarchists were scapegoated as the perpetrators with little supporting evidence. The subsequent execution of four of the men deeply disturbed Emma, and she soon decided to move to New York to join the anarchist movement. She became a renowned writer, touring lecturer, and co-conspirator in the assassination attempt of steel baron Henry Clay Frick. She was arrested multiple times and deported from the United States in 1919 though her career as an orator and activist continued across Europe and North America throughout the rest of her life.

Beyond being a strong and talented woman in the male-dominated radical activist world, Emma Goldman is notable to me for her work as a nurse and midwife. She first became trained as a nurse while incarcerated at Blackwell's Island Penitentiary. After a stay in the jail's hospital for her own illness, Emma was asked to help out in the hospital by the head doctor. As described in an article called, “'I Am a Trained Nurse': The Nursing Identity of Anarchist and Radical Emma Goldman,”

She...found that she loved nursing. Her experience among the other women prisoners—and as their nurse—provided an education in what she saw as a major injustice; women were jailed for having “ministered” to men’s sexual demands while the men themselves went free. Abused, often afflicted with venereal disease and other illnesses, “they were victims, links in an endless chain of injustice and inequality,” an experience to which Goldman could relate, having written about the violence that accompanied her own first sexual experience before leaving Russia.

After leaving Blackwell's Island, Emma took work as a personal nurse and loved that in having this profession she “no longer [had] to grind at the machine.” In 1895 she went to Europe to formally study nursing and midwifery and upon her return to America she worked in both capacities, nurse and midwife. Of her experience as a midwife she wrote in her autobiography, “My profession of midwife was not very lucrative, only the poorest of the foreign element resorting to such services...But while my work held out no hope of worldly riches, it furnished an excellent field for experience. It put me into intimate contact with the very people my ideal strove to help and emancipate. It brought me face to face with the living conditions of the workers, about which, until then, I had talked and written mostly from theory.” She goes on to describe her particular impression of the struggle of poor women in achieving reproductive autonomy at a time when access to abortion and contraception was extremely limited. While she eventually left nursing to focus on her other projects, her experience working with low-income women stuck with her. In later years she dedicated much writing and public speaking to the fight for access to birth control, something she was arrested for in 1916.

All in all, Emma Goldman is an inspiring figure in radical history. It is interesting to examine how her anarchist identity influenced her work as a nurse, and how her work as a nurse reinforced her philosophy and shaped her actions. I hope you enjoyed this first installment of “Radical Figures in Health History” and stay tuned for next month's profile!

Image By T. Kajiwara (Library of Congress[1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons