Emma Goldman, also known as "Red Emma," was born to Jewish parents on June 27, 1869, in Kaunas, Lithuania (Kovno, Russia) in a climate of mounting czarist repression marked by periodic pogroms. In order to avoid such threats her family moved when she was 13 to St. Petersburg. Economic circumstances, however, ended her formal schooling and forced her to take up work as a corset maker in a factory.
In an effort to improve family prospects, Goldman and her half sister immigrated to America, where they joined another sister in Rochester, New York. There Goldman gained employment at $2.50 a week as a seamstress in a clothing factory. Events surrounding the Chicago Haymarket Square riots of 1886 and the subsequent trial, conviction, and hanging of the accused agitators drew her into the anarchist cause.
Following a short marriage to Jacob Kershner, Goldman, now age 20, headed east, first to New Haven, Connecticut, and eventually to New York City, where she soon fell under the influence of Johann Most (1846–1906), a revolutionary editor of a German paper.
Goldman's political development also saw her embrace the anarchist teachings of Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) with their emphasis on individualism and revolution. She accepted the concept of "propaganda by deed" and supported friend, sometime lover, and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman's 1892 plot to assassinate Carnegie Steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick. The attack only injured Frick but nevertheless brought Berkman a 22-year prison sentence.
Although Goldman was not convicted, she did receive a year in New York's Blackwell Island Prison on a separate charge of encouraging the unemployed to use force to achieve their demands. A further arrest came in 1901 following Leon Czolgosz's (1873–1901) assassination of President William McKinley; however, Goldman was ultimately not charged.
In 1906 following Berkman's parole from prison, Goldman joined him and began editing the monthly journal Mother Earth, which ran until 1917. Mother Earth became a forum for her writing and anarchist feminist political ideas. Her radical propaganda was winning her more enemies than friends, though, and in 1908 her citizenship was revoked.
In 1914 she was again accused of involvement in bombing plots, this time supposedly against the oil baron J. D. Rockefeller, and in 1916 she was imprisoned for distributing birth control leaflets. Berkman at this stage had moved to San Francisco and was contributing to another anarchist journal, the Blast.
The coming of World War I prompted Goldman to campaign against U.S. participation, and she, along with Berkman, led No Conscription League protests, which conflicted with the 1917 Espionage Act. Searches of her offices produced incriminating documents and information on fellow revolutionaries. The material and correspondence would later aid investigators in their roundup of radicals.
Her antiwar activities and agitation brought her further legal attention and another jail sentence, this time of two years. While in prison she developed a friendship with Gabriella Segata Antolini, a fellow anarchist and an associate of the radical anarchist editor Luigi Galleani (1861–1931).
The immediate aftermath of World War I, coming on the heels of the 1917 communist revolution in Russia, produced heightened U.S. fears of radical subversion. The U.S. attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, supported by eager federal investigative agents such as the young J. Edgar Hoover, instituted a campaign, subsequently labeled the Red Scare of 1919–20, to deport immigrant radicals as undesirable aliens.
Goldman and Berkman found themselves in this group, and on December 1, 1919, they and 247 other radicals were put on the U.S.S. Buford for transport to Russia. This journey took them to the heartland of the unfolding Bolshevik Revolution. Communist actions soon undercut their initial enthusiasm for this socialist experiment.
Leaving Russia in 1921, Goldman divided her time between England and France and eventually acquired a house in Saint Tropez. In 1931 while living in the south of France, she completed her autobiographical volume, Living My Life. Now in possession of a British passport, she was able to travel and lecture, even returning to the United States for a lecture tour in 1934.
The rise of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s gave Goldman new opponents for her political campaigns, and the coming of the Spanish civil war in 1936 provided her with a new cause to champion. However, shortly before the outbreak of the war in 1936 she suffered the loss of her longtime companion and anarchist associate, Alexander Berkman, who after suffering from serious pain and chronic illness committed suicide. Visits to Spain in 1937 and 1938 convinced Goldman that more action was needed, and she joined with others to help the Committee to Aid Homeless Spanish Women and Children.
While on a visit to Toronto, Canada, Goldman suffered a stroke and died on May 14, 1940. U.S. authorities permitted her burial in what is now the Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, close to the burial plots of the executed Haymarket Riot anarchists.