Swans Commentary » swans.com May 7, 2012  



Emma Goldman's Sexological Obsession


by Michael Barker



"Order derived through submission and maintained by terror is not much of a safe guaranty; yet that is the only 'order' that governments have ever maintained. True social harmony grows naturally out of solidarity of interests."
—Emma Goldman, 1910. (1)


(Swans - May 7, 2012)   Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was a major anarchist thinker and activist, who "perhaps more than any other prominent woman of her times, understood the perplexing psychological and sexual dimension of women's subordination in modern industrial culture." But despite her libertarian (public) attitudes toward love and marriage, and her vigorous condemnation of the ongoing repression of women, her personal life was another matter, and "In reality, Goldman was personally tormented by her own subordination to her lover and manager, the exploitative and philandering Ben Reitman." (2) This stark contradiction between her public and private life should highlight the fact that Goldman's sexual politics may not have been quite as advanced as we might be led to believe. So while there is no doubt that Goldman was an outstanding proponent of human emancipation, this does not mean that we should shy from criticizing her faults, especially vis-à-vis the relation of her anarchist politics to feminism.

According to feminist historian Dale Spender, as opposed to many of the other anarchist-feminists of Goldman's era who "dammed their male colleagues as tyrants," Goldman "was an exception." And although Spender acknowledges that she has "much respect" for Goldman's "courage, her disagreeableness and defiance," Goldman's analysis was nevertheless highly problematic for women, as for Goldman, "capitalism was the sole source of women's oppression, and she looks no further for evidence and has no need of other explanatory ideas." It is in this light that Spender concludes: "Goldman could only ever have been classified as radical within a male context; as far as sexual politics are concerned, and in a female context, she is a conservative." (3) Bonnie Haaland, the author of Emma Goldman: Sexuality and the Impurity of the State (Black Rose Books, 1993), has much the same concerns, and observes that while sympathetic to Goldman's anarchist politics, she...

... was not comfortable with Goldman's suggestion that women should abandon the [patriarchal] public sphere in favour of the realm of their private "instincts," "tastes," or "desires." As contemporary feminist debates about women's difference versus women's equality have illustrated, women's so-called different "nature" (sexual, biological, psychological, etc.) has been the basis upon which women have been separated, excluded, and oppressed. (p.vii)

Goldman was correct to subject liberal reformers to ruthless criticism, reserving special contempt for their desire to promote emancipation through education -- which she viewed "as a hollow aspiration, which actually served to further entrap women and men" -- and through increased participation in the public sphere. Goldman "believed that public or 'State' life was 'unfit' for women and not worthy of their participation." This was all well and good, but the problem of Goldman's alternative conception of freedom was that she "ground[ed] women's definition and meaning, not within a general and wide range of possibilities and potentialities, but in specific and narrow options -- that of heterosexual love and childbearing." As Haaland adds: "Unlike other feminist authors such as Virginia Woolf, who thoroughly and cogently critiqued patriarchal institutions, Goldman did not treat as synonymous 'men' and the 'public realm' and, therefore, made no strong condemnations of men." (4)

It is likely that Goldman's view of the supremacy of instinct, accompanied by her antipathy for the "public" realm, is largely a product of her tendency to dichotomize -- to simplistically and sharply separate in a hyperbolic and overstated manner the so-called "good from "bad." Goldman's method of analysis, whether it be in the area of dramatic criticism or political speech-making, eschewed the middle ground, favouring instead the uncompromising positions of bold extremes. As a result, Goldman's view of "instinct," as set in opposition to the public "State," ignores the extent to which our so-called "instincts" are constructed and shaped by forces contained within the public sphere. Goldman's view of "instinct" places human beings in opposition to the social and cultural forces that have shaped them. (p.61)

Moreover, to heap insult on injury, although Goldman herself admitted "that woman is being reared as a sex commodity," she still "championed the glorification of 'healthy' heterosexuality" as propounded "by such 'sex radicals' as Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis." Goldman thus "uncritically" accepted Freud's erroneous view that women were intellectually inferior, and openly embraced the anti-feminist sexology of Ellis and Edward Carpenter. This in turn led her to openly reject and criticize liberating alternatives for women -- such as remaining single or engaging in lesbian relationships. Instead of challenging patriarchy, she simply called for harmonious reconciliation between the sexes; a solution that "reflected her unconditional and uncritical acceptance" of the sexologists ideologies of male-supremacy, "which led to her construction of a gender-bound and essentialist view of sexuality." Sexual freedom therefore became "essential to her theory of anarchism," (5) and Haaland concludes that:

It would not be unfair to suggest that Goldman perceived the sexologists to be virtual icons, beyond and above criticism. Because sexology, in Goldman's view, had taken sex out of the closet and into the domain of open conversation, the messengers and their theories were to be treated with the utmost deference and respect. (p.123)

Numerous feminists have now amply documented the manner by which the male sexologists (who so inspired Goldman) were well received by more thoughtful capitalist elites, who recognized the key role that such sexologists could play in undermining the threat posed by an increasingly powerful feminist movement. Haaland concurs with this reading of their counter-revolutionary role, observing that while "the sexologists, and Goldman under their influence, attempted to advance the cause of sexual freedom, they paradoxically tightened 'the grip of the system,' pathologizing... behaviours such as female homosexuality." (6) In Goldman's mind, women, not men, were the main barrier to sexual freedom: therefore her proposed solution was not to dismantle patriarchal systems of oppression, but instead to allow women to embrace their real sexual needs as determined by her male-supremacist friends, the sexologists. (7)


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays (Kennikat Press, 1969 [1910]), p.65.  (back)

2.  Ellen Chesler, Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America (Simon & Schuster, 1992), p.82, p.86. Goldman "openly challenged more conventional comrades, who argued that the emancipation of women would have to await the coming of a totally new economic order, while, at the same time, she deliberately courted audiences of middle-class women whose lives may have been better endowed in a material sense, but were no less alienated in other respects." (p.82)

For an incisive biographical study of Reitman, written by his daughter, see Mecca Reitman Carpenter, No Regrets: Dr. Ben Reitman and the Women Who Loved Him (AK Press, 1999).  (back)

3.  Dale Spender, Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them: From Aphra Behn to Adrienne Rich (Ark Press, 1982), p.502, p.504, p.505. Goldman and her feminist contemporaries are discussed in Margaret Marsh's book Anarchist Women 1870-1920 (Temple University Press, 1981). Goldman's anarchist contemporary, Lucy Parsons, grew to be one her most vigorous critics, thus: "While Emma Goldman was becoming the spokesperson for the bohemian, 'free love' movement, Lucy Parsons was doing speaking tours of AFL locals across the country."

On Goldman, Spender writes: "For one who is against everything, she is significantly silent on the abuses of women, by men. Heterosexuality is not even questioned; rather, love for men, and the maternal instinct, are held up as the positive features of women's existence which have been eroded by women's achievement of emancipation!" (p.504)

Elsewhere Jennifer Gunn writes: "The 1920s and 1930s were a time of substantial labor unrest. In looking through the speeches of labor agitators, such as Mother Jones, I found no references to either eugenics or birth control. (In the previous decade, anarchist Emma Goldman's speeches were an obvious exception to this.) One might expect workers to construct issues differently than employers and managers. Although working class women probably did attempt to practice some form of birth control and desire a reliable means of family limitation, their political demand was not for birth control but for an adequate wage to support their existing children. Similarly, striking workers did not demand the elimination of physical and mental defects through reproductive control, but rather sought living and working conditions that would support health and well-being." Gunn, "A Few Good Men: The Rockefeller Approach to Population, 1911-1936," In: Theresa Richardson and Donald Fisher (eds.), Development of the Social Sciences in the United States and Canada: The Role of Philanthropy (Ablex Publishing, 1999), p.99.  (back)

4.  Haaland, Emma Goldman, p.49, p.47, p.55, p.60. "Liberal women reformers of Goldman's day concentrated their efforts on attaining female suffrage, greater access to higher education, and increased participation in the labour force. Goldman's rejection of the goals as a means to greater independence for women was based upon her rejection of the State and its impurities-impurities that could not be purified by the injection of female participants." (p.47)  (back)

5.  Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays, p. 190; Haaland, Emma Goldman, p.57, p.59, p.123, p.141.  (back)

6.  Haaland, Emma Goldman, p.141. The influence of Havelock Ellis's thinking on Goldman can be seen by the fact that she approvingly cites his work in four of the essays in Anarchism and Other Essays: these were the essays on Prison, Patriotism, Puritanism, and Traffic in Women.

For various feminist detailed criticisms of sexologists, see Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (Women's Press, 1981); Lal Coveney et al. (eds.), The Sexuality Papers: Male Sexuality and the Social Control of Women (Hutchinson, 1984); Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (Women's Press, 1985); Sheila Jeffreys, Anticlimax: A Feminist Perspective on the Sexual Revolution (Women's Press, 1990); and Margaret Jackson, The Real Facts of Life: Feminism and the Politics of Sexuality, 1850-1940 (Taylor & Francis, 1994).  (back)

7.  Haaland, Emma Goldman, p.177. "Goldman's gender-bound, heterosexual, and male view of human relations caused her to adopt the socially-constructed view that women, not men, were women's major opponents. Despite Goldman's lifelong complaints of loneliness, longing for a friend of her own sex with whom she could share the thoughts and feelings she 'could not express to men,' Goldman's relations with other women were often characterized by competition and jea1ousy." (p.177)  (back)


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Published May 7, 2012