February 11th in History


Emma Goldman,
March 6, 1934.
Creative Americans: Portraits by Van Vechten, 1932-1964

When a law has outgrown time and necessity, it must go and the only way to get rid of the law is to awaken the public to the fact that it has outlived its purpose and that is precisely what I have been doing and mean to do in the future.
 

Emma Goldman to the Press, a few days after her arrest in New York City, February 11, 1916.
Held by the Goldman Collection, International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam, this press release is featured in Birth Control Pioneer, an online exhibit of The Emma Goldman Papers presented by the Berkeley Digital Library Sun SITE.

Emma Goldman, American anarchist and compelling advocate of free speech, women's equality, the eight-hour day, and birth control, was arrested in New York City on February 11, 1916, while giving a public lecture on family planning. She was charged with violating the Comstock Law, a 1873 statute banning transportation of "obscene" matter through the mails. At the time, federal courts interpreted the statute as prohibiting distribution of contraception information.

Goldman was born in Kaunas, a Russian city that is now part of Lithuania, on June 27, 1869. Like most poor Russian jews, Goldman's family suffered under the political oppression and antisemitism of Imperial Russia. Put to work in a corset factory and threatened with an arranged marriage, she fled Russia in 1885. Goldman settled in Rochester, New York, married, and worked in a factory. Disillusioned with working conditions there, she joined the labor movement. Her awareness of anarchism grew with the persecution of anarchist labor leaders after the 1886 Haymarket Strike. Shortly thereafter, Goldman embraced anarchism—the belief that any form of government inhibits a just society.

Abandoning her unhappy life in Rochester, Goldman moved to New York City in the early 1890s. Her abilities as a speaker and writer contributed to her prominence among political radicals. Now working as a nurse and a midwife among poor immigrants in New York City's Lower East Side, Goldman identified readily available birth control as a major factor in women's advancement.


New York City "Ghetto" Fish Market,
Thomas A. Edison, Inc., photographed May 1, 1903.
Life of a City: New York, 1898-1906

This actuality film, shot from above, shows a very crowded New York City street market. Rows of pushcarts and street vendors' vehicles are visible. The precise location is difficult to ascertain, but it is certainly on the Lower East Side, probably on or near Hester Street—the center of commerce for New York's Jewish community at the turn of the century.

In 1917, Goldman was arrested for obstructing the draft because of her outspoken opposition to military conscription associated with World War I. After two years in prison, she was deported to Russia. From 1919 on, Emma Goldman lived and worked in England and Europe. Disappointed by the results of the Russian Revolution, she nevertheless continued to advocate anarchism and individual freedom. Goldman died in 1940. The right of physicians to import and prescribe contraceptives was affirmed in 1936.

Read Socialism, Feminism, and Suffragism, the Terrible Triplets, Connected By the Same Umbilical Cord, and Fed From the Same Nursing Bottle (1915) by Benjamin Vestal Hubbard. Chapter V, "Race Suicide-Its Suggestion and Approval," of this antisuffrage tract contains a section discussing the negative social effects of birth control. Emma Goldman is mentioned on page 192 of this chapter. The document is available through the collection Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921.

Read "The County Health Nurse." This interview with a Depression era public health nurse is one of many perspectives available in the American Life Histories collection.

Additional Today in History features highlighting American radicals including Anne Hutchinson, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Also on this date, February 11, in 1847, inventor Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio.

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