Emma Goldman’s beliefs have always been considered radical. It was daring, and often illegal, to lecture on homosexuality (“the intermediate sex” in the day’s parlance) and on love outside the institution of marriage. She evinced respect from prostitutes when legislation ostensibly aimed at preventing “white slave traffic” actually criminalized consensual sex, and, in 1916, she risked arrest under the Comstock “obscenity” laws in the US for advocating access to birth control.
Yet her bold public affirmation of the many faces of intimacy – whether between women or between unmarried partners – never secured for Emma a license for unfettered openness about her own personal life. Her hidden letters remain a valuable record of her own relationship to many of the subjects about which she impersonally – though passionately – lectured and wrote.
The simple act of writing a letter had always been Emma’s way to ground her experience, mute her sense of isolation, provide herself with an opportunity to articulate the ideals that had won her public acclaim and transpose those ideals into her personal life. A close friend, the anarchist historian Max Nettlau, once remarked to Emma: “In letters happily, though tip top up to date otherwise, you are eighteenth century, doing honour to the good old art of letter writing which the wire and telephone have strangled, and this is a good thing, as a thoughtful way of communication by letters is an intellectual act of value on its own, which rapid talk cannot replace.”
In part, Emma’s ability to recognize, articulate, and transform pain was rooted in the sadness and lovelessness of her early life. Her ability to survive her own pain by refocusing on exalted potential could therefore stand on what felt like a natural ability to inspire the world. Rarely did she write a public speech without a messianic finale, or end an anguished love letter without a reiteration of her fixed ideal of what true love could be.