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Emma Goldman, Birth Control Crusader, Arrested

Emma Goldman, anarchist and feminist, advocate of free speech, free love, birth control, and the eight-hour workday, was arrested in New York City on February 11, 1916. Charged with violating the Comstock Act, an 1873 law banning the transportation of “obscene” matter, the courts interpreted distribution as transportation. Goldman later spent time in jail for this and many other offenses, this being only one feather in her hat of arrests for being as noisy a rabble-rouser as she was.

Emma Goldman’s mug shot

Who Was Emma Goldman?

Emma Goldman speaking from an open car to a crowd of garment workers about birth control at Union Square, New York, on May 20, 1916.

Goldman was born into a poor Jewish family in Kovno, Russia (now Lithuania) in 1869. Like most Eastern European Jews, Goldman’s family suffered under the political oppression and anti-Semitism of imperial Russia. She fled her homeland as a teenager in 1885, getting a job in a factory in Rochester, New York. She was inspired by the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886, in which a rally organized by anarchist workers turned into a violent confrontation with police, and used the example to begin organizing for labor rights, and against police violence. To continue this work, Goldman relocated to New York City, where she lived on East 13th Street, joined the anarchist movement, and made a name for herself as a public speaker and movement organizer, drawing equal attention from partners in the movement such as Margaret Sanger and Helen Keller, and foes in law enforcement and government.

First-Hand Experience for Birth Control

Lower East Side children, playing in the street, 1912

Goldman was indeed a Jane-of-all-trades, and for a time after her arrival on the Lower East Side, she worked as a nurse and midwife to the poor and working classes in her neighborhood. There she saw first-hand the suffering of poor women who, unable to support the children they already had, often resorted to dangerous, self-induced abortions. These experiences made abundantly clear to her that birth control was essential to women’s needs, lives, and economic and sexual freedom. Goldman was a great writer and orator, and through her work on birth control, she inspired Margaret Sanger, who similarly struggled against law enforcement to do this work (Sanger of course eventually founded the organization that would become Planned Parenthood). She campaigned for legalized birth control, believing that contraception was essential to women’s social, sexual, and economic freedom. It would take almost another 50 years before the FDA approved legalized birth control pills.

Righteous Indignance

A few days after her arrest, Goldman wrote a letter to the press under the letterhead of her Mother Earth Publishing Association (whose offices moved around a lot; they were founded on the Lower East Side, and for a time were also at 210 East 13th Street), laying out her motivation:

It is hardly necessary to point out that whatever may be the law on birth control, those like myself who are disseminating knowledge along that line are not doing so because of personal gain or because we consider it lewd or obscene. We do it because we know the desperate condition among the masses of workers and even professional people, when they cannot meet the demands of numerous children. It is upon that ground that I mean to make my fight when I go into court. Unless I am very much mistaken, I am sustained in my contention by the fundamental principles in America, namely, that 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 purposes and that is precisely what I have been doing and mean to do in the future.

Portrait of Emma Goldman just before entering the federal penitentiary to serve her term, 1917.

Concluding her letter, Goldman noted that, “while I am not particularly anxious to go to jail, I should yet be glad to do so, if thereby I can add my might to the importance of birth control and the wiping off our antiquated law upon the statute.” The full letter is in the Emma Goldman Papers collection at Berkeley.

This was the second time that Goldman was arrested for violating the Comstock Law. In her endlessly enterprising and didactic manner, she managed to turn her trial into a national forum on birth control, successfully attracting many writers, artists, intellectuals and progressives to her cause. Despite the support, Goldman was sentenced to a fine of $100 or 15 days in the workhouse. She chose the workhouse.


When Goldman was released from the workhouse, she headlined a meeting at Carnegie Hall that drew more than 3,000 people who wanted to celebrate her return—and to obtain information about birth control.

Goldman was also in these years involved in a variety of anarchist activities, ranging from direct actions to lectures to publications such as her Anarchism and Other Essays of 1910.  As a co-founder of the No-Conscription LeagueExternal, in 1917 Goldman was again arrested—this time for speaking against the selective draft law. After two years in prison in Missouri, she was deported to Russia in 1919 along with several hundred other radical immigrants. Goldman lived and worked in Russia until 1921, when she left, disillusioned with the Russian Revolution.

Her legacy surely lives on as a true firebrand Villager, a citizen of the world, and an activist with a flair for great drama.  

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