This is the first in a two-part series.
by ELLEN COPPERFIELD
We have similar systems, of course. Yours, though, appear to be keyed to your sexual identity. Internal questionings accumulate. Only by reaffirming your sexual self, by uniting with an opposite member, can you resolve and discharge these signifier problems — tensions, I suppose you would call them. Curiously, this can occur only with a small sample of the available candidates, often merely one candidate. — Gregory Benford
The first love of Emma Goldman’s life was in prison for nearly killing a well-known businessman, and severe menstrual cramps made it even worse. Just 25, she went to the doctor and was diagnosed with an inverted uterus. Without a procedure, she would never enjoy certain types of penetration without pain or be able to conceive.
By the summer of 1893, three million Americans were unemployed, representing nearly triple the amount of the previous year. Emma Goldman’s speech in Union Square at the end of summer encouraged her listeners to forgo organization and political work. Riots were the only rational plan: “Go forth into the streets where the rich dwell, before the palaces of your dominators… and make them tremble.” Emma was indicted with a charge of “inciting to riot” on September 5th in New York City.
Her trial commenced the following month. Former mayor of New York A. Oakey Hall, fresh off a nervous breakdown, did the pro bono work on her case. In one week the jury sentenced her to a year in prison. Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary was located a small land mass on the East River between Manhattan and Queens. It was easy for her friends to visit her, and she was the only woman in the sewing room who refused to go to church. She spent most of her stay in the prison hospital, first as a patient and then as an orderly.
Upon her release she sought further education in nursing, which took her to Vienna. The fact that she was proficient in both German and English immediately placed her ahead of her peers. In that city she listened to Freud and read Nietzsche, finding the latter substantially more convincing. Her return to the United States precipitated a speaking tour which would take her to California for the first time in her life. Two Ohio businessman that she met endeavored to fund her to return to Europe for medical school. She quickly gave that up and lectured for the first time in London. She did not care for England at all, preferring to spend her time in the city’s slums before happily abandoning the place for Paris.
After her money ran out, she returned to New York. Her European travel allowed her to formulate her first real broadside against socialism. In her 1909 essay “Minorities versus Majorities” she writes, “That the mass bleeds, that it is being robbed and exploited, I know as well as our vote-baiters. But I insist that not the handful of parasites but the mass itself is responsible for this horrible state of affairs.” Her ideas, if not entirely non-violent, had enough ammunition to disrupt her surroundings on their own. She kept a book nearby in case she was thrown for a night in jail in any given city.
Emma Goldman was getting comfortable in this new life, even going so far as to take a vacation, when one of her self-proclaimed adherents shot President William McKinley. Anarchist meetings were now target No. 1 of the federal government, and Goldman’s mentors and friends had their homes destroyed; some were jailed. In order to preserve her freedom long enough to give an interview to a Chicago reporter, Emma dressed as a maid. She was arrested there and then, saying, “Am I accountable because some crack-brained person put a wrong construction on my words?”
She was in jail only a month this time before the authorities admitted they had no evidence to try her for conspiracy. She still sympathized with the assassin and wrote to defend him, even as most other observers viewed him as mentally ill. Her glorification of the act left her completely alone among other members of her sect. But she would never leave the movement, only think of ways to reformulate it anew.
She met Ben Reitman, the doctor who would become the second love of her life, in Chicago. In her autobiography Living My Life she writes, “He arrived in the afternoon, an exotic, picturesque figure with a large black cowboy hat, flowing silk tie, and huge cane. ‘So this is the little lady, Emma Goldman,’ he greeted me, ‘I have always wanted to know you.’ His voice was deep, soft, and ingratiating.”
Emma was ten years Reitman’s elder when they met. She often signed her letters to him Mommy, and they were usually explicit in nature, for Ben aroused a sexuality in Emma Goldman she had never tapped into with anyone else. The fact that he offered to go on tour with her meant everything to Emma, and their pairing raised Goldman’s already high profile to that of a major celebrity. Policemen filled Emma’s lecture hall in San Francisco before a speech to intimidate her, an act that allowed Reitman to see exactly how powerful his girlfriend’s work was.
Ben became Emma’s opening act, warming up the crowd with jokes before her performances. Beginning in 1908, they spent half the year on the road, and then their summers apart in Chicago and New York, visiting each other frequently. She was particularly obsessed with Ben’s penis, which she refers to as W in her letters. Her oral fixation with putting the organ in her mouth was a source of considerable stimulation for Mr. Reitman. She also greatly admired his passion for cunnilingus. “My mountains scream in delight and my brain is on fire,” she wrote in August of 1911. “I want to fuck you.” The mother-son dynamic came up a lot as well, although it seems to be mostly a metaphorical erotic accompaniment to their love affair.
In Emma’s previous relationship, she had always felt some key power over her boyfriends. With Ben she felt so completely vulnerable. “I do not want you to know how much I love you,” she wrote before he left for Europe on her dime, “how much I need you, how much I long for you.” Her neediness was truly its own organism, and when she and Ben were apart for periods, she despaired: but wasn’t it good to have something important in your life to despair for?
During the moments they were together, she was quite critical of Reitman. As Alice Wexler notes in her biography of Goldman, “she continually reminded him of how boyish and petulant he was, and what tremendous burdens he placed on her shoulders. She never tired of cataloguing his faults, lecturing, scolding, preaching, beseeching, pleading…” He treated her basically in kind, coming onto other women and men at his leisure, in addition to the fact that he was a frequent liar. His main fault in Emma’s eyes, however, was his infidelity. It is somewhat difficult for an anarchist to articulate why she believes in monogamy, a contradiction which placed Goldman in a tough situation.
Yet Goldman never did any of the things that would have ensured Reitman would feel responsible to what they had together. He begged her for a child and a marriage, and she rejected both of these entreaties.
Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.