On the Vote: Emma Goldman and Women’s Suffrage

October 24, 2020   •   By Angela Shpolberg

FOR MORE THAN 70 YEARS, the women’s suffrage movement in the United States fought for women’s right to vote. The 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution on August 26, 1920, stating that “[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Yet while suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt affirmed, in her 1923 book Woman Suffrage and Politics, that the suffragists had made an “unmistakable popular demand for a just cause,” she admitted in a private letter that only about a third of American women supported suffrage, while another third opposed it, and the rest essentially didn’t care.

One of the most famous cases of opposition to the women’s suffrage movement was that of Emma Goldman, a prominent anarchist and activist committed to labor rights, women’s rights, and freedom of speech. How could this be? Was this a tragic oversight on Goldman’s part, perhaps stemming from the anarchists’ complete rejection of any collaboration with state institutions? In part, yes. But the story is more complicated. Goldman’s views on suffrage evolved over time in response to changes within the suffrage movement itself.

Initially, Goldman referred to the equal suffrage achieved in a few of the states prior to passage of the 19th Amendment as an accomplishment of women’s emancipation. The suffragists had argued that women voters, with their focus on morality, domesticity, and maternal responsibility, would purify the political life of the country. But Goldman was not convinced. In her 1906 essay “The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation,” she wrote:

Has that purified our political life, as many well-meaning advocates predicted? Certainly not. […] Corruption of politics has nothing to do with the morals, or the laxity of morals, of various political personalities. Its cause is altogether a material one. Politics is the reflex of the business and industrial world.

While agreeing that the right to vote and other civil rights could be good demands, she stated that, for herself, true emancipation began neither at the polls nor in the courts, but in liberating women from routine stereotypes, biases, and prejudices.

In her 1910 essay “Woman Suffrage,” Goldman famously called universal suffrage “our modern fetish.” In her view, suffrage was an illusion created by a system in which a corrupt political elite made laws that others were forced to obey. Goldman emphasized that she did not see any physical or psychological reasons why women should not have the right to vote along with men. Indeed, she believed that many women legitimately sought suffrage as a means to free themselves from the domination of the Church and the home. Throughout the centuries, however, the majority of women had preferred to preserve the status quo, and this made them, in Goldman’s eyes, more devoted fetish worshippers than men. As she explained:

Man has long overcome the superstitions that still engulf woman. In the economic competitive field, man has been compelled to exercise efficiency, judgment, ability, competency. He therefore had neither time nor inclination to measure everyone’s morality with a Puritanic yardstick. In his political activities, too, he has not gone about blindfolded. He knows that quantity and not quality is the material for the political grinding mill, and, unless he is a sentimental reformer or an old fossil, he knows that politics can never be anything but a swamp.

Therefore, to assume that a woman would succeed in purifying politics “is to credit her with supernatural powers.” Moreover, Goldman boldly asked, “If her body can be bought in return for material consideration, why not her vote?”

Goldman analyzed the situation in several countries and four American states where women could then vote: in Australia, New Zealand, Finland, and the Scandinavian countries, as well as in Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. In her opinion, the ability to vote and participate in lawmaking did not improve women’s everyday lives and did not resolve the questions raised by women’s emancipation. British suffragettes, with their aggressive methods, were closer to Goldman’s heart than the more moderate American ones. But they were also, she felt, “lacking in appreciation of real equality” since they put their tremendous efforts toward getting “a wretched little bill which will benefit a handful of propertied ladies, with absolutely no provision for the vast mass of working women.”

In a sense, Goldman was articulating the idea that, in our time, has come to be known as “intersectionality.” Gendered oppression functioned differently, she argued, depending on which end of the class spectrum a woman found herself on. Women’s ability to vote, in Goldman’s opinion, would not relieve the masses of working-class women of their daily burdens.

Here we come to a crucial point in understanding Goldman’s position on suffrage. The primary constituency for which she advocated was the working class, which at the time contained a large number of immigrants. She herself had immigrated to the United States from Russia at the age of 16, working in garment workshops in Rochester before becoming a nurse in New York City. The majority of American suffragists, by contrast, came from the upper and middle classes. Goldman saw that these were two very separate groups within the American population, with disparate needs and concerns.

This became clear when, in January 1913, thousands of working-class women came out of the factories and onto the streets of Rochester to fight for better working conditions. As Joan M. Jensen and Sue Davidson have argued in their 1984 book A Needle, a Bobbin, a Strike: Women Needleworkers in America:

While Rochester was the home of Susan B. Anthony and had a strong middle-class female reform tradition, the women seemed unable or unwilling to take part in working-class women’s struggles in their own backyard. […] Newspapers recorded only [a] single meeting […], estimating that about fifty women attended. In addition, newspapers mentioned by name [only] ten middle-class women who became active in the strike after police brutality escalated in early March.

Class antagonism was not one of the issues dividing the suffragists from their opponents on the conservative right because both generally belonged to the same group of upper- and middle-class American women. It was this linkage that formed the heart of opposition to women’s suffrage on the left. That is why, in her “Woman Suffrage” essay, Goldman asserted that “the American suffrage movement has been […] altogether a parlor affair, absolutely detached from the economic needs of people.” While she praised Susan B. Anthony, one of the matriarchs of the movement, Goldman thought that even she was antagonistic to labor based on the fact that, in 1869, Anthony had advised women to take the places of striking male printers in New York. Being brutally honest, as was her style, Goldman noted: “I do not know whether her attitude […] changed before her death.”

What Goldman apparently didn’t know was that Anthony had indeed been radicalized by what she saw as the grievously unfair conditions of women’s labor. In 1846, 26-year-old Anthony began working as headmistress of the female department of the Canajoharie Academy, where she was paid much less than men holding similar positions. At a celebration honoring the 40th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, Anthony shared the story of how she had joined the suffrage movement, stressing economic, rather than political, considerations: “I wasn’t ready to vote, didn’t want to vote, but I did want equal pay for equal work.” However, she soon came to understand the critical connection between the power of the franchise and economic conditions.

In one of her most famous lectures, presented all around the country between 1879 and 1890, she explained why the power to vote was critically important in improving the socioeconomic status of the working class. The lecture bore the ironic title “Woman Wants Bread, Not the Ballot.” One of the examples Anthony prominently discussed was the collar laundry women of Troy, New York, who in 1867 had formed a trade union and demanded an increase in wages. When this was refused, they went on a three-month strike, at the end of which they were literally starving and compelled to return to work. In response, their employers cut their wages even further. Anthony recounts how she asked the president of the union, a young Irish woman, why the strike had failed, while so many male trade unions had succeeded in their demands. The president replied that the factory-owners had likely bribed the local newspaper editor to systematically ridicule the striking women. As Anthony explains, that would not have happened in the case of a male trade union because, at the next election, all the union members would have voted against any candidate endorsed by that newspaper. If the collar laundry women had been eligible to vote, they could have used the power of the ballot to initiate a dialogue with their employers.

This example was crucial for understanding why voting mattered. The first generation of American suffragists had started fighting for women’s rights alongside the abolitionists, as part of a much broader social movement. Their agenda included economic conditions, emancipation, divorce, and other feminist issues. Eventually, this agenda was narrowed down, as different groups of civil rights activists began focusing on their separate interests, and the original movement splintered. The suffragists narrowed their demands to the question of voting and political representation within the state system. They believed this would lead to a tangible result — the right to vote, which could then be used to advance other social issues. The women’s suffrage movement eventually splintered into two wings: a mainstream one led by Carrie Chapman Catt and a smaller militant one led by Alice Paul. The radical section was willing to fight; the more mainstream one sought to collaborate with the political establishment and to find a compromise with the state.

When World War I started in 1914, both British and American suffragists chose to actively support their governments in the war effort. This was something Goldman could not countenance. She was an outspoken pacifist for whom the war was a horrible enterprise launched by imperialist governments and paid for by poor people’s suffering. Indeed, because of her antiwar activity, Goldman was accused of a criminal conspiracy to violate the Selective Service Act of 1917, put on trial, and sentenced to two years in prison. Her aversion to the suffragists’ decision to support the war effort led Goldman to write the 1917 essay “The Woman Suffrage Chameleon,” in which she argued that the suffragists’ attitude toward the war was proof that politics would not change simply by giving women the right to vote. She wrote:

No sooner did England join the war, for humanitarian reasons, of course, than the suffrage ladies immediately forgot all their boasts about woman’s superiority and goodness and immolated their party on the altar of the very government which tore their clothing, pulled their hair, and fed them forcibly for their militant activities. Mrs. Pankhurst and her hosts became more passionate in their war mania, in their thirst for the enemy’s blood than the most hardened militarists. […] For all this they are now to be rewarded with the ballot. […] All hail to the English women who bought their vote with the blood of the millions of men already sacrificed to the monster War. The price is indeed great, but so will be the political jobs in store for the lady politicians.

American suffragists, led by Carrie Chapman Catt, also pledged full support to the war effort. “Why not?” Goldman asked sarcastically. “Why waste another fifty years lobbying for the vote if one can get it by the mere betrayal of an ideal? What are ideals among politicians, anyway!”

After Goldman was released from prison in September 1919, she was labeled “the most dangerous woman in America” by the press and some government officials. In December, she was deported back to Russia. When the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution, Goldman was already far away.

In 1789, the French Revolution had produced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, a document that outlined two distinct sets of rights — the universal rights of man as a human being and the specific rights of man as a citizen of a particular state. Emma Goldman had always stood for universal human rights and freedoms, and had opposed any power systems, including the state. The suffragists, by contrast, focused on a national, civic agenda: they sought to secure political rights for women within the state system in order to influence that system. Goldman and the suffragists thus both stood for women’s rights, heroically so, but they approached their feminist agendas from very different angles.

It is hard to imagine that Goldman, with her sharp, analytical mind, didn’t understand the power of the ballot. In fact, she wrote, in her 1940 essay “The Individual, Society, and the State,” that social changes are always the result of “pressure strong enough to compel the ruling powers to submit peaceably or otherwise, generally ‘otherwise’ — that is, by revolution.” Goldman consciously chose to stick to a different agenda than the suffragists, an agenda she considered more important as both a woman and an activist. She believed, as she affirmed in this essay, that “man’s true liberation, individual and collective, lies in his emancipation from authority,” and she dreamed of a new social order based on “the free association of liberated individuals.”

This is the paradox at the heart of Emma Goldman’s legacy. On the one hand, she was very pragmatic in her analysis of social and economic problems, while also being a leader of outstanding integrity. On the other hand, her refusal to work within any existing political framework made her seem utopian, while her preference for radical methods alienated political moderates. The suffragists were reformers, and Emma Goldman was a revolutionary. For her, women’s emancipation was indissociable from the fight against class oppression and what she called “industrial slavery.”

In her 2016 book Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Women’s Human Rights, political scientist Eileen Hunt Botting wrote that “American feminism ironically distanced itself from […] [a] commitment to universal human rights in the quest to realize the civil and political rights of women.” It is possible that the suffragists were right strategically: that narrowing the scope of their demands produced enough energy to deliver a practical and durable result — the 19th Amendment. Perhaps, had they stuck to the broader agenda favored by Goldman and more radical feminists, this result would have been much longer in coming.

In any event, thanks to their efforts, we now find ourselves in an election year in which a woman has been nominated to serve as vice president of the United States. We can only speculate about whether Emma Goldman would exercise her right to vote today. But we can be sure that she would have wanted us to focus on both the achievements and the shortcomings of the women’s rights movement. After all, in her “Woman Suffrage” essay, she wrote: “History may be a compilation of lies; nevertheless, it contains a few truths, and they are the only guide we have for the future.”


Angela Shpolberg is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, a Center Associate at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and was the 2012 Paterson Research Fellow at Longfellow House.