Floyd Dell, from “Women as World-Builders” (1913)

CHAPTER V
BEATRICE WEBB AND EMMA GOLDMAN

THE careers of these two women serve admirably to exhibit the woman’s movement in still, another aspect, and to throw light upon the essential nature of woman’s character. These careers stand in plain contrast. Beatrice Webb has compiled statistics, and Emma Goldman has preached the gospel of freedom. It remains to be shown which is the better and the more characteristically feminine gift to the world.

Beatrice Potter was the daughter of a Canadian railway president. Born in 1858, she grew up in a time when revolutionary movements were in the making. She was a pupil of Herbert Spencer, and it was perhaps from him that she learned so to respect her natural interest in facts that the brilliancy of no generalization could lure her into forgetting them. At all events, she was captured permanently by the magic of facts. She studied working-class life in Lancashire and East London st first hand, and in 1885 joined Charles Booth in his investigations of English social conditions. These investigations (which in my amateur ignorance I always confused with those of General Booth of the Salvation Army!) were published in four large volumes’ entitled “Life and Labor of the People.” Miss Potter’s special contributions were articles on the docks, the tailoring trade, and the Jewish community. Later she published a book on “The Cooperative Movement in Great Britain.” Then, in 1892, she married Sidney Webb, a man extraordinarily of her own sort, and became confirmed, if such a thing were necessary, in her statistical habit of mind.

Meanwhile, in 1883, the Fabian Society had been founded. But first a word about statistics. “Statistics” does not mean a long list of figures. It means the spreading of knowledge of facts. Statistics may be called the dogma that knowledge is dynamic–that it is somehow operative in bringing about that great change which all intelligent people desire (and which the Fabians conceived as Socialism). The Fabian Society was founded on the dogma of statistics as on a rock. The Fabians did not start a newspaper, nor create a new political party, nor organize public meetings; but they wrote to the newspapers already in existence, ran for office on party tickets already in the field, and made speeches to other organizations. That is to say, they went about like the cuckoo, laying their statistical eggs in other people’s nests and expecting to see them hatch into enlightened public opinion and progressive legislation.

Some of them hatched and some of them didn’t. The point is that we have in this section of Beatrice Webb’s career something typical of herself. She has gone on, serving on government commissions, writing (with her husband) the history of Trades Unionism, patiently collecting statistics and getting them printed in black ink on white paper, making detailed plans for the abolition of poverty, and always concerning herself with the homely fact.

At the time that Beatrice Potter joined Mr. Booth in his social investigations there was a 16-year-old Jewish girl living in the German-Russian province of Kurland. A year later, in 1886, this girl, Emma Goldman by name, came to America, to escape the inevitable persecutions attending on any lover of liberty in Russia. She had been one of those who had gone “to the people”; and it was as a working girl that she came to America.

She had, that is to say, the heightened sensibilities, the keen sympathies, of the middle class idealist, and the direct contact with the harsh realities of our social and industrial conditions which is the lot of the worker. Her first experiences in America disabused her of the traditional belief that America was a refuge where the oppressed of all lands were welcome. The treatment of immigrants aboard ship, the humiliating brutalities of the officials at Castle Garden, and the insolent tyranny of the New York police convinced her that she had simply come from one oppressed land to another.

She went to work in a clothing factory, her wages being $2.50 a week. She had ample opportunities to see the degradations of our economic system, especially as it affects women. So it was not strange that she should be drawn into the American labor movement, which was then, with the Knights of Labor, the eight-hour agitation, and the propaganda of the Socialists and the Anarchists, at its height. She became acquainted with various radicals, read pamphlets and books, and heard speeches. She was especially influenced by the eloquent writings of Johann Most in his journal Freiheit.

So little is known, and so much absurd nonsense is believed, about the Anarchists, that it is necessary to state dogmatically a few facts. If these facts seem odd, the reader is respectfully urged to verify them. One fact is that secret organizations of Anarchists plotting a violent overthrow of the government do not exist, and never have existed, save in the writings of Johann Most and in the imagination of the police: the whole spirit of Anarchism is opposed to such organizations. Another fact is that Anarchists do not believe in violence of any kind, or in any exercise of force; when they commit violence it is not as Anarchists, but as outraged human beings. They believe that violent reprisals are bound to be provoked among workingmen by the tyrannies to which they are subjected; but they abjure alike the bomb and the policeman’s club.

There was a brief period in which Anarchists, under the influence of Johann Most, believed in (even if they did not practice) the use of dynamite. But this period was ended, in America, by the hanging of several innocent men in Chicago in 1887; which at least served the useful purpose of showing radicals that it was a bad plan even to talk of dynamite. And this hanging, which was the end of what may be called the Anarchist “boom” in this country, was the beginning of Emma Goldman’s career as a publicist.

Since 1887 the Anarchists have lost influence among workingmen until they are today negligible–unless one credits them with Syndicalism–as a factor in the labor movement. The Anarchists have, in fact, left the industrial field more and more and have entered into other kinds of propaganda. They have especially “gone in for kissing games.”

And Emma Goldman reflects, in her career, the change in Anarchism. She has become simply an advocate of freedom–freedom of every sort. She does not advocate violence any more than Ralph Waldo Emerson advocated violence. It is, in fact, as an essayist and speaker of the kind, if not the quality, of Emerson, Thoreau, or George Francis Train, that she is to be considered.

Aside from these activities (and the evading of our overzealous police in times of stress) she has worked as a trained nurse and midwife; she conducted a kind of radical salon in New York, frequented by such people as John Swinton and Benjamin Tucker; she traveled abroad to study social conditions; she has become conversant with such modern writings as those of Hauptmann, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Zola, and Thomas Hardy. It is stated that the “Rev. Mr. Parkhurst, during the Lexow investigation, did his utmost to induce her to join the Vigilance Committee in order to fight Tammany Hall.” She was the manager of Paul Orlenoff and Mme. Nazimova. She wits a friend of Ernest Crosby. Her library, it is said, would be taken for that of a university extension lecturer on literature.

It will thus be seen that Emma Goldman is of a type familiar enough in America, and conceded a popular respect. She has a legitimate social function–that of holding before our eyes the ideal of freedom. She is licensed to taunt us with our moral cowardice, to plant in our souls the nettles of remorse at having acquiesced so tamely in the brutal artifice of present day society.

I submit the following passage from her writings (“Anarchism and Other Essays”) as at once showing her difference from other radicals and exhibiting the nature of her appeal to her public:

“The misfortune of woman is not that she is unable to do the work of a man, but that she is wasting her life force to outdo him, with a tradition of centuries which has left her physically incapable of keeping pace with him. Oh, I know some have succeeded, but at what cost, at what terrific cost! The import is not the kind of work woman does, but rather the quality of the work she furnishes. She can give suffrage or the ballot no new quality, nor can she receive anything from it that will enhance her own quality. Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. First, by asserting herself as a personality, and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc.; by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer. That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation. Only that, and not the ballot, will set woman free, will make her a force hitherto unknown in the world, a force for real love, for peace, for harmony; a force of divine fire, of life giving; a creator of free men and women.”

There is little in this that Ibsen would not have said amen to. But–and this is the conclusion to which my chapter draws–Ibsen has said it already, and said it more powerfully. Emma Goldman–who (if among women anyone) should have for us re message of her own, striking to the heart–repeats, in a less effective cadence, what she has learned from him.

The work of Beatrice Webb is the prose of revolution. The work of Ibsen is its poetry. Beatrice Webb has performed her work–one comes to feel–as well as Ibsen has his. And one wonders if, after all, the prose is not that which women are best endowed to succeed in.

A book review (written by a woman) which I have at hand contains some generalizations which bear on the subject. “This is a woman’s book [says the reviewer], and a book which could only have been written by a woman, though it is singularly devoid of most of the qualities which are usually recognized as feminine. For romance and sentiment do not properly lie in the woman’s domain. She deals, when she is herself, with the material facts of the life she knows. Her talent is to exhibit them in the remorseless light of reality and shorn of all the glamour of idealism. Great and poetical imagination rarely informs her art, but within the strictness of its limits it lives by an intense and scrupulous sincerity of observation and an uncompromising recognition of the logic of existence.”

If that is true, shall we not then expect a future more largely influenced by women to have more of the hard, matter-of-fact quality, the splendid realism characteristic of woman “when she is herself”?

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2300 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.