Welcome to “Anarchy and the Sex Question”



Anarchy and the Sex Question:
Essays on Women and Emancipation, 1896-1917
By Emma Goldman
Edited by Shawn P. Wilbur
Available from PM Press

Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940) remains one of the best known figures of the political tradition known as anarchism, and with good reason, as few writers have so convincingly explained the evils of authority in government. But Goldman’s anarchism extended beyond the political realm, and arguably found its most essential expressions in her writings on matters more directly connected to everyday life. For Goldman, anarchism was not just an ideology, but a living force in the affairs of our life, constantly creating new conditions.” Still, there was another force that she considered “the most elemental force in human life:” Sex.

“The Sex Question” emerged for Goldman in the most varied of contexts, and we find her addressing it in writing on subjects as varied as women’s suffrage, “free love,” birth control, the “New Woman,” homosexuality, marriage, love and literature. It was at once a political question, an economic question, a question of morality and a question of social relations. However, despite the obvious importance of the question to Goldman, it has been hard to assess the precise nature of her answers to it, because the various elements of her analysis of that most elemental force remained fragmentary, scattered across numerous works and conditioned by numerous contexts.

Anarchy and the Sex Question draws together the most important of those scattered sources, uniting both familiar essays and archival material, in an attempt to recreate the great work on sex that Emma Goldman might have given us. In the process, it sheds light on contemporary questions such as Goldman’s place, or lack thereof, in the history of feminism.


  • Introduction: “Let Us Not Overlook Vital Things” (Shawn P. Wilbur)
  • Anarchy and the Sex Question
  • What Is There in Anarchy for Women?
  • The New Woman
  • “The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation
  • The White Slave Traffic
  • Mary Wollstonecraft, Her Tragic Life and Her Passionate Struggle for Freedom
  • The Hypocrisy of Puritanism
  • Jealousy: Causes and a Possible Cure
  • Victims of Morality
  • Woman Suffrage
  • Marriage and Love
  • The Social Aspects of Birth Control
  • Again the Birth Control Agitation
  • The Woman Suffrage Chameleon
  • Louise Michel: A Refutation Addressed to Dr. Maynes Hershfeld
  • Emma’s Love Views
  • Feminism’s Fight Not Vain
  • The Element of Sex in Life



Even anarchists have their “names to conjure with,” and among those the name of Emma Goldman must occupy a special place. It has grown fashionable in some circles to claim, as Margaret C. Anderson once did, that “Emma Goldman’s genius is not so much that she is a great thinker as that she is a great woman,” but if that was true, in some sense at least, it was not because she lacked genius. Anderson’s observation that “she preaches, but she is a better artist than she is a preacher” brings us close to a truth about the power of Goldman’s written works, which have remained of interest to successive generations of readers—and to a degree that may be unmatched in the anarchist literature. Renowned as a speaker, Goldman also wrote with a remarkable directness and immediacy. Indeed, if Anderson’s account is to be believed, perhaps Goldman the artist was even more successful on the printed page than at the podium. Having attended a series of Goldman’s lectures in Chicago, Anderson observed that “with the exception of two or three lectures she didn’t get away from the obvious sufficiently to make the series distinctive.” Let those who are so inclined argue about whether Goldman’s essays are profound, according to their own chosen standards, but history seems to attest to the fact that they continue to be interesting.

They continue to be influential as well, with Anarchism and Other Essays remaining one of the most frequently recommended introductions to anarchism, over a hundred years after its first publication, and no doubt the primacy of art over preaching has contributed to the comparative timelessness of the works. The literary qualities of the essays should come as no surprise to us, given the prominent place of art and literature in Goldman’s speeches and writings, and indeed throughout the pages of Mother Earth. But there is another aspect of Goldman’s thought that has undoubtedly tended to lift her work above the various, and often very specific, contexts in which it was originally written: an individualism influenced by figures like Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Stirner. Whatever the subject of the essays, Goldman herself appears as a powerful presence in the work, exhorting and conjuring, full of powerful enthusiasms and disillusionments. “Let us be broad and big,” she wrote in “The Tragedy of Women’s Emancipation.” “Let us not overlook vital things, because of the bulk of trifles confronting us.” However distant or even “trifling” we may now find the occasions for Goldman’s essays, her focus on the “broad and big,” and her own individual “greatness,” testified to by the boldness of her expression, carry us along.

There are times, I suspect, when we should resist the current, when our respect for the great woman and artist that Emma Goldman was practically demands it—because it is necessary to recognize Goldman’s own breadth, to engage with her as both preacher and artist, and to recognize the real distance that often separates us from her. Immediacy can, after all, be a double-edged sword, and polemics aimed at specific historical moments may require closer and closer examination as that moment recedes into the past. Connecting with what was vital for our predecessors often demands a certain broadness and bigness on our part, a willingness to at least temporarily set aside what seems most vital to us.

Given these cautions, one might reasonably ask: Why yet another Emma Goldman collection? Why these texts? Why now? Why, particularly, if it appears they present us with an illusion of immediacy, seeming to speak about things that are important to us? The answers to those questions take us back to the realm of conjuration—both conjuring up and conjuring away—and the specific circumstances under which this collection was conceived.


I was reminded of that phrase, “a name to conjure with,” a couple of years ago, while making the rounds of the summer book fairs. I had become very interested in the women active in the early French socialist movement, and had begun to translate some previously untranslated texts into English. I assembled two pamphlets, with the descriptive, if not exactly elegant title “Black and Red Feminism from Nineteenth Century France.” They included essays, poems and bits of short fiction by and about writers like Jeanne Deroin, Jenny P. d’Héricourt, Victoire Léodile Béra (André Léo), Flora Tristan and Paule Mink.

The reception was, unsurprisingly, a bit tepid. Those are not exactly household names. Tristan is remembered for her proto-syndicalist proposal for a Workers’ Union. Béra and Mink figure as minor characters in the story of the Paris Commune. Deroin and d’Héricourt are sometimes recalled as women with whom Proudhon debated. But all had the misfortune to have been most active in the period before the First International, to have been most closely associated with socialist currents we now tend to consider “utopian,” and to have written works that were as literary as they were political. While their radicalism hardly fits the familiar narrative of “first wave” feminism, its form has not been easy to situate in other sorts of radical history.

That said, while I had anticipated quite a range of reasons why these writings might face resistance from modern readers, the implied disapproval of Emma Goldman was one response I had not expected. But on several different occasions browsers looked up from the “Black and Red Feminism” pamphlets to declare, with no other prompting, that “Emma Goldman was not a feminist.”

There are statements that are true, but still raise more questions than they answer. This invocation of Goldman against other radical women seemed to be of that class, but as the response came, unbidden, again and again, it became clear that there is something in Emma Goldman’s attitude towards “feminism”—or our present perception of that attitude—that resonates for at least parts of the anarchist movement, and in ways that raise yet another obstacle to our appreciation of some early radical women. As a result, it became important to know in what senses Emma Goldman either was or was not “a feminist,” and then to know whether this identification was a “vital thing” or a “trifle” with regard to Goldman’s own thought. Lacking immediate answers, I relaunched the pamphlet series as “La Frondeuse: Unruly Writing by Radical Women,” and this more elegant, but not exactly descriptive alternative has served me at least as well as the original, although recovering this lost history—however we want to label it—remains a difficult task. [1] Then I set to work gathering and examining Goldman’s writings on what she herself called “the sex question.”

The major works are, for the most part, well known, if not, perhaps, entirely understood. Assembling them was quick work and they appeared together as the third of the new La Frondeuse pamphlets. The next time the specter of Emma Goldman was conjured up in response to one of my historical projects, I was simply able to hand the critic the collection and let them decide for themselves whether Goldman was a “feminist,” and in what sense it mattered. Then, almost immediately, I was asked to transform that bundle of texts into book form, and there was no delaying a more exhaustive search and at least some provisional answers of my own.

I began this long aside by suggesting that there is something in Goldman’s writing that may tend to carry us along, when perhaps respect for her and her projects calls for a certain resistance. But we also have to ask if there is something in us—or in our context—that makes strong declarations for or against identifications like “feminism” so appealing that we may be inclined to respond to Goldman the artist as if she were instead a preacher. What seems clear is that the question of “feminism” is indeed significant for us, so it makes sense to address it first, in order to move on to a more direct engagement with Goldman’s “sex question.”


We know that Emma Goldman was, in fact, a critic of “feminism” in at least some sense. On March 14, 1915, for example, she was scheduled to give a talk on “Feminism—A Criticism of Woman’s Struggle for the Vote and “Freedom.” She gave some version of this same talk on numerous occasions. When she spoke in San Francisco, on July 9 of the same year, the title was amended to “The Follies of Feminism.” She obviously took some pleasure in the confrontations that sometimes resulted. Regarding a speech on “Feminism” at the Woman’s City Club in Los Angeles, she wrote:

500 woman-rights women, from the deepest red to the dullest gray came to see and hear the “disreputable” Emma Goldman. Once in the lions’ den, I decided if I was to be devoured I must arouse the appetite of the beast to its right proportion. Was it the impudence on my part, or that the City Club women are a tame set? In any event, I am still alive, skin and all.

Following the San Francisco appearance, David Leigh reported:

“The Follies of Feminism” brought out a troop of the faith-charged. It was written in their eyes that they believed heaven itself attainable if only decision be inscribed and dropped in a box. The hall was dotted with unconscious surprises when Miss Goldman told how the women of Colorado were the ones who had fought Ben Lindsley the hardest when he had sought via the polls to render further service to his fellowmen. She drew a life portrait of that police person, Katie Davis, showing how delicate the gentle sex is when it gets a first-rate chance to sandpaper the feelings of helpless humanity. Somehow the opinions that went out of the hall were different from those which came in. It does our sisters good to hear the truth about themselves; and to hear what a useless little plaything voting-paper is.

But this was clearly not the whole story. Elsewhere in the same volume of Mother Earth, Max Baginski’s “Observations and Comments” column contained a review of a pamphlet on “the amazing and spectacular Claflin sisters, Tennessee and Victoria,” who were described as having been “active—very active—feminists in the ‘seventies.” These feminists were contrasted with “the modern busybodies of the suffrage and feminist movements,” who were “the veriest pigmies in comparison…. The miserable, puny outlook of our “radical” feminists of the present day represents a disgraceful degeneration and reflection of the ideals and visions of these two women.” The Claflin’s “possessed spirit, fire, and idealism; whereas the modern champions of feminism strike us in comparison as a loudly clucking, aimless, constipated type of barnyard fowl.” Goldman, who translated Baginski’s column from German into English, could not help but be aware of this reading of feminism and its history, and, in fact, seems to have been in at least some sympathy with it.

What Goldman lamented in her 1906 essay on “The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation” was not the struggle for liberation, but the “disgraceful degeneration” of that struggle. As she put it, “woman is confronted with the necessity of emancipation from emancipation, if she really desires to be free.” But the specific terms of her criticism echo the observations by Baginski about a lack of “spirit, fire, and idealism.” She noted that “greatest shortcoming of the emancipation of the present day lies in its artificial stiffness and its narrow respectabilities which produce an emptiness in woman’s soul that will not let her drink from the fountain of life.” But she also held out hope for a possible regeneration of the movement:

Salvation lies in an energetic march onward towards a brighter and clearer future. We are in need of unhampered growth out of old traditions and habits. The movement for woman’s emancipation has so far made but the first step in that direction. It is to be hoped that it will gather strength to make another.

Goldman was not alone in this period in distancing herself from the language of “feminism” and the projects of the suffragists, while still pursuing a radical emancipation for women. The French frondeuses and éclaireuses found new labels to distinguish themselves from others associated with “feminism.” At the same time, however, Charlotte Perkins Gilman promoted a “larger feminism,” while criticizing the smallness of existing forms, and inspired Floyd Dell to include Goldman among the representative figures of “modern feminism” in his 1913 study, Women as World Builders. Others, like Dora Marsden and Nelly Roussel, used the term Goldman rejected to designate something very much like the revolution she proposed. Roussel, recognizing the controversy over the “badly understood and falsely interpreted” term, was “not afraid to assert that some men, and many women, are ‘feminists’ without knowing it, all while rejecting the title.” But all of these lexical maneuvers took place while the term “feminism” was still being used in a dizzying variety of ways, some of which had nothing at all to do with women’s emancipation, whether radical or tragic, and most of the ideas expressed by radical women found utterance in both feminist and anti-feminist vocabularies.

It is probably fair to say that while all these specific vocabularies were chosen in the hope of distinguishing between “vital things” and “trifles,” they were not themselves what was vital in the debates and they often owed what force they had to rhetorical maneuvers like Goldman’s call for “emancipation from emancipation.” For us, at this stage, perhaps nothing is more vital than to recognize our own historical distance from this rather fluid debate, and when we turn back to Goldman’s essays it appears that what was most vital to her was sex.


For Emma Goldman, what was vital was, in fact, vitality itself, most often understood as sex, but in the most inclusive sense of that term. In an undated manuscript on “The Element of Sex in Life,” she described sex as “the most elemental force in human life.” In her discussion, it is sometimes hard to distinguish sex from life itself, and her interest in sexual science from a commitment to a sort of sexual vitalism. Love and art, procreation and play, and the impetus behind both individual and social development all come back to sex—and not just for human beings.

To sex we owe more than poetry; we owe the song of birds, all vocal music and the voice itself, the plumage that comes to supreme glory in the bird of paradise, the mane of the lion, the blush of the maiden, the beard of man, and all higher forms of life in plant and animal worlds. It is woven into every fabric of human life and lays its fingers on every custom. To the debit side of the sex account we must charge many silly stupidities and some of the foulest injustices which go to make the thing we call human culture the amazing and variegated mosaic that it is.

Indeed, summing up her position, she claims—in a slight misquotation of Walt Whitman—that “where sex is missing everything is missing.” [2] Sex, in these most abstract moments, is Whitman’s “procreant urge of the world,” and we might usefully continue the quotation to glimpse the vision that Goldman seems to be affirming:

Sex contains all, bodies, souls,
Meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations,
Songs, commands, health, pride, the maternal mystery, the seminal milk,
All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all the passions, loves, beauties, delights of the earth,
All the governments, judges, gods, follow’d persons of the earth,
These are contain’d in sex as parts of itself and justifications of itself.

This vision, however, was clearly not one that had been embraced by most of humanity. Instead, various powerful institutions—in the realms of religion, politics, economics and social norms—had attempted to control the element of sex and limit its expression. As a result, Goldman said, “It is not surprising that the most elemental force in human life, sex, should still be degraded and denied.” Understood in this way, sex is closely allied with anarchism, which Goldman described as “a living force in the affairs of our life, constantly creating new conditions,” sharing as enemies the same group of repressive institutions. In much the same way that Proudhon had connected anarchy with a restless progress, Goldman invites us to link anarchy with sex, and both with life, understood as a transforming force. The influence of Nietzsche is evident in Goldman’s approach—even before she calls for a “complete transvaluation of all accepted values”—and her specific critique of feminism echoed familiar Nietzschean themes of decadence, contempt for life and “man,” and the opposition of morality to freedom.

Goldman’s references to Nietzsche and Whitman—both exuberant writers, excessive in their expressions, and perhaps prone to take things just a little too far—can perhaps serve us when it appears that Goldman has herself been carried away by her passion for life and freedom. There are certainly moments when the descriptions of her feminist contemporaries or her generalizations about the character of “woman” in general suggest a different kind of anti-feminism than we would perhaps associate with a woman also praised as a pioneer of anarchist feminism. But a tendency to mix art and preacherly invective, to move unexpectedly from social science to jeremiads—and at times to take it all too far—is certainly not unusual in the literature of anarchism. It is perhaps an occupational hazard for those whose subject matter and values all run towards the unchained and excessive.

Some of Goldman’s most vehement expressions were almost certainly intended to provoke scandal, but many of us should also be prepared to be scandalized at odd moments when her work seems to echo views of sex that certainly would not have been controversial to much of her audience. As an “elemental force,” but one expressed through very material bodies, sex was, for Goldman, at once innate and socially conditioned, and its conventional expressions manifested some mix of an ideal and the forces committed to its expression. As a result, Goldman was not simply a critic of traditional gender roles. Motherhood, for example, is presented as a natural manifestation of sex, and Goldman shows a continuing interest in the “ideal relation” between “man” and “woman.” But this is all consistent with the project of transvaluing values or, as Nietzsche also put it, spiritualizing passions. In the manuscript on “The Element of Sex,” Goldman quoted from “Morality as Anti-Naturalness:” “All passions have a time when they are fatal only, when, with the weight of their folly, they drag their victim down; and they have a later, very much later period, when they wed with spirit, when they are “spiritualized.” It is clear that Goldman was looking towards a time when all passions will be rid of that “weight of folly,” and that this conception of the sexual ideal contributed to her defense of sexual passions and practices that might have been considered “unnatural” by many of her contemporaries. It is, however, equally clear that this approach committed her to some defenses of traditional “womanhood,” when compared to the “New Woman” of her era. The formula of “liberation from liberation” asks us to consider what must be rejected, as well as what must be embraced, in both traditional roles and existing rebellions.

If we accept that sex is fundamental, and that it is at once innate and transformative, then we should be prepared to find a similar dynamic in the writings on the subject. If we expect dynamism in the work, then we should be prepared for all the shifts and potential shocks that it contains. Thus prepared, we can apply ourselves to the task of making our way through Goldman’s essays.


What remains to be said about “the sex question” is probably best left to Emma Goldman herself. Given the central place of “the element of sex” in Goldman’s understanding of life, we might have expected her to produce some more extended treatment of the subject—perhaps a treatise like “The Social Significance of the Modern Drama.” There is no question that such a work would have been of interest to many readers, both within and outside of the anarchist movement. What we have, however, is a considerably more fragmented treatment, with the central concern addressed from various directions under a variety of circumstances. We cannot, for the reasons already touched on, simply treat that piecemeal treatment as if it was a unified work, but perhaps we can glimpse the form of that unwritten treatise in the writings available to us.

In fact, taken together, the works at our disposal, if handled with care, provide a wonderfully suggestive outline of that treatise. The writings from the 1890s serve as a sort of introduction. “Anarchy and the Sex Question” (1896) and “What Is There in Anarchy for Woman?” (1897) place Goldman’s concerns regarding “the sex question” explicitly in the context of the agitation for anarchy, even if these works develop the connection more by juxtaposition than exposition. For example, in the 1897 interview, Goldman spoke of the relation that would replace marriage under conditions of real freedom: “The alliance should be formed, not as it is now, to give the woman a support and home, but because the love is there, and that state of affairs can only be brought about by an internal revolution, in short, Anarchy.” It is not entirely clear which of the previous terms is summarized by “Anarchy,” but perhaps the most promising readings simply joins “love,” “internal revolution” and “Anarchy” as aspects of the general transformation that Goldman anticipated. In these early works, Goldman linked a mass of social ills—poverty, marital unhappiness, prostitution, etc.—to a “system of inequality” hardly distinguishable from “society itself” and manifesting itself equally through Church, State and capitalism. The “anarchist dream” presented in the first posed an alternative system of “perfect equity” as a means of cleansing social relations of these various ills, but by the second the dream had become considerably more ambitious. Talk of an equitable marriage state had been abandoned for a vision of free unions, communal child-rearing and the possibility of plural love affairs—all described as part of a vision of “anarchy.” Of Goldman’s writings, these are among the most compatible with the notion of “women’s emancipation,” understood as an aspect of the larger anarchist project of human emancipation. But in the short speech on “The New Woman” (1898), we find a compact introduction to Goldman’s emerging concerns with that movement.

The Mother Earth era—and the body of the study—then opens with “The Tragedy of Women’s Emancipation” (1906), in which Goldman introduced the notion of a movement for women’s liberation gone so far wrong that women needed to be emancipated from it. Having achieved “merely external emancipation”—and that imperfectly—that movement had ironically only strengthened the grip of the internal tyrannies and “made of the modern woman an artificial being who reminds one of the products of French arboriculture with its arabesque trees and shrubs—pyramids, wheels and wreaths; anything except the forms which would be reached by the expression of their own inner qualities.” In “The White Slave Traffic” (1910), Goldman demonstrated how even the representatives of the most oppressive institutions could claim a part in the struggle for the emancipation of women, provided that evils like prostitution were treated as exceptional, rather than simply as application of social rules governing all women. No partial solution being possible, the only alternative was a “complete transvaluation of all accepted values,” including the “abolition of industrial slavery,” widespread public education and an end to “the Puritanic spirit of the Scarlet Letter days.” In the essays on “Woman Suffrage” (1914) and “The Woman Suffrage Chameleon” (1917), Goldman demonstrated the extent to which, not only had suffrage not advanced the more essential aspects of women’s struggles, but had in many cases even intensified the destructive power of authority.

In all those writings, Goldman was unsparing in her scorn for those women who had allowed themselves to be carried along by existing tendencies, but she was not content simply to lay blame. In “The Hypocrisy of Puritanism” (1910), “Jealousy: Causes and a Possible Cure” (c. 1912), “Victims of Morality” (1913), and the remarkable essay on “Marriage and Love” (1914), she explored various aspects of the psychology governing existing relations, along with the possible alternatives.

For those requiring practical applications of these analyses, Goldman provided numerous examples, including the case study on “Mary Wollstonecraft” (1911) and the letter concerning the sexuality of Louise Michel (1923), in which the inherent capacities of individual women and the social barriers placed in their paths were depicted vividly. She also recounted her own struggles to disseminate information about birth control, in a pair of articles from 1916. These examinations of the lives of real, talented women unite the various aspects of Goldman’s analysis, powerfully dramatizing the dilemma in which imperfectly liberated women still find themselves.

Goldman’s deportation from the United States in 1919 marks a transition in the study documented here. While she continued to write and speak on similar topics, there is little from the later years that compares to the writings from the Mother Earth period. However, the demands of life in exile did confront Goldman with at least one key opportunity to reconsider her principled position against marriage and in 1925 she married an acquaintance, James Colton, for the purposes of gaining English citizenship. In 1926, while settled in Canada, and seeking to be admitted again into the United States, she was approached by the Newspaper Enterprise Association to produce a series of articles for United States newspapers, dealing with her current views on a variety of questions. Naturally, her newly married status was a topic of curiosity, and the two essays included here, “Emma’s Love Views” and Feminism’s Fight Not Vain,” contain Goldman’s responses to questions about the potential changes in her views. What they reveal is a personal attempt to apply those views to changed circumstances, which gives another dimension to the more theoretical writings.

Following a general introduction, theoretical exploration and practical application, the undated manuscript on “The Element of Sex in Life” can serve us as a kind of summary and review. A close examination of that “most elemental force in human life” seems an ideal way to focus our understanding of Goldman’s arguments and take stock of the tools it provides us moving forward. There are certainly no shortage of opportunities for us to go on and apply those tools, whether it is a matter of exploring Goldman’s other works, or other anarchist writings, with a new understanding of what she considered vital—or if it is a question, as it inevitably must be, of using them in the various struggles that face us in our everyday lives. Certainly, whatever we take away from her work, Emma Goldman would have expected us to apply it in the most revolutionary manner possible, to tear down both internal and external tyrannies. She would, I expect, have wanted us to share not just an understanding of what is vital in life, but a vision, like the one she presented in the essay on “Love and Marriage,” capable of drawing us forward.

Some day, some day men and women will rise, they will reach the mountain peak, they will meet big and strong and free, ready to receive, to partake, and to bask in the golden rays of love. What fancy, what imagination, what poetic genius can foresee even approximately the potentialities of such a force in the life of men and women. If the world is ever to give birth to true companionship and oneness, not marriage, but love will be the parent.

— Shawn P. Wilbur

[1] The title was inspired by a collection of sketches by Sévérine (Caroline Rémy de Guebhard) and the French feminist newspaper La Fronde. A frondeuse is literally a woman wielding a sling, and figuratively a trouble-maker or giant-killer.

[2] The phrase, from Whitman’s poem “A Woman Waits for Me,” is “Yet all were lacking if sex were lacking.”

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.