Friday, April 8, 2011

Staff Pick - A Dangerous Woman: the graphic biography of Emma Goldman by Sharon Rudahl

Reflecting on the present federal election campaign, I decided to brush up on my political history. In my research, I came across a graphic biography of my favourite anarchist, Emma Goldman. Wry political comments (like, "If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal") attributed to Goldman have helped to keep her ideas in circulation although it's been more than 70 years since her death.

In A Dangerous Woman (2007) author and illustrator Sharon Rudahl fills 112 pages with swirling black and white drawings and dizzying details from the life of the famous activist.

Born in (what is now) Lithuania in 1869, Goldman observed and endured the hardships imposed on working people by Tsars, Presidents, and capitalists alike during her 71 years. From an early age, Goldman's innate sense of justice compelled her to speak out against exploitation and oppression of all kinds. An early advocate of family planning and open relationships, Goldman's politics earned her the title "the most dangerous woman in America" from her critics.

During the Panic of 1893, Goldman encouraged the unemployed to take direct action to help themselves: "demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread." Truly a courageous and dedicated woman, she was imprisoned several times on charges of "inciting to riot" and for her efforts to distribute information about birth control. Rudahl's drawings manage to bring to life each of these chapters from Goldman's life with a style that is completely absorbing.

Although she wrote and spoke extensively on a variety of topics, Goldman is best known for the anarchist beliefs she developed through the influences of early anarchist thinkers like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. Goldman's anarchism was uniquely personal, however. Responding to a comrade's criticism of her dancing at a public event, Goldman wrote in her autobiography Living My Life (1931) that,
"I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to behave as a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things."
You can find Living My Life among the Library's holdings. In addition, a number of newer books on anarchism have recently been ordered by the Library; like Noam Chomsky's Chomsky on Anarchism (2005), Peter Marshall's Demanding the Impossible: a history of anarchism, and Property is Theft!: a Pierre Proudhon reader (2011).

For the technically-savvy reader, The Anarchist Library has a wealth of e-books available for free download (including 34 texts by Emma Goldman). Other helpful sites to explore on this subject: The Anarchy Archives, The Institute for Anarchist Studies,, and, notably, The Emma Goldman Papers.

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