Reflections on Aging

(Selections by June Brumer, Rae Lisker, and Beth Wilson)


Emma Goldman (1869-1940) stands as a major figure in the history of American radicalism and feminism. A well-known and influential anarchist of her day, Goldman was an early advocate of free speech, birth control, women’s equality and independence, and workers’ rights. Her public stance against military conscription led to an eighteen-month imprisonment before the First World War, followed by her deportation from the U.S. in 1919. For the rest of her life she continued to participate in the social and political movements of her time, from the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil War.

As an orator Emma Goldman was fiery and brilliant, drawing crowds of thousands to hear her speak. She is known for her extraordinary energy and appetite for life. Many of us associate her with the quote: “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.”

Recently, the Persimmon Tree editors approached Candace Falk, editor and director of the Emma Goldman Papers Project at U.C. Berkeley (, and asked her whether there was material in the voluminous archives that revealed Emma Goldman’s thoughts and feelings about aging. Candace Falk turned the project over to three long-time volunteers, June Brumer, Rae Lisker, and Beth Wilson. These women—in their 70s and 80s, and lifetime activists for peace and justice—spent many hours searching for resonant excerpts from Goldman’s correspondence and writings.

For the volunteers, working with the Emma Goldman Papers for over twenty years has been “an opportunity to engage with young people and see the world through different eyes… It has helped us age more gracefully by expanding our intellectual horizons. Although we are chronologically older than Emma Goldman was at the time of these quotes, in life experience we are at the same point. We see a reflection of much of what we feel, and we are heartened by Goldman’s efforts toward the end of her life on behalf of the anarchists of the Spanish Civil War. Her involvement renewed her sense of purpose and satisfaction.”

The quotes below are from the last eleven years of Emma Goldman’s life:

*      *      *


“One should put in all one can . . . I am trying to do that in my writing and on occasions when I go down to the café and dance to forget age, space, and time.”

19 June 1929, letter from EG to Arthur Leonard Ross,
8 days before her 60th birthday


*      *      *


“I will be 62 on June 27 and have lived double that age. Nevertheless, I cannot really complain. I am still very much on deck, though the deck has changed. It no longer gives me the outlook over the large vista nor the chances to act I once had, but I can [putter] around in my garden and get whatever joy flowers can give and occasional visits from my dear ones and my few real friends.”

15 June 1931, letter from EG to Grace Kimmerling Wellington


*      *      *


“…[Aging] is the most bitter pill for me to swallow. More bitter than my own lack of opportunity to make the years left me count in the social struggle as it has counted in the past… You are still young and the future may yet enable you to realize your dreams. We have no such hopes. No, we do not feel old in spirit and passionate longing. But neither can we kid ourselves as to the years… Nor is it much comfort to know that we have tilled the soil and perhaps have implanted the seed. Of what good is that when we cannot also have some share in the harvest?”

5 October 1931, letter from EG to Grace Kimmerling Wilmington


*      *      *


“For myself I wish to say that I have been so furiously busy living my life that I had not a moment left to look at it. I am aware that a period comes to everybody when we are obliged, perforce, to sit back and look at life. That period is a wise old age, but never having grown wise, I do not expect to reach that point. Most people who look at life never live it. What they see is not life but a mere shadow of it.

Naturally, life presents itself in different forms to different ages… When I was 15, I suffered from unrequited love, and I wanted to commit suicide in a romantic way by drinking a lot of vinegar. I thought that would make me look ethereal and interesting, very pale and poetic when in my grave, but at 16, I decided on a more exalted death. I wanted to dance myself to death.

The death of those Chicago martyrs [who, without proof, were held responsible for the violence that erupted at the Chicago Haymarket Square worker’s rally on May 4, 1886] was my spiritual birth: their ideal became the motive of my entire life… Anarchism is a releasing and liberating force because it teaches people to rely on their own possibilities, teaches them faith in liberty, and inspires men and women to strive for a state of social life where everyone shall be free and secure.”

March 1933 speech, “An Anarchist Looks at Life” by EG at Foyles
Literary Luncheon for Emma Goldman and Paul Robeson, London.


*      *      *


(Remarks by author Rebecca West about Emma Goldman at the same luncheon in London, 1933) “I wanted to tell you something about her that possibly would not be mentioned otherwise, and that is that she is one of the best cooks in the whole world. I once was present at a debate among epicures, and the conclusion of various people in a position to know was that the two best cooks now living were Miss Willa Cather, the American novelist, and Miss Goldman. Well, that, after all, is a very great claim to fame, but of course there are so many claims that Emma has, because she is at the top of her form in many ways.”


*      *      *


(Quote from a speech by Emma Goldman, as reported in the press) “With my eyesight I can’t see many of you, not much beyond the first row. Please don’t feel that I have made sacrifices [or] that I’m a martyr. I have followed my bent, lived my life as I chose, and no one owes me anything. I’m no more respectable than I ever was. It’s you who have become a little more liberal, and it’s never too late to progress… You are progressing.”

18 March 1934 “City Helped to Make Her An Anarchist,”
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle


*      *      *


“It’s a happy, enthusiastic, and militant Emma who now holds forth from a small flat in West Kensington, London. The famous radical leader has, she declares, ‘found a cause worth living for—and worth dying for as well.’

’What’s glorious about [the anarchists of] Spain for me is seeing the very things I’ve worked for and believed in all my life. I’m seeing my ideas put into practice by a people who are building while they fight; doing something constructive while they keep the enemy back.’”

17 January 1937, “Emma Goldman Says Life Is
Worthwhile—for Spain” Milwaukee Journal


Emma Goldman was an anarchist known for her political activism, writing and speeches. She played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.

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