For the 38th episode of the Journalism History podcast host Will Mari spoke with Erika Pribanic-Smith about anarchist leader Emma Goldman’s World War I-era First Amendment struggles.
Past chair of the AEJMC History Division, Erika Pribanic-Smith is an associate professor of journalism in the Department of Communication at the University of Texas at Arlington. She is the co-author, along with Jared Schroeder (Southern Methodist University), of Emma Goldman’s No-Conscription League and the First Amendment (Routledge, 2019).
This episode is sponsored by the Department of Communication at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Will Mari: 00:10 Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Will Mari, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
00:23 This episode is sponsored by the University of Texas Arlington’s Department of Communication located in the heart of the thriving Dallas Fort Worth metroplex, the UTA Department of Communication offers a growing master’s degree program as well as outstanding undergraduate programs and journalism, advertising, public relations, broadcasting, communications studies, and communication technology. Our students are prepared to change the world. Learn more at uta.edu/communication.
00:50 In this episode, I’ll be talking to Dr. Erika Pribanic-Smith, co-author of Emma Goldman’s, No-Conscription League and the First Amendment, now available from Routledge. The book examines the legal atmosphere and rampant xenophobia that contributed to Goldman’s deportation for radical speech in 1919. Dr. Smith, welcome to the show. I want to get right into it, with questions with the book with you and your topic and also with Jared and his work on this. But can you tell me what inspires you to write about Emma Goldman and write a book about her and her activism in her life?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 01:24 Okay. Well, Jared actually was the one who came up with this idea. He had noticed that she was barely mentioned, if at all in anything that talked about the history of the First Amendment during that time period. There are all these more famous cases, Schenck [and] Abrams, the usual ones that are cited in law books. And he felt that Emma Goldman had a contribution to the history of the First Amendment that was missing. And so he decided that he wanted to do some research in that area and through a mutual friend we were connected so that I could do the history part, he could do the law part, and we could fill in that little bit of a gap in First Amendment history.
Will Mari: 02:12 As you got into the project with Jared what were some things that struck you both, maybe you, maybe him separately, about her life that had been overlooked because she is not a person who’s got as much attention as she deserves. But even as you’ve uncovered her life, what were some things that surprised you—about your research—was [it] her activities during …[the] First World War especially?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 02:32 She was quite a firecracker and so there, there have actually been quite a few biographies of her that have been written. I feel that where the attention is lacking is in her work obviously in the [First World War], in the First Amendment is as Jared wanted us to cover but also in her work with Mother Earth. And so there’s a great anthology of Mother Earth of some of the articles that appeared in the magazine. But what doesn’t often appear is how much she used that magazine for her advocacy. And so I really appreciated as a media history scholar, a lot of what she did with Mother Earth to try to spread her ideology and the ideology of anarchy in general.
Will Mari: 03:32 That reminds me of people like Dorothy Day with their own publications, with her case, The Worker, The Catholic Worker, [and] using that as a vehicle for other issues and topics. I wonder in the case of Goldman, I mean, you write about this in your book and people should definitely check it out, it’s worth checking out. But maybe tell me, you know, was she alone in the way she perceived the world and her activism? Was she [the] needed person in this context of the First World War? Especially, did she have allies?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 04:02 She had a lot of allies. The anarchist group, she [was] at — Mother Earth — is an interesting title for her magazine and she came up with it because of ties to nature of course, but feeling like, you know, the earth is the mother of all. But I feel like she was also a maternal figure herself, which is very interesting because she didn’t feel maternal, she never wanted to have children. She never wanted to go into that traditional role. But as far as anarchism was concerned, she really was a maternal figure, especially in that, that New York center of anarchy at the time. And so she did have a lot of allies that she […] as far as when you’re talking about World War I and No Conscription, of course she didn’t do No Conscription alone. They had the No Conscription League and there was her lifelong confidant, Alexander Berkman, who was a huge part of that as well as some other folks. Leonard Abbott of course, who was big in the free speech league and others who came and spoke at her rallies. Of course, all of these people who wrote for Mother Earth, she was an editor at Mother Earth, but she was not the only one whose ideas and writings were published. So she had all of these people, but she was really sort of a central figure that brought all of these other folks together. And of course then she’s the one who wound up in prison.
Will Mari: 05:39 Yes, I was thinking about that because she was friends with people like Margaret Sanger and other controversial people. And yet she was the one who was in jail and I wonder did she […] did she want this to be kind of what happened to her and […] despite her own self-awareness? I’m kind of curious what you think about her motivations, if you know anything about those.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 05:58 Yes. She was very interesting in that as she stated on multiple occasions, she was not afraid of prison. She was not afraid of death. She was not afraid of any of the things that were threatened of her because of her beliefs. And what was more important to her was being able to voice her beliefs, to stand up for her beliefs. And she even said at one point that prison was “blessing.” I think perhaps because she had time to sit and to think and to clarify even, what she believed in. And she came out of– she was in prison more than once. There were multiple arrests and there were multiple stays in prison. And of course the, the last one before she was deported was the most lengthy and the most difficult on her. But every time that she was imprisoned, she had opportunity to think about her beliefs to you know, clarify, to do more writing, and came out of those prison stays stronger and more adamant about the things that she believed rather than being beat down by what was supposed to be punishment.
Will Mari: 07:18 And so in some ways, like other figures throughout the 20th century who have spent time in jail and used those experiences for another larger cause, speaking of Dr. King and other people with his “Letters from a Birmingham Jail,” These experiences were not wasted, it seems like. They utilized them, like the suffragists themselves. What’s a contrast though between her movement, and let’s say, and a suffragist movement and in terms of the tactics, because her people were anarchists, which was a very controversial group– how i’m understanding this at the time, societally speaking. But in contrast to other more conventional in air quotes, sort of activist movements, what are some things that were different with her people in her circle than other movements that you guys found out in terms of free speech and First Amendment boundary pushing? You guys find anything like that, that was different.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 08:10 I don’t know that they were very different. You know, because when you think about the suffragists you think about they’re trying to push political boundaries and you think about, you know, they’re also being beaten and arrested for things that they believed. So I, I don’t — I wouldn’t say there are a lot of contrast. I would say there’s a lot of comparisons.
Will Mari: 08:31 Yeah, I guess with the Silent Sentinels and that kind of more “let’s bring it on,” you know, type of activism. We might even call it—It’s not “social protests,” but more “civic resistance” maybe is the term? Did she lay the groundwork for other later people that’d be inspired by her after her time was over? Cause she’s, she’s gone— and then there’s a movement that’s still here in the United States and you have the interwar period. We had the Second World War and later on, Vietnam. I mean, going down the line, I mean, did people mention her, for example, […] did you guys find things like that later on?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 09:05 Now I haven’t looked a lot beyond her deportation, but I do know that plenty of people were definitely inspired by her. Some of them too means that she wouldn’t herself have advocated. So of course in the book I talk about Czolgosz and his assassination of President McKinley. And he famously said that she inspired him. And she was not an advocate of violence. She was very much a pacifist. But there definitely were folks during her time that wanted to have the courage that she did to stand up for themselves, to stand up for others, for other immigrants, for other laborers, for other women. And so there were a lot of issues that, she took up that others took up as well and followed her lead in terms of, just that courage to go forward and, and speak your mind.
Will Mari: 10:06 I’m thinking of Debs and the Workers of the World and other people we think of as sort of these First World War activists who also did a direct action or maybe social protest with their strikes and so forth. But in some ways, I think what you’re saying is you’re saying her impact was felt throughout the rest of that era by other people who were inspired by her, take up the flag of that more active resistance, not just an anarchy movements, but other related movements. Eventually I was asking you with the First Amendment issues that she raised with her own writings and own speeches and so on, do you think that people even on her team, so to speak, is there any evidence that they themselves were making her be the spokesperson for this? Did she get direct, encouragement to be as forthright as she was or was this something that she was uniquely doing?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 10:59 It’s something that she was doing, but at the same time she also pushed Berkman to the forefront. And what was interesting is, of course she, she was central in the No Conscription League, but when they had their rallies, she would be the one who would come up and speak last. So she would let Berkman speak, she would let Leonard Abbott speak, she would let […] but really interestingly, she would let anyone speak. So that was […] a lot of people who say they’re in favor of free speech. They say that meaning I’m in favor of speech that I agree with. Whereas that wasn’t her at all. She really believed in complete freedom. So for instance, with No Conscription League, they were against the war and they were definitely against people being drafted against their will to participate in the war. She wanted people to be able to do what they wanted to do.
11:58 So if they wanted to enlist, she felt they should enlist. But if they didn’t want to enlist, she felt like they shouldn’t have been forced. So she was against compulsory service. And then when she would have these rallies then, she would have protesters who would come. She would have, especially people who are in the military voluntarily, who wanted to be in the military, who had enlisted in the military. She would have them come to heckle and protest against her protest of the draft and she let anyone speak. So if someone was against the draft, of course they were welcome to speak. If someone was for the draft, they were welcome to speak. She felt that everyone should have complete freedom.
Will Mari: 12:48 Interesting. So she was kind of a First Amendment absolutist.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 12:50 Absolutely, yes.
Will Mari: 12:52 And in some ways she previewed the much later development or the First Amendment, but that we have it as, Jared might say, potentially as a more expansive idea.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 13:00 Right.
Will Mari: 13:02 Was she ever, ever someone who would advocate for any limits on speech, of hate speech? For example, did she ever talk about like the edge that we should not cross over the threshold or [was] she never–?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 13:12 She didn’t. No, she, she felt that, that everyone should have a chance to say what they want to say. And then even when, you know, as I mentioned, Czolgosz and his assassination of McKinley, she didn’t advocate violence, but then after it had happened, you know, she had sympathy for him and she did say, you know, he has the right to express himself. We should support his right to express himself. I understand why he did what he did. So I would say she definitely was an absolutist yeah.
Will Mari: 13:49 And ahead of her time in a number of ways. And with her deportation, with the way that was written about, I mean, did you guys find the discourse around that helpful at all? Was it was pretty much condemning of her departure? Like written in the contemporary press and what was the word that you guys sort of sensed about her departure?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 14:09 So she had a really contentious and interesting relationship with the mainstream press. They, they helped her in a lot of ways because they ridiculed her. And so in that way, in the coverage of everything that she did, they helped to build her notoriety. So they gave her free publicity,
14:40 … they gave her a platform and they gave her free publicity in the way that they criticized what she did. You know, they, they rose her to status of — they called her “Red Emma” and they rose her to this status of notoriety —where I even mentioned in my book mothers threatened their children, “Red Emma will get you if you don’t behave.” And so the press contributed, the press coverage of the, the things that she did led to her notoriety. And then they would quote from Mother Earth, they would quote from her speeches, they quoted from the things that she and Berkman said in court. And so her ideas are being spread by the press, but at the same time, the press starts to debate because of, of her trial and things going on at that time, the extent to which free speech should reach.
15:42 So you have a lot at this time during her trial and during her Supreme Court appeal talking about there are limits. You know, so the main mainstream press is talking a lot about there are limits to free speech, especially in wartime. And that she had crossed all of these boundaries where they had very much tolerated her up until the point of war. They started calling for her to be deported even before she was imprisoned. And so therefore, because of that, when she was ultimately deported, it was celebrated.
Will Mari: Which was good copy. Even with her departure, like they were just thinking about her as this is interesting, weird figure before the war. And then she becomes so red hot. But even in that moment, they’re still talking about her. So she kind of got what she needed from them, in a way.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 16:35 She absolutely did.
Will Mari: Very savvy communicator.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Yes. Brilliant.
Will Mari: And we have a picture in the book, and I can’t show you guys since you’re listening to a podcast but we can put it on the transcript—there is a picture of her with an advertisement nearby. I’ll try to get the picture when she’s was savvy with these visual advertisements too it seems like as well. And was a pioneer in that regard as well.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Right. I mean mostly what she did was with her speech. But, but yeah, of course, any rally, there was signage, slogans and things like that. Of course, she was really great in terms of developing imagery for the front of her magazine.
Will Mari: Yes, I was impressed by that.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: And so for instance you know, she was involved somewhat with the Wobblies, the IWW and the issues that they were having in San Francisco. And so at some point she and a colleague went to San Francisco and they were actually kidnapped by an Anti-Wobbly group. And the police let it happen and they felt that this was an example, everything that went down there with the Wobblies, and particularly with them, was an example of speech being stifled. So there’s a particularly famous issue of Mother Earth that came out immediately following that where you actually have a flag being jammed into someone’s mouth as an example of just saying, you know, patriotism stifling free speech.
Will Mari: 18:17 You’re saying, cause this is the era that Alien and Sedition Acts and President Wilson under enormous pressure to stay out of the war and then to be in the war whole-hog [in] April of 1917 and the Americans were not of one mind on this […]. They were divided. Did you get a reaction from the German-American press that was a different from the mainstream English-speaking press? Was there better treatment for her in the German papers or […]
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 18:41 That’s, that’s not something that I’ve really looked at, but that’s an interesting question.
Will Mari: 18:47 […] she is sort of the only activist speaking against our involvement in a huge way, I wonder about that now.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 18:54 You know, that is an interesting question. I do know that she was very much revered by a lot of immigrants because, you know, she was someone who, she was one of them. She was a Russian immigrant herself and a Jewish immigrant, which, so there were a lot of things working against her I think. A reason that, you know, she was held up to ridicule, you know, being Russian at that time, especially after the Bolshevik revolution was not a great thing to be in this country.
Will Mari: 19:27 Bad brand, association, [to] worry about that.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 19:30 Right. And so there definitely was a lot of support for her in the Yiddish speaking community. And so, you do see some, some Yiddish newspapers of course, that, that are supporting what she’s doing because she was really standing up for her people.
Will Mari: 19:50 Yeah. And I read one story in this account of the First World War, of the German-American population, about a third of that huge chunk of the immigrant population was really opposed to the war, but didn’t want say anything. A third were kind of on the fence and a third were kind of whole-hog in favor of the war and despite the fact they were Germans, wanted to make themselves even more American, I wonder if you can find some more things you might, you know, that’d be a really fun follow up potentially, I was thinking about that.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Great, nobody else steal that research idea.
Will Mari: I don’t want to take that — hear that first. This is, this is Erika and Jared’s work, copyrighted. But you know, I was thinking about the parallels later on with other activist movements and other conflicts. I mean there does seem to be a small cadre of activists who are the most outspoken who get the most arrested and then another tier of activists who are more awaken or empowered by them. The Second World War had initially people like Charles Lindbergh, but other people like Mennonites and so on or were involved […] Was there an Emma Goldman-like figure that came around later on, do you know? In that conflict? or maybe that’s another project […], I’m giving you lots of work to do.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 20:53 Right. No, it’s not something I’ve really, I’ve really looked at, but…
Will Mari: 21:00 And that always fascinates me. People who have such conviction to say no, and then to say publicly and [to] rally others to their cause.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 21:08 Right. And, and knowing that what you’re saying is divisive and unpopular with such a large segment of the population. If you think about what the mainstream press was doing at the time, if you consider the press as a reflection of society, looking at the mainstream press and how they were so patriotic and how they were so, once we entered the war, once the United States entered WWI, being so supportive of the war, being so supportive of the military and being so supportive of these efforts to protect democracy, to protect America, to protect all of these symbolic things. And to have someone who was an outsider who was an “other,” you know, this, this Russian Jewish immigrants coming in and saying, this country shouldn’t be in the war. She considered the United States her country. It was her country. And it wasn’t that she was unpatriotic.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 22:13 It was that she believed a lot of what was happening in the American system was flawed and she believed that democracy had died. And so right, her June issue of Mother Earth even had, you know, a tombstone for democracy, right. Because of what was happening with the war and what was happening with Conscription. You know, that was draft day. And so she felt pained that these things that are supposed to be pillars of Americanism, democracy, freedom, those were being taken away from the American people. So she on the one hand is standing up and saying, “your freedoms are being taken away, your democracy is being taken away, your voice is being taken away. These things that are supposed to be pillars of Americanism.” And then she is being othered for that purpose. Saying you’re a Russian immigrant, you’re a red and what you’re saying is not supportive of what’s happening right now.
Will Mari: 23:22 Yes. And in ways that are far more pronounced than let’s say a [William Jennings] Bryan who opposed the Spanish American war, and he’s a principled, you know, kind of a strange figure, but he’s, he’s never questioned as an American, he’s never questioned because he’s a white guy and he’s powerful and well-to-do. But you have people like people like Goldman who were very suspect anyway, and they’re speaking out and they’re speaking in very dramatic ways calling, as you said, you know, for people’s attention but also saying we are in very serious trouble. We should, we should wake up. And I’m impressed by her story because of that reason again, that she had such an outspoken discourse around herself and her circle. But again, kept at it again. How many times was she arrested? I just want to go back to that to that figure again.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 24:05 It was more than 10, more than 10. We found evidence of at least 10 and a couple of stays in prison. [With] one due to her speech against birth control. She spent a couple of days in prison, well, she spent a couple of days held on conspiracy charges due to the assassination of McKinley. Earlier. But her longer stays, one for speaking out against birth control, and then speaking out against conscription.
Will Mari: Yes. I was thinking about her duration of jail time compared to people like Schenck and Gitlow who were a jail, but they were like in jail for a onesie or twosie experience. And here she is going back into battle. She reminds me of [Emmeline] Pankhurst in some ways, just kind of like, let’s bring it on. I’m not, I’m not afraid of this experience.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 25:01 No, she had no fear. She was beat down. She was definitely beat down because if you look at the images in the book which were very fun to find, I had a lot of fun looking for images for the book.
Will Mari: 25:20 Really cool sources. Yes, this is awesome.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 25:21 But if you look at, you know, not much before her imprisonment, she was criticized for her looks. The press you know, the press said some mean things, the press, you know, talked about her, her being ugly. The press talked about her being portly. The press talked about her being manish, very masculine-looking, unattractive and all of those things. But I don’t believe any of that to be true. If you look at an earlier picture, you know, she looks young, she looks vigorous, vibrant, yes. But if you look at the picture that they took at Ellis Island right before she was deported, she looks 10 years older in that picture than she did in one taken maybe a year or two earlier. So she definitely was exhausted by the experience.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 26:19 But she still was unafraid. She was still writing about her ideas, even from prison. She was still corresponding with fellow anarchists, with communists, with others who shared her ideals while she was in prison. And she went on for the rest of her life, though, not in the United States, elsewhere, Europe, Canada, a lot in Canada. Canada is where she passed. You know, she had a lot to do with the Spanish revolution. You know, she did a lot. So she remained outspoken.
Will Mari: She didn’t quit.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: She never quit.
Will Mari: Even though she wasn’t in the U.S.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: Correct. She’s buried in the U.S.
Will Mari: That’s right. Where is she? Where’s her ultimate resting place?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: She’s in Chicago.
Will Mari: 27:06 That’s actually home to a lot of really interesting people in terms of their final place […]
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 27:09 Right. But the whole thing that launched her into anarchy was the Haymarket square situation, where you had anarchists being executed, who were not even present for the riot that occurred there. And so that really attracted her to the cause of anarchy and so she wanted, her wishes were to be buried near those people.
Will Mari: 27:40 Yeah. It’s such an important corrective to be able to have the focus on her life and you guys bring with your book and I, I definitely think that’s a huge contribution. Two more questions and we’ll finish up. But what is the ultimate legacy of Emma Goldman’s life in 2019, more than a century later? And you’re kind of the expert on this right now, you and Jared, no pressure, in this moment where we have similar anxieties and fears, big stakes. I mean, what is the legacy of someone like Emma Goldman?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 28:13 It really is an interesting time. You know, I would say in a lot of ways, our time now is parallel to the time then, although it may be different immigrant groups that are being “othered,” different immigrant groups that are being detained. There’s still a lot of the same rhetoric flying around now as there was in her time. So I think there are certainly some folks today who are willing to stand up against some of that rhetoric. I don’t know that they’re necessarily thinking about Emma Goldman. But, maybe they should be.
Will Mari: 29:03 Yeah. And with that in mind then, with people who are first approaching her life, I guess I lied, I just have one more question after this one, where, where should they start? Read your book, obviously if they want to know more about Berkman and Goldman and anarchists as the First World War era before, I mean where should they begin their own reading about this? Is there another work that you recommend to people?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 29:22 Her books are definitely fantastic sources. She wrote a wonderful memoir called “Living My Life,” And I would say that’s an excellent place to start because when it, when it was originally published, it was published in two volumes. And she had a lot to say about everything that she went through. So I always talk about with my students especially, you know, going to those primary sources. So looking at Mother Earth also, HathiTrust has a lot of the issues of Mother Earth. So being able to look at the things that she wrote, the things that she sai,d that’s an excellent source. Alexander Berkman had his own very short-lived magazine, but still a good one to look at for especially his point of view. That was called “The Blast” and that that was published out of the same building as Mother Earth.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 30:24 But they were complimentary in a lot of ways. And then there are a lot of documents held at UC Berkeley. There’s an Emma Goldman collection. Now what happened when her offices [and] her Mother Earth offices were raided, the government took so much of the documents. [They] basically took everything. They took all of the Mother Earth documents, they took her personal documents. You know, so even if she had wanted to donate her papers somewhere, everything from her time in the United States was basically gone, confiscated, and never given back. But the fine folks at UC Berkeley have managed to collect from other places so many things, so many documents. And some of that is even online at archive.org. So those would be great places to start if you want to learn more about her and what she did. And of course there’s so many books out there. I wouldn’t want to point out one in particular. Because there have been several really good biographies that have been written that will tell you morefrom different perspectives. Some from the anarchist perspective, some from the gendered perspective. And some more, you know, talking about her life from a sociological and even psychological perspective. So there’s a lot of good looks into her life out there.
Will Mari: 31:56 Yeah. In that regard she really does remind me of [Dorothy] Day and other people, who have caused a lot of discussion but in her case was not enough. I’m glad you are helping rectify that. That’s really important in terms of the First Amendment issues and free speech.
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 32:09 Thank you.
Will Mari: 32:10 We ask this of all our guests, but last question I promise for reals, is why does this matter? This kind of work matter, what is journalism history or media history matter now?
Erika Pribanic-Smith: 32:21 Because journalism history is the history of everything. We are, the journalists are the historians, you know, we are documenting the things that are happening in our time. So anything that’s appearing in our newspapers, anything that’s appearing in our news broadcasts, anything that’s appearing in our news magazines, we are documenting the events of our time. And so going forward, as journalism historians look at the journalism occurring at various points in time, we are able to tell all of these wonderful stories about people potentially in the margins who express themselves through media. But also being able to tell history through journalism. And I think it’s a wonderful thing.
Will Mari: 33:20 Thanks for tuning in and additional thanks to our sponsor, the University of Texas at Arlington’s Department of Communication, and to Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Dr. Will Mari, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “good night and good luck.”