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Emma Goldman was Gangsta! A Conversation with Candace Falk, Director of the Emma Goldman Papers Project

by Benita Roth
Associate Editor, Journal of Women’s History

Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was one of the most famous anarchists in history. Goldman was an immigrant to the United States, later to become an exile, banished for her radical politics; she was an activist who braved social opprobrium and actual prison for the sake of her politics. She advocated a politics of anarchism, anti-capitalism, and feminism, and, according to Candace Falk, project director of the Emma Goldman Papers Project (EGPP) housed at UC Berkeley, was someone who never gave up on working toward a more just future. Goldman’s autobiography, Living My Life, was all but required reading for many women (and some men) on the left in the 1960s and 1970s; new editions of that book, and many other writings by Goldman continue to be published. For many second wave feminists, a tee-shirt with the image of Goldman, wearing wire-rimmed spectacles and a floppy hat, with the caption “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” was a de rigueur item in one’s wardrobe; the statement spoke to how Goldman defied any number of political and social conventions, including dogmatic self-seriousness.

Candace Falk was one of those second-generation feminists who were inspired by Goldman’s example. She named her dog “Emma” in homage to her heroine, and embarked, through a series of serendipitous events described below, on an academic career centered on the life and works of Goldman.

Listen to an Interview Extract

In this extract, Candace Falk recounts how she “serendipitously” found herself in a guitar shop in Chicago in 1975, looking at a cache of Emma Goldman’s letters to her lover/road manager, Ben Reitman. Falk was visiting a friend who worked at the shop, and her dog — named, like many dogs and cats in the 1970s, after Emma Goldman — got loose and ran into the shop. Falk called after her dog, and the resulting encounter with Goldman’s letters led her on a lifelong path of study of Goldman’s life and times. (Track Length: 3:25)

Listen to Candace Falk

Late in 2013, I sat down with Falk at the Binghamton home of her long time friend Rhonda Levine, who teaches sociology and anthropology at Colgate University. Falk was in town at Levine’s invitation to give talks about Goldman’s life. The day I talked with Falk, she had spoken at Colgate in the morning and was to give a presentation entitled “Chutzpah and Courage in the Face of Injustice: Emma Goldman’s Unorthodox Mishmash of Judaism, Feminism and Anarchism” at the local Jewish community center in the evening. Sandwiched in between those presentations, Falk and I had a freewheeling conversation about Goldman, the origins of EGPP, and Falk’s continued work of documenting Goldman’s life.

Below, I present an edited narrative of the highlights of our conversation, along with a short piece of audio of Falk talking about first finding Emma Goldman’s letters. My questions and my additional comments, meant to give context, appear in boldface. Falk’s answers are in normal typeface. She has had the opportunity to edit her answers, and to add a bit of material in.

Benita Roth (henceforth BR): Tell me a bit about your background. Can you tell me about how you came to work with Goldman archive?

Candace Falk (henceforth CF): …I was one of the feminists of the 1970s who was in thrall to Emma Goldman as a great symbol the possibility of living with great integrity and vision politically, and caring deeply about personal life and love as well; she represented a more balanced view of the kind of world that I wanted to be part of… Like many other people during that time I read her autobiography, Living My Life…[and] even though the autobiography was published in 1931, it was very, very relevant to the issues we cared about in the 1970s…[especially] the personal is political, and there was a way in which she brought you into her life and into her emotions, and also into the absolute joy of being part—not without its difficulties, but of the joy of having a life that was worth living….

BR: And she talked about her lovers, which I think was extraordinary for the time.

CF: Yes, here we come to the story of how I serendipitously came to this [project]. I, like many other people during that time, named my dog—there were a lot of dogs and cats named “Emma.” …I had a red Irish Setter/Golden Retriever… and I named the dog Emma, Red Emma, Red Emma Goldman….”

In 1975, Falk had been teaching at Sagaris, a Feminist Institute in Vermont and was driving back to University of California, Santa Cruz where she was working on a Ph.D. focused on Political Theory in the “History of Consciousness” program.

CF: …So on my way across the country I stopped in Chicago because I used to go to the University of Chicago…I stopped in a guitar shop…to see a friend, and my dog ran in after me into the guitar shop and knocked over various things, I said “Oh she’s an anarchist dog, she’s Red Emma Goldman, hah hah hah.” He laughed and then he scratched his head and said “Emma Goldman, that’s amazing, five years ago in the back of the shop I think I saw some letters of hers…”

BR: Really?

CF: …So he comes back from the storeroom with a huge boot box full of love letters from Emma Goldman to her lover and road manager Ben Reitman, who was [her road manager and] the love of her life…I could not believe even just seeing her handwriting…just touching the letter that she touched, it was that kind of tangible connection to history that was very…emotional; as anybody who has worked in any archive knows that there is some way that you are with it, it’s more real…So my friend at the guitar shop said, “if you really love Emma Goldman, why don’t you Xerox the letters?” …The letters belonged to his boss, so we went off and Xeroxed these letters in one of those old Xerox machines that smells a lot and takes forever, so you [can] almost read everything and . . . the first [thing] that was surprising about the letters was how sad they were…and I thought “wait a minute, Emma Goldman is my symbol of freedom and independence and these are very sad.” The second thing that was absolutely heartbreaking was that they were full of lines that said, “How can I speak to the people of freedom when I myself have become an abject slave to your love?” …As we were going through the letters, we get to one of the letters that says “if anyone ever saw these letters, I’d feel naked before the world.” At which point I felt like Emma [CF makes a gesture reaching upward from a grave]… [grabbed] at my throat and [she] said “don’t show this to anybody,” [feeling] really conflicted, I decided not to Xerox them anymore.

BR: So you actually stopped?

CF: I stopped, yeah, I stopped…but then I started to wonder if they were really [by] Emma Goldman, because they weren’t signed “Emma,” they were signed “Mommy.” And then it wasn’t until I went back to California that I reread the autobiography to see, and it turns out that Ben Reitman was ten years younger so he was her “[“wayward boy” and itinerant} “hobo,” she was his “mommy.” . . . I wasn’t going to do anything with the letters . . . I felt like I had [to keep Emma’s] secret, and [as a novice historian] I was not familiar with archival material even though I had been part of the great books program at the University of Chicago.

BR: You had not worked in archives before finding these letters?

CF: I had not. I had tremendous respect for original sources but that [working with archival material] was not part of my background. …and then…the man who owned the letters, who was the owner of the guitar shop called me, frantic, on the telephone and told me, “you know, I’m going bankrupt, I’m going to have to close this shop, this person [Falk’s friend] who worked there had told me that you were interested in the letters …I’m happy to sell them to you.”

BR: How did he have them in the first place? Do you know?

CF: He had them because a neighbor… who was rather old, found them in the attic of his house, and it turns out that it was the same house that Ben Reitman had lived in. … So I did not know what to do…I didn’t have any money to purchase [them]…

Falk’s friends had just started to help raise the money for the letters, when an archivist at the University of Illinois, Chicago, contacted her.

CF: An archivist from the University of Illinois, Chicago [at that time it was called Circle Campus]…called me personally at home and said “you do not understand that these letters do not belong in private hands they belong in…a public archive.” And I said, “au contraire, Emma Goldman said she didn’t want them to be seen by the public,” and this person said “actually, we have at least 400 other letters here.” …I at the time was a graduate student at Santa Cruz and the head of my department, Hayden White, gave me money to go look at the letters [in the UIC archive]. And I went and I looked [at the UIC collection] and I saw that they were in fact letters that read very similarly and I came back and thought…since Emma Goldman thought that she wanted to live as the great example, in an era of thinking through the personal and the political, that there was a way in which there was something instructive and interesting about talking about those issues within Emma Goldman’s own life.… And the other thing is I had come across a letter [from Goldman] that said… these letters should be out to the open but only after my death. So then I thought that, okay, I had her permission to write about this part of her life with respect. And I had an arrangement with the University of Illinois archivist that the director of the archive would purchase the letters and in exchange she would make copies of all the letters in the entire collection for me to work with.

BR: She made copies of the letters that UIC had?

CF: Yes.… And I chose not to purchase the originals [of the letters found in the guitar shop]. I decided that her argument was right about the importance of preserving the papers of a public woman in an archive, rather than secreted away in private hands.… So the upshot of it is that I got more interested in working on these issues of the public and the private, as it was expressed in Emma Goldman’s life and love, and shifted the emphasis of my thesis.

Falk decided to work on Emma Goldman for her dissertation, initially focusing on the relationship between Goldman and Reitman. Others encouraged her to think more broadly about Goldman’s life. At the same time, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) of the National Archives was seeking to collect the papers of important figures beyond the standard great white men, and Goldman was one of the figures they were interested in. Falk received training from the NHPRC, and used the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections to find papers by/about Goldman, as well as writing postcards and letters to archivists to find her sources. Her dissertation resulted in her book, Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman: A Biography. The work she did for the dissertation, along with the Chicago discovery, were the seeds of the EGPP. Thirty-three years later, the Emma Goldman Papers Project has copies of 44,000 documents, many of which were put into a microfilm edition, drawn from 1000 archives and private collections around the world. Scholars seeking to use documents still needed permission to publish from the original archive from which they were drawn, but Falk (and the NHPRC) nonetheless felt value in having copies, especially since she and the others who worked on the project figured out dates on material that was undated, filled in the names of correspondents where none existed, and, through looking at material from any number of archives, were able to put all the documents related to Goldman in chronological order—by categories of Correspondence, Writings, Government Surveillance and Trial Transcripts, Newspaper Reportage, as well as identifying key named participants, organizations, publications, and legal support committees.

Falk had to be affiliated with a university to receive National Archives grant money, and for many years, it was sociologist Arlie Hochschild who signed on as the principal investigator of grants. Later, Falk began her work with the historian Leon Litwack, whose parents met at an anarchist-vegetarian-hiking club and who, according to Falk, felt that he was doing right by his family in helping the EGPP.

The unavoidably politicized character of the EGPP—gathering documents related to Goldman, one of the most radical thinkers of the late 19th and 20th centuries—meant that at times the project became the target of bureaucratic ire. In early 2003, when the second Gulf War was imminent, a university official objected to the EGPP’s proposed inclusion in a holiday fund raising mailing of a passage written by Goldman in 1915 expressing her opposition to war. Suddenly the Project’s yearly outreach to friends and potential donors became the target of university administration censorship. An article about the Emma Goldman Papers Project, “At Berkeley, a New Dispute Over Words From Long Ago” appeared in the 14 January 2003 New York Times, and spread across the wires—including one headlined “Unfounded Censoring of Letters Threatens a Bastion of Dissent.” Under public pressure, a further article appeared in the 17 January 2003 New York Times: “Reversal In Berkeley Debate.”

CF: Every time we sent out a holiday card, we tried to make them relevant to what was happening because Goldman, her writings were so prescient and so eloquent that I always feel it’s a form of public history and way to share the jewels of our work with the people.… And so that year [in December 2002], we pulled out two quotes to include: one was from 1902 that was…right after McKinley had been shot and a lot of incredibly repressive laws were passed that restricted free speech especially if you were an anarchist…and hers was “We shall soon be obliged to meet in cellars, or in darkened rooms with closed doors, and speak in whispers lest our next door neighbors should hear that freeborn citizens dare not speak in the open.” …The other was [a quote from] 1915 [before the U.S. had entered the First World War] when she said “In the face of this approaching disaster, it behooves men and women not yet overcome by war madness to raise their voice of protest, to call the attention of the people to the crime and outrage which are about to be perpetrated on them.” And there was a new chancellor and vice chancellor for research at the university, who for some reason asked to see our fundraising letter before we sent it out, which had never happened before, and I got it faxed back with a line through those quotes. And I wrote back to them and I said, “What’s the matter with that?”… And they actually wrote back, in writing, “It sounds too much like it’s against the war in Iraq.” Like, duh?!…

When I expressed my surprise at such a thing happening at UC Berkeley, home of the 1960s Free Speech Movement, Falk responded:

CF: …It was the first time that I had gotten censored…I talked to everyone I knew, about how horrified I was that they were doing that, and it turns out I have a neighbor…who was a stringer for the New York Times, and she brought it to the New York Times, San Francisco Bureau, and they made it…front page news in New York Times, like “Berkeley’s free speech university, you know, censors” … What was fascinating about it was that the vice-chancellor who had censored me always felt that he was right, and so he…was in the article too. And other people, like historians who were asked about it said that the only thing as far as they were concerned that the only thing that should be censored in historical writing was something that was inaccurately transcribed… Supportive responses (including funding) poured in from all over the world, and irate letters to the Chancellor from alumni demanding a retraction. Thus, ironically, it was this unbelievable boon for the Emma Goldman papers—we ended up sending [the mailing] out…I ended up paying for the entire mailing so no one could say “oh you are using college stationary, you know and misusing university funds”…and then instead of putting the quote on the letters, I put it on a separate card inside the letter, so technically it wasn’t [in the letter]…. The only really awful thing to say is that after that, that vice chancellor is still the vice chancellor now…the first summer after news blitz, they tried to fire me…and I had to get a lawyer…and the lawyer had to call them and say “do you want to be on the front page of the New York Times again?”

After this incident, UC Berkeley withdrew its financial support, and although the EGPP and its offices are officially part of the university, they pay rent and the costs of utilities and salaries from fund raising alone. Falk has at times used the equity in her Berkeley home to keep the EGPP afloat. At the same time, Falk noted that the Occupy generation, as well as feminists and younger anarchists donate, at any level, and they are thrilled to have the EGPP as a resource.

As part of their work on the EGPP, Falk has edited three volumes worth of papers on Goldman, and she and her staff are working on a fourth volume.(1)

Falk described her work on the documentary collections:

CF: I would like to emphasize this, because many people presume that documentary collections actually are just a pile of documents… I write an introduction that first gives the arc of the story…and second gives…as complete as possible, context…like the things that you can’t have in the material, like what was anarchism at that time? What were the views, what were the different points of view, what was happening in the legal realm? …And then the third section is always…making a narrative out of the documents themselves, so that people can realize that there’s a relationship between the documents…but I don’t do it in the documents themselves, I make little excerpts and make it a narration so you see that you are reading a story…and then the fourth part is just sort of brief reflections…on whatever had happened at that point [in Goldman’s life].… The annotations offer the explanation for all references in each document, so that anyone can read the material without fear of not knowing the who and what of it all. The other thing that we’ve done is that we have in the back of the book not only a chronology, but we have biographical files…organizational and publications files…I think the back matter of our book is a “stand alone.”…It is a rare resource for all different kinds of research, in tandem with my introductions, we point people in directions that they otherwise would not have known.

Most importantly, the EGPP has always been a collaborative project, and credit is due to the hundreds of incredibly talented and knowledgeable people who have worked with us over the years.

I asked Falk about how she approached talking to a non-academic audience, since there are several YouTube videos up that record her giving presentations.(2) She told me this story about giving a talk about Goldman—someone who, despite having been subjected to a significant amount of police brutality, lived her life as a person with hope about the future—in an inner-city high school in Oakland shortly after the 1992 Rodney King civil unrest/riots/rebellion in Los Angeles:

CF: [I was invited to] a really rough high school…a huge class, huge…everybody looked very tough—at the end of it [the talk], I said, “Emma Goldman really felt that the most dangerous element in society was ignorance.”—an interesting perspective though no doubt the violence around you can be attributed to many other factors…And at that time I had all these buttons, these little buttons of Emma Goldman with her little hat—with Emma Goldman’s quote circling her face…and I said “anybody who would like a button can come and take one of these,” and I just figured like this was too weird for all the tough guys… Everybody took a button. Every single one.

BR: “Emma Goldman was gangsta.”

CF: She’s gangsta! It was like so moving! I wish I had a photograph of it. (3)

My final question to Falk was one that had to be asked:

BR: “Did [Goldman] really say ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution?”

CF: The truth is, what she did say is, and it’s in the autobiography, was and I quote:
“At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha [Alexander Berkman], a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
“I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business, I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. 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 the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become 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.” (4)

Thus, in her mind, dance stood for beauty and freedom and so…in essence she said, “if I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.”

I want to thank Candace Falk for her time and for her work. Those interested in learning more about the Emma Goldman Papers Project can turn to the projects’ website or become a friend on the Facebook page For a short video about the Emma Goldman Papers Project and documentary volumes of her writing, go to


(1) The three documentary volumes are: Emma Goldman and Candace Falk, Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, Vol. 1: Made for America, 1890-1901 University of California Press, (2002)  revised pbk, University of Illinois Press  (2008),  Emma Goldman and Candace Falk, Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, Vol. 2: Making Speech Free, 1902-1909.,University of California Press (2005), revised pbk: University of Illinois Press (2008); Emma Goldman and Candace Falk, Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, Volume 3: Light and Shadows, 1910–1916, Stanford University Press (2012).Volume 4; The War Years 1917-1919, Stanford University Press,(forthcoming).  Interested readers can find more information about the documentary volumes at the Project’s website.  

(2) See and

(3) See for the positive meaning of the word “gangsta.”

(4) Emma Goldman, Living My Life (New York: Knopf, 1931) 56.