The Emmas: Aggression and Feminism Now and Then

Emma Goldman
Quoted for saying “Heaven must be an awfully dull place if the poor in spirit live there”, Emma Goldman was an infamous rebel and spitfire anarchist in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Goldman). Goldman was a famous activist who fought vigorously for free speech, gender equality, birth control and labor unions. 1893-1919 was arguably her most rebellious phase, when she was arrested 16 times for reasons such as distributing birth control information and open-air speaking (She Fought the Law…).

Although she was deported to Russia from the United States in 1919 due to her numerous arrests, Goldman was allowed back into the country in 1934 for the strict purpose of a speaking tour. Goldman’s speeches were what made her an important and demanding figure for women’s rights in the early 1900s. She was an advocate for working class, underprivileged and underrepresented people who did not have the same liberties as the wealthy (Shetterly). While her motivation was geared to the well-being of others, the way she went about her agenda was not one that was considered ‘socially acceptable’.

Emma Watson
In the 21st century, Emma Watson is a figure who is happily welcomed into the households of people all over the world. She is a beloved actress who always plays a likeable role, in notable films, such as Harry Potter and Perks of Being a Wallflower. Being an actress, Watson assumes other personas, but at the same time retains her own reputation of being both sophisticated and highly educated off screen. Emma Watson  maintains a girl-next-store persona and is always a sought after celebrity on the red carpet.

 In addition to the large media attention Emma Watson receives as a celebrity, she also recently received attention for her political influence. Watson recently made a speech to the UN on September 22, 2014 regarding the feminist ideals of the HeForShe campaign (, which caused controversy. as well as sparked progressive conversation. Watson explained that the only way to achieve true gender equality, men and women must be held to the same societal standards instead of assuming stereotypical gender roles.

Goldman and Watson might be seen on opposite sides of the mainstream; however, these two women are very much connected (beyond both being named Emma). Although they have very different persuasive styles, both feminists exercise their freedom of speech to persuade progress. Yes, Watson was invited to make her speech to the UN and delivered it in a way which was eloquent and respectful. In a certain light, Watson is reminiscent of Goldman because of her desire for public engagement. However, Goldman wouldn’t have been so gentle with her words.

In addition to the content of her speeches and the nature of her passion, Goldman’s frequent conflict with the law contributed to and heightened the revolutionary nature of her message. The anarchist gained publicity and recognition for her speeches, fighting against the prevailing gender roles for women in a male-dominated world. Conversely, Watson is able to convey her message in a different, more socially acceptable way. She is coming from a place of privilege, going to Yale and being a famous actress— all luxuries Goldman did not have as a Lithuanian immigrant.

The Timeline
Social movements and activism cannot be simplified to focus solely on particular individuals; they must be contextualized by their given historical moment. For this reason, the Emmas can be looked at as a sort of feminist tag team. In the early 1900s, when women were still fighting for the right to vote, Goldman was doing her part for feminism by promoting things such as the right for birth control and sexual freedom. In the process of expressing her societal ideals, Goldman was arrested for “Open-air speaking”, “attempting to speak” and “planning to speak”.

Today, this would not be a just cause for arrest. In fact, perhaps because Watson lives today and not one hundred years ago, when people could be arrested for “open-air speaking”, she does not need to make so much noise to be heard. Maybe without Emma Goldman, paving the way for women speakers and women’s issues as a topic of discussion, Emma Watson’s speech to the U.N. wouldn’t have happened. Perhaps without Goldman’s influence over modern feminism, Watson, as a woman, wouldn’t have been able to even reach privilege, independent of man.

Today, feminism is openly discussed by many people, including United Nation officials, in part because of the aggressive feminism of the early 20th century. Intellectual and eloquent presentation is required to promote the new goals of feminism, which is exactly what Watson is trying to accomplish. In the early 1900s, Goldman promoted feminism in an era which required a fiery and forceful production. Goldman’s aggressive feminism made way for accepted and openly discussed feminism. Goldman tackled issues such as basic women’s rights to their own body, opinions and sexual freedom.

Although these are still controversial issues that Watson touches upon in her speech, she is able to call for the next step towards gender equality from the midtown headquarters of the UN rather than a working class neighborhood in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Watson explains that gender is a spectrum, rather than an “us” and “them” situation. This has been an issue that society has been dancing around until Watson formally presented it to the UN, sparking attention from the media and the mainstream. Watson mirrors Goldman in the way that both women’s actions reflect what their perspective era required to progress the feminist agenda. Emma Goldman and Emma Watson’s differences in confronting injustice resulted from their contemporary moment.

Critical Analysis
Stepping back from public speaking styles, personality and era, it is also important to examine authenticity. To maximize publicity and importance, Watson strategically presented herself to  the UN as a representative for the HeForShe campaign. Because she is a well known and well liked celebrity, her promotion for the HeForShe campaign gained more attention than if someone else had made the speech. In this way, she is a pawn.  Watson is playing into oppression by coinciding with the mainstream and playing into what is “acceptable behavior”. She was granted benefits such as a moment with a highly influential audience in exchange for her good behavior. Her authenticity then could come from whether or not she knows that she is a pawn. Knowing that she is a pawn and overlooking it for the sake of the movement is a different reality than being ignorant of the role she plays.

Emma Goldman would have never accepted being a pawn. She was one of the leaders of a cultural revolution and truly believed in gender equality. Her message was radical and had little to no boundaries. In addition to Watsons message remaining “PG” throughout, a plea for gender equality is not unheard of  and by no means radical. What about the rights of the world’s transgender population? When she pleaded with the world to “perceive gender on a spectrum”, she could have easily given a quick acknowledgment to the transgender population. Goldman surely would have if she were alive today. But then again, Goldman would not be concerned with being on good terms with the media or the UN.


Goldman, Emma. “The Failure of Christianity,” Mother Earth, Apr. 1913

“She Fought the Law…” The American Experience. PBS, 3 Nov. 2004. Web. 06 Nov. 2014.          <

Shetterly, Robert. “Emma Goldman.” Americans Who Tell The Truth. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Nov.   2014. <>.

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