Emma Goldman, Gays, and ROTC

by Danny Colligan

Hello, my name is Danny Colligan. I am a graduate student in computer science. Thanks for having me here.

I couldn't help but notice that Stanford Students for Queer Liberation was formerly named the Emma Goldman Society for Queer Liberation. I thought I might touch on the beliefs of the group's former namesake, having recently finished a book of her essays.

I heard that the group adopted Goldman's moniker in reverence of her stance on gay issues. Not surprisingly for someone so outspoken and trailblazing, Goldman took other unconventional positions as well.

One issue that Goldman never took a position on, so far as I am aware, was the Reserve Officer Training Corps program. That is, the same program which some are trying to bring to various elite campuses, Stanford included, where ROTC was expelled in decades past.

Goldman did, however, face some situations that I think parallel the current struggles that gays face with respect to the US armed forces and their "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy today. I believe the positions she took in this sphere have contemporary relevance.

It may come as a surprise to some that not all feminists at the dawn of twentieth century America were suffragists. In particular, Emma Goldman, as vehement of a feminist as one could possibly find in those days, was strongly critical of the suffragist movement.

Goldman derived her position on suffrage from her anarchist philosophy. She defines anarchism as "The philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary." (50) Therefore, as an anarchist, Goldman believed that the corrupting centralized power of the state was a means of subjugation of the ordinary person. Any participation in this apparatus, she thought, was at best ineffective at achieving true personal liberation and at worst degrading to the participant and harmful to those at which state power was directed.

Goldman derided women's suffrage as a "fetich" and continued: "It may be said that because woman recognizes the awful toll she is made to pay to the Church, State, and the home, she wants suffrage to set herself free. That may be true of the few; the majority of suffragists repudiate utterly such blasphemy. On the contrary, they insist always that it is woman suffrage which will make her a better Christian and homekeeper, a staunch citizen of the State. Thus suffrage is only a means of strengthening the omnipotence of the very Gods that woman has served from time immemorial." (197)

Most of the suffragists' arguments were reactions to the conventional wisdom of the day -- for instance, that women had some kind of innate mental inferiority to men. Insofar as the suffragists were combating these misconceptions, Goldman supported their struggle. To quote her:

"Needless to say, I am not opposed to woman suffrage on the conventional ground that she is not equal to it. I see neither physical, psychological, nor mental reasons why woman should not have the equal right to vote with man. But that can not possibly blind me to the absurd notion that woman will accomplish that wherein man has failed." (198)

Goldman sensed that what she was saying was "heresy" to the suffragists: that she would be misunderstood and painted as an anti-feminist. But she refused to back down from her position on principle, as much as it may have been misunderstood or deliberately twisted by her antagonists.

"If we have outlived the time when such heresy was punishable by the stake, we have not outlived the narrow spirit of condemnation of those who dare differ with accepted notions. Therefore I shall probably be put down as an opponent of woman. But that can not deter me from looking the question squarely in the face. I repeat what I have said in the beginning: I do not believe that woman will make politics worse; nor can I believe that she could make it better. If, then, she cannot improve on man's mistakes, why perpetrate the latter?" (209)

So what would Goldman have to say about the present day dilemma of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? Let us first examine the positions of those in the gay community for which the repeal of DADT has become a cause celebre. A formulation of this position was given by Yishai Kabaker in the Stanford Review in 2007:

"Denying our nation and its armed forces the skill and education that Stanford and other great universities produce only harms progress towards a more tolerant military. It also denies our nation the best products of its education system for the advancement and improvement of national defense. I look forward to the day when, as a homosexual, I can openly serve in the military and when my fellow Stanford students can openly and easily participate in an ROTC program with pride."

This statement approximates the position of other national gay celebrities such as Dan Choi. What, then, should one who shows a commitment to anarchist principles of self-liberation in response say to such a person?

I believe that Emma Goldman would say to gays today something similar to what she said to women in the early twentieth century: I support your struggle for equality in the narrowest sense, but I think you are missing the larger point. Just as collusion in oppressive state power will not further women's rights, participation in the authoritarian military system will not advance gay liberation. So while the struggle for equality in the military is good and just, the journey towards true freedom -- which requires dismantling all forms of domination and hierarchy -- is more profound and more important.

This is a bit of a tangent, but Goldman had very strong -- and much worth reading -- opinions on the military itself. One can discern her attitude towards the likes of Kabaker's platitudes merely by glancing at the title of her essay on the subject: "Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty." I encourage everyone to consume the essay in full.

Let me end by, appropriately, quoting Goldman about what that journey towards true freedom involves: "The problem that confronts us today, and which the nearest future is to solve, is how to be one's self and yet in oneness with others, to feel deeply with all human beings and still retain one's own characteristic qualities." (214)


Source: Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays. New York: Dover Publications, 1969.


Endnote: Goldman had other, secondary reasons for opposing suffrage: women would use it to oppress other women (for example, prostitutes), codify class disparities, degrade labor, etc. But these arguments are not relevant to the point so I put them aside. Also, Goldman's imperative to eliminate the oppressive and corrupting state from all aspects of life is relevant to another contemporary LGBTQ issue: gay marriage. And it is not necessary to speculate about what she would have said about marriage and the state by analogy because she wrote about it. See her essay "Marriage and Love."


Further Reading:
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.
Dan Mathews, On Militarism. http://danielmathews.info/blog/2010/03/on-militarism/
Dan Mathews, Antiwar and Queer Liberation Politics http://danielmathews.info/blog/2010/10/antiwar-and-queer-liberation-politics/

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