Emma Goldman born June 27, 1869, 144 years ago today. The “meme” above has as its motto her most famous “quote,” a statement which she never actually made. In her autobiography, Living My Life, Goldman relates how she was scolded by a male comrade for dancing at a party: “that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway.” Red Emma wasn’t having any:
I told him to mind his own business…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 denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to behave as a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it.
In 1973 t-shirt printer took this passage rephrased and condensed it to “If I can’t dance…I don’t want to be in your revolution.” Thus the meme was born, and the slogan replicated into millions of t-shirts, posters, buttons, bumper stickers, and the image above, which I will shortly be posting on Facebook and Twitter.
If the slogan is the only thing you know about Emma Goldman, it’s not a bad thing to know. Goldman, however, was not only a very active activist who lived a very eventful life in turbulent times, but an important thinker and writer on Anarchism and Feminism, and you should read her work if you are interested in those subjects. Emma Goldman was also a pioneer in advocating GLBT rights, virtually the only person in her time to repeatedly, publicly assert the right of people of all genders and sexual persuasions to love and live as they please.
For a fuller account of how “If I Can’t Dance…” became the meme, go read Alix Shulman’s Dances with Feminists. To go beyond the meme, visit The Emma Goldman Papers. If you’d rather a viddy, here’s the PBS American Experience episode profiling her:
Don’t forget to shake it down low at least once for Red Emma today.