[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Histsex]: Rabinovitch-Fox on Kowal, 'Tongue of Fire: Emma Goldman, Public Womanhood, and the Sex Question'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Fri Oct 21 22:33:46 MDT 2016

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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Mon, Oct 17, 2016 at 12:49 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Histsex]: Rabinovitch-Fox on Kowal, 'Tongue of
Fire: Emma Goldman, Public Womanhood, and the Sex Question'
To: H-REVIEW at h-net.msu.edu

Donna M. Kowal.  Tongue of Fire: Emma Goldman, Public Womanhood, and
the Sex Question.  Albany  State University of New York Press, 2016.
222 pp.  $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-5973-8.

Reviewed by Einav Rabinovitch-Fox (Case Western Reserve University )
Published on H-Histsex (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Philippa L. Hetherington

As an anarchist and a feminist who was at one point known as the
"most dangerous woman in America," Emma Goldman has captivated the
attention of many. Both to her contemporaries and to present-day
researchers and activists, Goldman's ideology and public image have
been a source of interest, debate, attraction, fear, and repulsion.
Adding to the extensive scholarship on Goldman, Donna M. Kowal's
book, _Tongue of Fire: Emma Goldman, Public Womanhood, and the Sex
Question_, focuses on the words and rhetoric of Goldman, and
especially on her approach to sexuality and women's bodies. Analyzing
Goldman's ideas on women's liberation and sexual freedom as they were
reflected in her writings, speeches, and media coverage of her,
_Tongue of Fire_ positions Goldman as a "philosopher of gender/sex
who recognized women's bodies as a focal point of sociopolitical
struggle"  and as a unique voice that is still relevant today (p.

By exploring "the ways in which [Goldman's] public advocacy
contributed to a shift of power over women's bodies" and to the
reclaiming of women's sexual agency as a source of power (p. xiv),
Kowal illuminates the central role that questions of sex and women's
bodies played in public discourse in the early twentieth century.
Kowal does not offer a biography of Goldman, so much as an analysis
that situates sex and gender at the center of her activist thought
and rhetoric. The first chapter situates Goldman as a unique voice in
a broader anarchist milieu, showing how her ideas both corresponded
to and differed from those of other female anarchists. In chapters 2
and 3, Kowal moves to analyze Goldman's arguments regarding sexual
freedom and expression in more detail, as well as her critique of
capitalism as an oppressive sexual system. Goldman advocated sexual
freedom and choice in the realms of marriage and motherhood and
viewed sexuality as a positive and empowering force, for both men and
women. She rejected the moralistic view that saw women as helpless
victims and instead called for women to develop sexual awareness and
knowledge. Goldman viewed the devaluation of women's work as
connected to their sexual expression and compared marriage to
prostitution, seeing both as economic institutions that sought to
oppress women. Kowal is right to observe that by defining sex as a
significant social force and not as a biologically determined
identity, Goldman created an opening for recognizing homosexual and
heterosexual relationships equally. And indeed, Kowal's discussion of
Goldman's view of same-sex relationships in chapter 2 provides some
of the most interesting interpretations of her ideology.

In chapter 4, which is the book's strongest, Kowal shows her skills
as a communication and media scholar when analyzing Goldman's
rhetoric style. Demonstrating how Goldman's challenge to gender and
class conventions were expressed not only in the message she conveyed
but also in how she delivered this message, Kowal shifts the
attention to the importance of appearances and style in modern
politics. Pointing to how Goldman "constructed a persona that was
gendered in a way that intersected with her class, ethnicity, and
suspect citizenship" (p. 77), Kowal's analysis offers an important
contribution to our understanding of the varied ways women negotiated
and defied social norms, and of the origins of modern publicity
tactics and intersectional performance. By using a style that was
based on authoritative tone, use of analogies, metaphors, expert
testimony, deductive reasoning, and negotiation of gender norms,
Goldman embodied her call for freedom and independence, agitating her
listeners to embrace her anarchist message. While Kowal presents a
convincing argument regarding Goldman's performance style, her
argument regarding the influence of her Jewish-Russian background on
her ideology is less persuasive. While Goldman certainly was aware of
her Jewish heritage, given that her political development and
radicalization happened while she was already in the United States,
it is likely that she was influenced more by her American anarchist
milieu, rather than by the legacy of Jewish-Russian radical

If in chapter 4 Kowal focuses on how Goldman constructed her own
public persona, in chapter 5 she deals with the way her image was
shaped by others, mainly the printed press. Depicted as a dangerous,
unruly orator, and a woman who possessed an uncanny ability to induce
people to act, the mainstream press helped to publicize Goldman and
contributed to her persona as an anarchist. Kowal also pays attention
to how reporters described Goldman's body and feminine appearance,
which oscillated between ugly and beautiful, feminine and dangerous.
However, Kowal does not pay attention to the visual aspect of her
image, and although this chapter is accompanied by illustrations of
Goldman in the press, Kowal does not refer to them in her analysis.
While this is a well-researched chapter full of archival evidence,
more analysis of the connections between images and words could have
enriched the readers' understanding of the role of the media in
shaping popular attitudes regarding women's political presence in the
public sphere.

Throughout the book, Kowal foregrounds her analysis in the current
literature on publics and counter publics theory, intersectionality,
and gender/sex performativity. Using Goldman as a case study, Kowal
shows how discourses regarding women's sexual agency and pleasure are
not products of late twentieth-century feminist movements, but in
fact have a long trajectory in the anarchist-feminist thought of
early twentieth-century radicalism. For Goldman, women's liberation
meant human liberation, and she saw sexual freedom and choice as the
touchstones of individual liberty and autonomy. By rejecting the
division between public and private, Goldman contributed to the
politicization of women's sexuality, claiming that "the personal is
the political" long before it became a feminist slogan. Indeed,
Goldman, as the most well-known, original, and prolific thinker of
feminist anarchism, reminds us of the importance of looking at the
past in today's struggles. In offering an alternative model of public
womanhood at a time when notions of sex and gender were in the midst
of change, Kowal manages to reclaim Goldman as an important voice in
the continuous feminist debates over the "sex question."

However, while this approach helps Kowal in positioning Goldman's
relevancy to present-day feminism, challenging the accuracy of the
"waves" metaphor as an organizing category, it also leads to some
anachronistic observations and obscures the differences that are the
result of the specific historical context in which Goldman operated.
Indeed, for the historian, the book can at times be very frustrating.
Kowal does not provide enough nuanced understanding of the ways in
which gender norms have changed from the nineteenth to the twentieth
centuries. Nor does she provide adequate historical background
regarding the radical, yet non-anarchist, circles with which Goldman
engaged and acted. Despite the unique voice Goldman represented, she
was one out of a significant group of women, such as Margaret Sanger,
Crystal Eastman, Rose Schneiderman, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who
also challenged gender norms and the capitalistic system. Placing
Goldman in this broader landscape of feminism and radicalism could
have enriched Kowal's analysis and could have highlighted Goldman's
unique position as an anarchist feminist.

Yet, if as a history book _Tongue of Fire_ leaves the reader somewhat
dissatisfied, it has value in bringing attention to the centrality of
questions of sexuality to modern political discourse. By pointing to
the long historical trajectory of women's bodies as political tools,
Kowal offers an important addition to our understanding of Emma
Goldman as a feminist icon and her role in bringing sex into the
public sphere.

Citation: Einav Rabinovitch-Fox. Review of Kowal, Donna M., _Tongue
of Fire: Emma Goldman, Public Womanhood, and the Sex Question_.
H-Histsex, H-Net Reviews. October, 2016.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46998

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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