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Libertarian women’s history month: Voltairine de Cleyre

13 Mar
Voltairine de Cleyre (November 17, 1866 – June 20, 1912) was an American anarchist writer and feminist. She was a prolific writer and speaker, opposing the state, marriage, and the domination of religion over sexuality and women’s lives. She began her activist career in the freethought movement. De Cleyre was initially drawn to individualist anarchism but evolved through mutualism to an “anarchism without adjectives.” She believed that any system was acceptable as long as it did not involve force. She was a colleague of Emma Goldman, with whom she maintained a relationship of respectful disagreement on many issues. Many of her essays were in the Selected Works of Voltairine de Cleyre, published posthumously by Mother Earth in 1914.  Her life and work has received more attention specifically from libertarians than her predecessors Germaine de Stael or Mary Wollstonecroft, both because of recent scholarship on her by historian Paul Avrich and because of promotion of her legacy by the Association of Libertarian Feminists.

Born in the small town of Leslie, Michigan,[1] she later moved with her family to St. Johns, Michigan,[2] where she lived with her unhappily married parents in extreme poverty. Her father named her after the famed French Enlightenment author Voltaire.[1] At age 12, she was placed into a Catholic convent in SarniaOntario, by her father,[1] because he thought it would give her a better education. This experience had the effect of moving her towards atheism rather than Christianity. Of her time spent there she said, “it had been like the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and there are white scars on my soul, where ignorance and superstition burnt me with their hell fire in those stifling days”.[3] She attempted to run away by swimming to Port Huron, Michigan, and hiking 17 miles (27 km); but she met friends of her family who contacted her father and sent her back.[1]

Family ties to the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, the harsh and unrelenting poverty that she grew up in, and being named after the philosopher Voltaire all contributed to the radical rhetoric that she developed shortly after adolescence. After schooling in the convent, de Cleyre moved to Grand RapidsMichigan and began her intellectual involvement in the strongly anti-clerical freethought movement by lecturing and contributing articles to freethought periodicals, eventually becoming the editor of a freethought newspaper titled The Progressive Age.[4]


She was known as an excellent speaker and writer – in the opinion of biographer
 Paul Avrich, she was “a greater literary talent than any other American anarchist”[5] – and as a tireless advocate for the anarchist cause, whose “religious zeal,” according to Goldman, “stamped everything she did.”[6]During her time in the freethought movement in the mid and late 1880s, de Cleyre was especially influenced by Thomas PaineMary Wollstonecraft and Clarence Darrow. Other influences were Henry David ThoreauBig Bill Haywood and Eugene Debs. After the hanging of the Haymarket protesters in 1887, however, she became an anarchist. “Till then I believed in the essential justice of the American law of trial by jury,” she wrote in an autobiographical essay, “After that I never could”.[3]

She was close to and inspired by Dyer D. Lum, (“her teacher, her confidant, her comrade” in the words of Goldman[7]), although she gave birth to a son, Harry, on June 12, 1890, fathered by freethinker James B. Elliot. Harry lived with Elliot by agreement between them, while De Cleyre had no further part in his upbringing, and Lum killed himself in 1893.

De Cleyre based her operations from 1889 to 1910 in Philadelphia, where she lived among poor Jewish immigrants, and where sympathy for anarchist beliefs was common. There, she taught English and music, and she learned to speak and write in Yiddish.[8]
Throughout her life she was plagued by illness and depression, attempting suicide on at least two occasions and surviving an assassination attempt on December 19, 1902. Her assailant, Herman Helcher, was a former pupil who had earlier been rendered insane by a fever, and whom she immediately forgave. She wrote, “It would be an outrage against civilization if he were sent to jail for an act which was the product of a diseased brain”.[9] The attack left her with chronic ear pain and a throat infection that often adversely affected her ability to speak or concentrate.

During the spring of 1911 she was encouraged by the revolution in Mexico, and especially by the activities of anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón. Her last poem was dedicated to the Mexican activists.

Voltairine de Cleyre died on June 20, 1912, at St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital in ChicagoIllinois, from septic meningitis. She is interred near Emma Goldman, the Haymarket defendants, and other social activists at the Waldheim Cemetery (now Forest Home Cemetery), in Forest Park, a suburb west of Chicago.[10]
Despite their early dislike for one another, Goldman and de Cleyre came to respect each other intellectually. In her 1894 essay “In Defense of Emma Goldman and the Right of Expropriation”, de Cleyre wrote in support of the right of expropriation while remaining neutral on its advocacy: “I do not think one little bit of sensitive human flesh is worth all the property rights in N. Y. city … I say it is your business to decide whether you will starve and freeze in sight of food and clothing, outside of jail, or commit some overt act against the institution of property and take your place beside Timmermann and Goldmann.”[12]
Eventually, however, de Cleyre was moved to embrace mutualism over individualism. In 1908 she argued “that the best thing ordinary workingmen or women could do was to organise their industry to get rid of money altogether” and “produce together, co-operatively rather than as employer and employed.”[13] In 1912 she argued that the Paris Commune’s failure was due to its having “respected [private] property.” In her essay, “The Commune Is Risen”, she states that “In short, though there were other reasons why the Commune fell, the chief one was that in the hour of necessity, the Communards were not Communists. They attempted to break political chains without breaking economic ones…”.[14]
Socialism and Communism both demand a degree of joint effort and administration which would beget more regulation than is wholly consistent with ideal Anarchism; Individualism and Mutualism, resting upon property, involve a development of the private policeman not at all compatible with my notion of freedom.”[15] Instead, she became one of the most prominent advocates of anarchism without adjectives. In The Making of an Anarchist, she wrote, “I no longer label myself otherwise than as ‘Anarchist’ simply”.[16]
Some disagreement exists as to whether or not de Cleyre’s rejection of individualism constituted an embrace of pure communismRudolf Rocker and Emma Goldman made such an assertion, but others, including biographer Paul Avrich, have taken exception.[17]Cleyre, herself, in response to claims that she had been an anarchist communist, asserted in 1907 that “I am not now, and have never been at any time, a communist.”[18] Anarchist author Iain McKay argues that de Cleyre’s subsequent 1908 advocacy of a money-less economy was communism.[19]
“Direct Action”, her 1912 essay in defense of direct action, is widely cited today. In this essay, de Cleyre points to examples such as the Boston Tea Party, noting that “direct action has always been used, and has the historical sanction of the very people now reprobating it.”[20]
In her 1895 lecture entitled Sex Slavery, de Cleyre condemns ideals of beauty that encourage women to distort their bodies and child socialization practices that create unnatural gender roles. The title of the essay refers not to traffic in women for purposes of prostitution, although that is also mentioned, but rather to marriage laws that allow men to rape their wives without consequences. Such laws make “every married woman what she is, a bonded slave, who takes her master’s name, her master’s bread, her master’s commands, and serves her master’s passions.”[21]
She also adamantly opposed the standing army, arguing that its existence made wars more likely. In her 1909 essay, Anarchism and American Traditions, she argued that in order to achieve peace, “all peaceful persons should withdraw their support from the army, and require that all who wish to make war do so at their own cost and risk; that neither pay nor pensions are to be provided for those who choose to make man-killing a trade.”[22]

Voltairine de Cleyre was a prominent American anarchist, and as one of the few women of stature in the anarchist movement she was acclaimed by Emma Goldman as “the most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced”.[17][23] Today she is not widely known, something biographer Sharon Presley attributes to the shortness of her life.[17] Her life was chronicled in the book An American Anarchist, written by Paul Avrich and published by the Princeton University Press in 1978. A collection of her speeches, The First Mayday: The Haymarket Speeches, 1895–1910, was published by the Libertarian Book Club in 1980 and in 2004, AK Press released The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader.[24] In 2005, two more collections of her speeches and article were published – Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine De Cleyre – Anarchist, Feminist, Genius, edited by Presley and Crispin Sartwell and published by SUNY Press,[25] and the other, Gates of Freedom: Voltairine De Cleyre and the Revolution of the Mind, from University of Michigan Press.[26
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