Voltairine de Cleyre

Voltairine de Cleyre
Voltairine de Cleyre in Philadelphia, 1901 (age 35)
Born (1866-11-17)November 17, 1866
Leslie, Michigan
Died June 20, 1912(1912-06-20) (aged 45)
St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital in Chicago, Illinois
Occupation writer, lecturer, tutor

Voltairine de Cleyre (November 17, 1866  June 20, 1912) was an American anarchist, known for being a prolific writer and speaker, and opposing capitalism, the state, marriage, and the domination of religion over sexuality and women's lives. These latter beliefs have led many to cite her as a major early feminist.[1] 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," prioritizing a stateless society without the use of force above all else. She was a contemporary 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.


Born in the small town of Leslie, Michigan,[2] she later moved with her family to St. Johns, Michigan,[3] where she lived with her unhappily married parents in extreme poverty. Her father, Hector August de Cleyre, named her after the famed French Enlightenment author Voltaire.[2] At age 12, she was placed into a Catholic convent in Sarnia, Ontario, by her father,[2] 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".[4] 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.[2]

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 Rapids, Michigan 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.[5]

During her time in the freethought movement in the mid and late 1880s, de Cleyre was especially influenced by Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft and Clarence Darrow. Other influences were Henry David Thoreau, Big 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".[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"[6]  and as a tireless advocate for the anarchist cause, whose "religious zeal," according to Goldman, "stamped everything she did."[7]

She gave birth to a son, Harry, on June 12, 1890, fathered by freethinker James B. Elliot. As agreed to by de Cleyre and Elliot, Harry lived with Elliot and de Cleyre had no part in his upbringing. She was also close to and inspired by Dyer D. Lum, ("her teacher, her confidant, her comrade" in the words of Goldman[8]). Her relationship with him ended shortly before his suicide 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.[9]

Throughout her life de Cleyre was plagued by illness, including what Goldman described as "some disease of the nervous system which she had developed in early childhood,"[2] along with depression, attempting suicide on at least two occasions. She also survived 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".[10] 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 Chicago, Illinois, 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.[11]

Political beliefs

Voltairine de Cleyre's political perspective shifted throughout her life, eventually leading her to become an outspoken proponent of "anarchism without adjectives," a doctrine, according to historian George Richard Esenwein, "without any qualifying labels such as communist, collectivist, mutualist, or individualist. For others, … [it] was simply understood as an attitude that tolerated the coexistence of different anarchist schools."[12]

For several years de Cleyre associated primarily with American individualist anarchism. Differentiating herself from Emma Goldman and expanding on her support for individualist anarchism, de Cleyre wrote, "Miss Goldman is a communist; I am an individualist. She wishes to destroy the right of property, I wish to assert it. I make my war upon privilege and authority, whereby the right of property, the true right in that which is proper to the individual, is annihilated. She believes that co-operation would entirely supplant competition; I hold that competition in one form or another will always exist, and that it is highly desirable it should."[13]

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."[13]

Eventually, however, de Cleyre was moved to embrace social anarchism 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."[14] 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…".[15] She became an advocate of anarchism without adjectives, writing, "I no longer label myself otherwise than as 'Anarchist' simply", in The Making of an Anarchist.[16]

Some disagreement exists as to whether or not de Cleyre's rejection of individualism constituted an embrace of pure communism. Rudolf 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 scholar Iain McKay argues that de Cleyre's subsequent 1908 advocacy of a moneyless economy was technically a form of (libertarian) communism, even if she rejected the word communist to describe it.[19]

In her 1901 essay titled Anarchism, de Cleyre wrote "My ideal would be a condition in which all natural resources would be forever free to all, and the worker individually able to produce for himself sufficient for all his vital needs, if he so chose, so that he needs not govern his working or not working by the times and seasons of his fellows. I think that time may come; but it will only be through the development of the modes of production and the taste of the people. Meanwhile we all cry with one voice for the freedom to try".[20]

"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."[21]

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."[22]

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."[23]


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][24] 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.[25] In 2005, two more collections of her speeches and articles were published – Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine De Cleyre – Anarchist, Feminist, Genius, edited by Presley and Crispin Sartwell and published by SUNY Press,[26] and the other, Gates of Freedom: Voltairine De Cleyre and the Revolution of the Mind, from University of Michigan Press.[27] Her papers are held at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City.[28]

See also


  1. Presley, Sharon (February 18, 2000). "Libertarian Feminist Heritage Series: Voltairine de Cleyre". Anarchy Archives. Retrieved December 17, 2016.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Goldman, Emma. "Voltairine De Cleyre". The Emma Goldman Papers. Retrieved Aug 28, 2013.
  3. "Lost Lansing: Leslie's Voltairine de Cleyre shattered the bounds of convention". Lansing Online News. Retrieved Aug 28, 2013.
  4. 1 2 De Cleyre 2004, p. 106
  5. Mob Work: Anarchists in Grand Rapids, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Sprout Distro, 2014), pgs. 26-28
  6. De Cleyre 2005, p. 20
  7. De Cleyre 2005, p. 331
  8. De Cleyre 2004, p. iv
  9. "People & Events: Voltairine de Cleyre (1866–1912)". PBS. Retrieved Aug 28, 2013.
  10. De Cleyre 2004, p. ix
  11. De Cleyre 2004, p. x
  12. Esenwein 1989, p. 135
  13. 1 2 De Cleyre 2005, p. 156
  14. De Cleyre 2005, p. 62
  15. DeLamotte 2005, p. 206
  16. De Cleyre 2004, p. 108
  17. 1 2 3 Presley 1979
  18. De Cleyre 2005, p. 22
  19. McKay, Iain (Summer 2006), "Voltairine De Cleyre: Her revolutionary ideas and legacy", Anarcho-Syndicalist Review (44), retrieved 2008-12-14
  20. de Cleyre, Voltairine. "Anarchism". Panarchy.org. Free Society. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  21. De Cleyre 2004, p. 50
  22. De Cleyre 2005, p. 228
  23. De Cleyre 2005, p. 101
  24. Falk 2003, p. 195
  25. De Cleyre 2004
  26. De Cleyre 2005
  27. DeLamotte 2005
  28. Voltairine de Cleyre and Joseph Jacob Cohen Papers. RG 1485. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York, NY


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