Voltairine de Cleyre: Biography, Poetry, Stories, Essays & Politics

Description: Voltairine de Cleyre was an American freethinker, feminist, and anarchist. She was born in Leslie, Michigan in 1866 and was a student of philosophy, poetry, and literature. She was an active member of the freethinking movement and wrote extensively on anarchist and feminist topics.

Table of Contents

Voltairine de Cleyre was a trailblazing American anarchist, renowned for her prolific writing and charismatic speeches that challenged the status quo of her time. As an ardent opponent of capitalism, marriage, and the state, de Cleyre was a staunch advocate for individual liberty and believed in the interconnectedness of the domination of religion over sexuality and women's lives. Raised in small towns in Michigan and educated in a Catholic convent in Sarnia, Ontario, de Cleyre began her activist career in the freethought movement. Although initially drawn to individualist anarchism, she evolved to what she called anarchism without adjectives, prioritizing a stateless society without aggression or coercion above all else. A contemporary of Emma Goldman, de Cleyre maintained a respectful relationship of disagreement with her on many issues. Her powerful essays were later collected in the Selected Works of Voltairine de Cleyre, published posthumously by Goldman's magazine Mother Earth in 1914, cementing her place as a major early feminist and a prominent figure in the anarchist movement.

Biography

Biographic Timeline

Here is a detailed timeline of the major life events of Voltairine De Cleyre:
  • 1866: November 17 - Voltairine De Cleyre is born in Leslie, Michigan, USA.
  • 1877: De Cleyre's family moves to St. Johns, Michigan.
  • 1880: De Cleyre's father dies, and her mother remarries. De Cleyre is sent to a convent school.
  • 1883: De Cleyre returns to St. Johns, but is expelled from school for questioning the Catholic doctrine.
  • 1884: De Cleyre begins to teach at a country school.
  • 1886: De Cleyre moves to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to attend a teacher training program. While there, she becomes involved in anarchist and feminist circles.
  • 1888: De Cleyre moves to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to teach at a school for working-class children.
  • 1890: De Cleyre begins writing for The Alarm, a newspaper published by the anarchist group, the International Working People's Association.
  • 1892: De Cleyre attends the trial of Alexander Berkman, who had attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, a steel magnate. She later writes an influential essay on the trial called "The Eleventh of November."
  • 1893: De Cleyre gives her first public speech, "Sex Slavery," at the Unitarian Church in Philadelphia.
  • 1895: De Cleyre publishes her first book, "The Philosophy of Selfishness and Metaphysical Ethics."
  • 1896: De Cleyre begins a correspondence with Emma Goldman, which develops into a lifelong friendship.
  • 1899: De Cleyre moves to New York City to join Goldman in her work with the anarchist movement.
  • 1901: De Cleyre delivers a series of lectures in Chicago on the Haymarket Affair, a labor protest that turned violent in 1886.
  • 1902: De Cleyre is imprisoned for six months for giving a speech in support of Leon Czolgosz, who had assassinated President William McKinley.
  • 1904: De Cleyre moves to Chicago and becomes involved with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
  • 1907: De Cleyre falls ill with meningitis and is unable to work for several months.
  • 1911: De Cleyre travels to San Francisco to participate in the Free Speech Fight, a campaign to protect the right to free speech for labor activists.
  • 1912: De Cleyre travels to England to speak at the International Anarchist Congress.
  • 1913: De Cleyre returns to New York City and continues to write and speak on anarchist and feminist topics.
  • 1914: De Cleyre dies of meningitis on June 20 in Chicago, Illinois, at the age of 47.

    Early Life

    Voltairine de Cleyre was born in the small town of Leslie, Michigan, and later moved with her family to St. Johns, Michigan. Her parents, who were unhappily married, lived in extreme poverty. On her mother's side, she came from a Puritan background, while her father, Auguste de Cleyre, was of French origin and named her after the famed French Enlightenment author Voltaire.

    At the age of 12, her father placed her in a Catholic convent school in Sarnia, Ontario, believing it would give her a better education than the public schools. However, this experience led her to reject Christianity and embrace atheism. She described her time at the convent as "like the Valley of the Shadow of Death," where ignorance and superstition burnt her with their "hell fire." In an attempt to escape, she swam across the St. Clair River to Port Huron, Michigan, and hiked 17 miles (27 km) before being sent back to the convent by her family's friends.

    De Cleyre's family had ties to the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, which, combined with her harsh childhood poverty and being named after the philosopher Voltaire, contributed to her developing radical rhetoric shortly after adolescence. After leaving the convent, she moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she became involved in the strongly anti-clerical freethought movement by giving lectures and contributing articles to freethought periodicals. Eventually, she became the editor of the freethought newspaper The Progressive Age.

    Education

    Voltairine de Cleyre's education was somewhat unconventional. After being placed in a Catholic convent school in Sarnia, Ontario, at the age of 12 by her father, she found the experience stifling and rejected Christianity in favor of atheism. She later moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she became involved in the freethought movement and became the editor of the freethought newspaper The Progressive Age.

    Despite lacking a formal education beyond the convent, de Cleyre was a voracious reader and self-taught intellectual. She was widely read in philosophy, literature, and political theory, and was particularly influenced by the works of French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and American anarchist Benjamin Tucker. She also studied Greek and Latin, which helped her to develop a deep understanding of classical literature and philosophy.

    De Cleyre's intellectual pursuits and passion for learning played a significant role in shaping her anarchist philosophy, which she developed and refined through her own reading and critical thinking. Although her formal education was limited, her self-education and intellectual curiosity allowed her to become a highly respected and influential figure in the anarchist movement.

    Activism

  • She was just 19 when she began writing and lecturing on Free Thought.
  • She traveled between Ohio and Boston and settled in Philadelphia, where she founded a social group called the Ladies’ Liberal League.
  • The group’s purpose was to host discussions on sex, prohibition, socialism, anarchism, and revolution.
  • She gave private lessons in English, penmanship, and music at her home for income.
  • The Chicago Haymarket affair became her conversion moment.
  • She channeled her outrage at the “infamy” of the trial and executions into a vigorous endorsement of anarchism.
  • She spoke annually at Haymarket memorials and returned to the subject again and again in her writings.

    Views and Relationships

  • Her views, which she propagated prolifically in poems and essays, were grounded in personal experience.
  • She was concerned about women’s issues from a woman’s perspective and was also involved in working class struggles and Jewish immigrant support work.
  • She had many romantic entanglements but none were fully satisfying.
  • The labor activist Dyer D. Lum was the first man to treat her as an intellectual equal, but he left her heartbroken when he took his own life.
  • She bore her only child, Harry, with James B. Elliot, a carpenter who was a believer in the writings of the freethinker Thomas Paine.
  • She pushed both Dyer D. Lum and James B. Elliot away, reluctant to be a mother or wife.
  • She had depression and disappointment, along with chronic physical pain and recurring illness.

    Death

  • Her health declined in 1910, and she found herself disillusioned with her life’s work.
  • She moved to Chicago and was briefly reinvigorated by news of the Mexican revolution.
  • She took Spanish lessons and prepared for a trip to Los Angeles, to be closer to the conflict, but fell ill for the final time.
  • She died on April 17, 1912.

    Works

    Voltairine de Cleyre was a prolific writer known for her poetry, stories, sketches, and essays. Her writings cover a wide range of topics, including anarchism, feminism, labor issues, and atheism. She was a skilled wordsmith and her works are known for their passion and eloquence. Her Selected Works, published posthumously, is a testament to her enduring legacy as one of the most important voices in American anarchism.

    Poetry

    Voltairine de Cleyre was not only a renowned anarchist and feminist writer, but also a gifted poet. Her poetry often explored themes of love, nature, and the human condition. Her work was deeply personal and often reflected her own experiences and emotions.

    De Cleyre's poetry is characterized by its vivid imagery, emotional intensity, and musicality. Her poems often incorporate elements of rhyme and meter, demonstrating her mastery of poetic form.

    Some of her most notable poems include "The Worm Turns," "Anarchism," and "The Dominant Note." In these works, de Cleyre uses poetry as a means of expressing her political and philosophical beliefs. Her poetry remains an important part of her literary legacy, and a testament to her talent as both a writer and a poet.

    Poetic Style

    Voltairine de Cleyre's poetry is characterized by its strong emotion and its exploration of themes of death, justice, and spirituality. In "Night on the Graves," her language is almost elegiac, as she mourns the loss of heroes while simultaneously exalting their memory. Her use of metaphor and personification creates a dreamlike atmosphere, with the moonlit branches whispering to the sleeping dead. "Optimism," on the other hand, is a more hopeful poem, with a focus on the afterlife and the idea that love and good deeds will be rewarded. Here, de Cleyre's language is more ethereal and celestial, with references to stars and heaven. Finally, in "Bitter thy woes, O People," she uses a more direct, almost prophetic voice, urging the people to endure their hardships with the knowledge that their time will come. Throughout her poetry, de Cleyre's style is marked by a powerful intensity and a deep commitment to her beliefs.

    Stories & Sketches

    Voltairine de Cleyre's stories and sketches are marked by a powerful sense of social justice and an unflinching gaze at the darker side of life. Her writing often exposes the hypocrisy and cruelty of those in power, while celebrating the resilience and courage of ordinary people. Many of her stories deal with poverty, oppression, and the struggles of working-class people.

    In "The Chain Gang," for example, de Cleyre vividly portrays the brutality of the prison system and the dehumanization of its inmates. "The Heart of Angiolillo" is a moving portrait of a political prisoner facing the gallows with dignity and courage. "The Old Shoemaker" is a poignant reflection on aging and mortality, while "The Triumph of Youth" celebrates the power of youthful idealism and rebellion.

    Throughout her stories and sketches, de Cleyre's prose is marked by a spare, direct style and a keen eye for detail. She often uses vivid imagery and symbolism to convey her themes, and her characters are sharply drawn and deeply human. Overall, her writing is a powerful testament to the resilience and dignity of the human spirit, even in the face of overwhelming oppression and injustice.

    Essays

    Voltairine de Cleyre's essays cover a wide range of topics, but they all share a common thread of anarchist and feminist thought. In "Anarchism," she defines the philosophy as the belief in the abolition of all forms of government and the establishment of a society based on voluntary cooperation and mutual aid. "Anarchism and American Traditions" explores the history of anarchism in America and its roots in the revolutionary traditions of the country.

    In "Anarchism in Literature," de Cleyre discusses the role of literature in promoting anarchist ideals, citing examples such as the works of Shelley and Whitman. "The Making of an Anarchist" is a personal account of her own journey towards anarchism, and how she came to reject traditional forms of authority and embrace anarchist ideals.

    De Cleyre's essays also touch on specific events and movements, such as "The Eleventh of November, 1887," which describes the execution of the Haymarket martyrs and the impact it had on the anarchist movement. "Direct Action" argues for the use of direct action as a means of achieving social and political change, rather than relying on traditional political methods.

    Other essays, such as "In Defense of Emma Goldman," advocate for the rights of anarchists and other political dissidents who were often targeted by the government and the media. "The Paris Commune" and "The Mexican Revolution" examine historical examples of anarchist movements and their successes and failures.

    Finally, de Cleyre also wrote essays on individual figures who were important to the anarchist movement, such as Thomas Paine and Dyer D. Lum, providing a historical context for the ideas and ideals that she espoused. Overall, her essays demonstrate a deep commitment to anarchist thought and a passionate belief in the possibility of a more just and equitable society.

    Politics: From Theory to Praxis

    Voltairine de Cleyre was a highly influential figure in the anarchist movement in the late 19th and early 20th century in the United States. Her political philosophy was shaped by her experiences with freethought, feminism, and the Haymarket affair. After the execution of several Haymarket protesters, de Cleyre became an anarchist, rejecting the American law of trial by jury.

    De Cleyre was renowned for her literary talents and her ability to speak and write persuasively. Her advocacy for anarchism was characterized by a religious zeal, and she was known for her tireless efforts to promote anarchist ideas. She lived among poor Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, teaching English and music and learning to speak and write in Yiddish.

    Despite being pregnant out of wedlock in the 1890s, de Cleyre remained committed to her anarchist ideals, rejecting the traditional roles and expectations placed on women. Her relationship with Dyer Lum, an important figure in the anarchist movement, ended tragically when he committed suicide in 1893.

    Throughout her life, de Cleyre was an advocate for individual liberty and social justice, challenging the status quo and promoting radical change. Her writings and speeches remain influential to this day, inspiring new generations of anarchists and activists.

    Voltairine de Cleyre's Journey to Anarchism & Feminism

    Turning point

  • Haymarket affair and trial (1886-1887) converted her to anarchism.
  • First tour of England in 1897, where she met Spanish exiles.

    Anarchist beliefs

  • Disillusioned with the integrity of the American judiciary system and came to abhor any form of punishment and detention.
  • Became a self-professed anarchist, embracing the foreign ideology, which clashed with the values of triumphant Americanism.
  • Trip to London was a transformative experience that put her in direct contact with leading figures of transnational anarchism.
  • Deepened her aversion for all punitive measures, conflated all forms of incarceration and rejected all means of control enforced by the government to
  • limit the freedom of the individual.
  • Matured into a more complex understanding of an anarchism "without adjectives," which would later lead her to support social revolution and direct action.
  • Believed until her untimely death, in 1912, that it was easier to conquer war by peace than force.

    Transnationalism and Anarchism

  • De Cleyre’s anarchism expands beyond politics and economics to include art, literature, education, sex relations and personal morality.
  • Her meticulous work on language and awareness of its manipulative use by the state and church anticipates contemporary discourse on language, power, and oppression.
  • Her work was transnational because it was translational, and her transnationalism was never at odds with the anarchist idea of the nation.
  • De Cleyre was an intermediary between immigrant anarchists in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, the international radical community overseas, and native movements of protest in the United States.

    American Roots of Transnational Anarchism

  • De Cleyre believed that the Constitution of the United States must necessarily afford the means to remedy the question of poverty.
  • She found inspiration for her own dissent in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Whitman, and celebrated them as champions of revolt.
  • The origins of American literature were steeped in multilingualism and translation like those of any other national literature.

    Challenges of a Transnational Approach

  • The transnational turn in anarchist and syndicalist studies has opened new perspectives in the history of radical movements in the Americas and Europe.
  • The use of the word “transnational” brings the concept of nation back into the discussion of a social movement whose core feature was a critique of the state.
  • There are epistemological, methodological, and terminological frailties in a transnational approach, including overcoming national borders and linguistic constraints when studying cosmopolitan networks that anarchist activists established within immigrant communities at home and across the Atlantic.

    Feminism

    Voltairine de Cleyre was an important writer within the anarchist tradition, and she strongly believed in political militancy. As a young woman, she saw the importance of ending the oppression of women, recognizing that this was necessary to bring about an end to general human oppression and exploitation. In her writings on feminism, Voltairine advocated for individual freedom, and she believed that the anarchist movement offered women a haven in a society where women were oppressed by strict gender roles.
    Context of the Time
    A century ago, women had few legal rights and lacked the right to vote. The few job opportunities that existed were poorly paid, often with unpleasant working conditions, which mostly affected working-class women. Puritanical sexual mores were prevalent, and the idea of women having sexual desires outside of marriage was not even considered. Access to birth control and abortion was very limited.
    Anarchist Feminist Movement
    The anarchist feminist movement of the late 19th century was a space where women could challenge traditional gender roles without fear of criticism. This movement was unique because it brought the anarchist questioning of authority into the personal realm. Women who embraced anarchism wanted to create independent, productive, and meaningful lives for themselves.
    Role of Voltairine de Cleyre
    Voltairine de Cleyre was one of the most important advocates of liberation for women in the turn-of-the-century American anarchist movement. She spoke and wrote about the Woman Question in anarchist journals such as Lucifer and Liberty, and her feminist writings were some of her most important theoretical contributions. Her ambivalent relationship with Harry's father, James Elliot, ultimately unhappy and embittering, was another experience that no doubt significantly colored her views on marriage, motherhood, and childbearing.
    Social and Psychological Legacy
    Voltairine’s willingness to confront issues such as female sexuality and the emotional and psychological dependence of women on men within the nuclear family structure makes her an important figure in feminist history. She challenged traditional marriage, arguing for women's reproductive rights, and advocated for the right to control one's own life and destiny completely. Her writings and advocacy continue to inspire contemporary feminist movements.

    Legacy

    Voltairine de Cleyre was not only an important anarchist and feminist activist, but also a prolific writer whose literary legacy has influenced generations of activists and thinkers. Her writings were published in numerous anarchist newspapers and journals during her lifetime, and her ideas continue to be studied and debated today.

    One of Voltairine’s most important contributions to anarchist literature was her emphasis on individualism and autonomy. She argued that individuals should be free to make their own choices and pursue their own interests without interference from the state or other authority figures. This idea was radical at the time, when many anarchist and socialist movements emphasized collective action and the importance of the group over the individual.

    In her essay “Anarchism and American Traditions,” Voltairine argued that the American Revolution was an anarchist revolution, in which individuals fought for their own freedom and rejected the authority of the British monarchy. She argued that this spirit of individualism and self-determination was the true legacy of American history, and that anarchists should continue to promote these values in their own struggles for freedom and justice.

    Voltairine’s writings on feminism were also an important contribution to anarchist literature. She was an early critic of patriarchal social relations and argued that the liberation of women was essential to the emancipation of all people from oppression and exploitation. In her essay “Sex Slavery,” she argued that the domination of women by men was a result of the authoritarian power of religion and the state, and that true freedom and autonomy could only be achieved by overthrowing these systems of power.

    Another important aspect of Voltairine’s literary legacy was her use of poetry and prose to express her ideas and emotions. She was a talented writer and her works are often characterized by their vivid imagery and emotional intensity. Her poem “The Dominant Idea” is a powerful statement of her commitment to anarchism and individualism, and remains a popular anarchist text to this day.

    Voltairine’s literary legacy also includes her influence on other writers and activists. Emma Goldman, one of the most well-known anarchist feminists of the early 20th century, was a close friend and collaborator of Voltairine’s, and credited her as an important influence on her own ideas and activism. Other writers and activists who were influenced by Voltairine’s ideas include the anarchist Murray Bookchin and the feminist author Shulamith Firestone.

    In conclusion, Voltairine de Cleyre’s literary legacy is an important part of her overall legacy as an anarchist and feminist activist. Her emphasis on individualism and autonomy, her writings on feminism and patriarchy, and her use of poetry and prose to express her ideas and emotions continue to inspire and influence activists and thinkers today. Her work is a testament to the power of literature to inspire social change and challenge the status quo.

    Facts

    1. She was named after the famous Enlightenment writer Voltaire, whose works greatly influenced her political and philosophical views.
    2. De Cleyre was an anarchist and a feminist, advocating for individual autonomy and opposing all forms of authority and domination.
    3. She was a prolific writer and speaker, publishing numerous essays, poems, and speeches on topics such as women's rights, labor rights, atheism, and individualism.
    4. De Cleyre was imprisoned for her activism on several occasions, including a three-month stint in the infamous Blackwell's Island prison in New York City.
    5. She had a romantic relationship with fellow anarchist and activist Dyer D. Lum, who committed suicide in 1893. De Cleyre later wrote a poignant essay about his life and death.
    6. De Cleyre was an early advocate for animal rights and vegetarianism, writing essays on the subject and frequently speaking out against the mistreatment of animals.
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    References:
    1. Filanti, R. (2021). “We must dig our trenches, and win or die”: Voltairine de Cleyre’s Transnational Anarchism. Transatlantica : Revue D’Études Américaines, 2. https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.17839
    2.https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/emma-goldman-voltairine-de-cleyre
    3. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/26/obituaries/voltairine-de-cleyre-overlooked.html

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