No more forgotten: Voltairine de Cleyre, America’s “greatest female anarchist”


Since 1851, New York Times obituaries have been dominated by white men. With Neglectedwe add the stories of notable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times.

At 24, Voltairine de Cleyre appears before the Unity Congregation in Philadelphia to give a provocatively titled lecture “Sex slavery.”

She appealed to the assembled crowd: “Let the woman ask herself: ‘Why am I a man’s slave? Why do they say that my brain is not the equal of his brain? Why isn’t my job paid the same as his? ”

The year was 1890.

It was a time of rampant income inequality, stifling social roles for women, and church-enforced morality, and many members of America’s growing middle class were ready for change.

De Cleyre rebelled against the accepted order and delivered virulent critiques of capitalism and state power, the abuses of which she saw manifest in many facets of life, from work to prisons to the marriage (proposals which she rejected twice).

She embraced anarchism as a political philosophy and became one of the movement’s most prominent and determined supporters, establishing a reputation as a captivating speaker and winning the admiration of her fellow freethinkers.

Her contemporary, Emma Goldman, called her “the rebellious poetess, the freedom-loving artist, America’s greatest female anarchist“.

More importantly, for historians of the time, “she underscored sexual oppression, state power and capitalism as interconnected,” Sandra Jeppesen, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies, said via email. at Lakehead University in Orillia, Ontario.

Not only was she concerned with women’s issues from a woman’s perspective, but “because she was poor, she was also involved in working class struggles and support work for Jewish immigrants,” said said Jeppesen.

De Cleyre’s views, which she propagated profusely in poems and essays, were based on her personal experience.

De Cleyre, named after Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, was born on November 17, 1866, in Leslie, Michigan. His family struggled with poverty. Her father, Hector de Cleyre, was an itinerant French tailor who gained his American citizenship while fighting in the Civil War. His mother, Harriet Elizabeth Billings, came from an abolitionist family in upstate New York.

The youngest of three sisters, from Cleyre created an office by placing a board on the branch of a maple so that she has a private place to write. She wrote her first poem at age 6.

She spent three years in a Catholic convent school, where she developed a deep animosity toward dogma and forced obedience. But the experience also sharpened his rhetorical skills.

De Cleyre was only 19 when she began writing and lecturing on free thought, a questioning of traditional religious and social beliefs. She traveled between Ohio and Boston and moved to Philadelphia, where in 1892 she founded a social group called the Ladies’ Liberal League. The purpose of the group was not “to make men smile into buying tickets and shame them into buying candy”, she said, but to facilitate discussions about the sex, prohibition, socialism, anarchism and revolution. To earn a living, she gave private lessons in English, calligraphy and music at home.

And then the Chicago Haymarket case became his moment of conversion.

On May 3, 1886, Chicago police officers fired into a crowd of striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works, killing and wounding several men. In response, a group of anarchists gathered near Haymarket Square the next evening. When the police tried to disperse them, someone threw a bomb and seven policemen were killed. Eight anarchists were arrested, six of whom were not present when the incident occurred. Four were hanged, a fifth committed suicide in prison and the other three were pardoned years later.

The men instantly became martyrs of the anarchist movement, and de Cleyre channeled his outrage at the “infamy” of the trial and executions into a vigorous endorsement of anarchism, speaking annually at Haymarket memorials and returning on the subject again and again in his writings.

“The question ‘Why am I an anarchist,’ ” she wrote in 1897, “I could answer very summarily with, ‘because I cannot help it.’ ”

Beyond his activism, De Cleyre had many romantic entanglements but none were fully satisfying, according to a biographer, Paul Avrich. Labor activist Dyer D. Lum, who was 27 years her senior, was the first man to treat her as an intellectual equal, but he left her heartbroken when he took his own life. She gave birth to her only child, Harry, with James B. Elliot, a carpenter who believed in the writings of freethinker Thomas Paine. Again eventually, she pushed the two away, reluctant to be a mother or a wife.

The assassination of President William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901 sparked a wave of anti-anarchist sentiment. When Senator Joseph R. Hawley of Connecticut offered $1,000 to anyone who would shoot an anarchist, de Cleyre responded with a letter telling him to save his money; he could kill her.

“I will stand straight in front of you at any distance you want, and you may shoot, in the presence of witnesses.” she wrote. “Doesn’t your American business instinct seize on this as a boon?”

The following year, de Cleyre had his own contact with an assassin. A former student of hers who had become obsessed with her shot her in a jealous rage. She survived, then worked for her release upon her recovery.

“It would be an outrage to civilization if he were sent to prison for an act that was the product of a diseased brain,” she wrote.

But behind his fiery public persona lurked depression and disappointment, as well as chronic physical pain and recurring illnesses. “I never feel at home anywhere,” said de Cleyre cited by Goldman as saying. “I feel like a lost or wandering creature that doesn’t belong and can’t find anything to be home with.”

From an early age, she suffered from bouts of catarrh, a sinus-related problem, which sometimes left her weak and bedridden, and she often complained of a pounding in her ears. At one point, she attempted suicide with a morphine overdose.

In 1910, her health declining, de Cleyre found herself disillusioned with her life’s work, writing to a friend: “I see no point in doing anything. Everything becomes bitter in my mouth and ashes in my hands. She moved to Chicago and was briefly invigorated 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 last time.

De Cleyre died on April 17, 1912. She was 45 years old. The cause was a cranial infection that had developed from a perforated eardrum. She is buried at Chicago’s Forest Home Cemetery, near the Haymarket Martyrs Monument.

Despite her suffering, she wrote that she would not have traded her poor health for well-being if it meant giving up her beliefs in the anarchist cause.

As she put it in a 1903 essay titled “The factory of an anarchist”:

“Let me keep the intensity of my soul, with all the limitations of my conditions, rather than becoming the spineless and idealless creation of material needs.”


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