De Cleyre, Voltairine

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DE CLEYRE, Voltairine

Born 17 November 1866, Leslie, Michigan; died 6 June 1912, Chicago, Illinois

Daughter of Auguste and Eliza de Cleyre

As a young woman, Voltairine de Cleyre began to earn fees as a free-thought lecturer in Philadelphia, where she taught foreign languages and conducted classes in English for workers. The Haymarket bombing trial of 1887 had converted de Cleyre to anarchism: she, like many others, was radicalized by the martyrdom of innocent workers, whose fate showed her the flaws in American law and trial by jury.

Despite physical weakness, de Cleyre gained a reputation as a lecturer and writer on such subjects as "Anarchism and the American Tradition," "Crime and Punishment," "Thomas Paine," "In Defense of Emma Goldman," and "Modern Educational Reform." She urged greater freedom for the individual, and in one tract entitled "Sex Slavery," she called every married woman "a bonded slave, who takes her master's name, her master's bread, her master's commands, and serves her master's passion; who passes through the ordeal of pregnancy and the throes of travail at his dictation—not at her desire; who can control no property, not even her own body, without his consent."

At other times, de Cleyre blasted the church, which "from its birth has taught the inferiority of women," and the state, which holds women in unpropertied thralldom. Sounding a modern note on education, she condemned Mrs. Grundy for demanding women must cover their "obscene" bodies with long "prison" skirts and high necks, and for decreeing little girls must not climb trees or swim (activities inappropriate to their subservient role).

Her articles and poetry appeared in such magazines as Open Court, Twentieth Century, Boston Investigator, Chicago Liberal, Liberty, Magazine of Poetry, Free Society, Mother Earth, and the Independent. She translated from the French Jean Grave's "Moribund Society and Anarchy" and Louise Michel's work on the Paris Commune. In Mother Earth appeared her translations from the Yiddish of Libin and Peretz. Some 30 of de Cleyre's poems and a dozen short stories and sketches are included in Selected Works (1913), along with a biographical sketch by Hippolyte Havel, an old anarchist companion of Emma Goldman and a barroom friend of Eugene O'Neill.

Leonard D. Abbott highly praised de Cleyre's life and her writing, calling her "a priestess of Pity and Vengeance." De Cleyre's words were often high-flown, but never empty: "Liberty! Out of the dungeon, out of the sorrow, out of the sacrifice, out of the pain grew this child of the heart; and pure and strong she grew until the sabled plumes have tottered on the despot's brow." De Cleyre illustrated liberty in her own life and fought for it on behalf of the world's imprisoned. When she died, she was buried in Chicago's Waldheim Cemetery beside the Haymarket martyrs.


Drinnon, R., Rebel in Paradise (1961). MacDonald, G. E., Fifty Years of Freethought (1931). Symes, L., and T. Clement, Rebel America (1934).


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De Cleyre, Voltairine

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