de Cleyre, Voltairine (1866–1912)

views updated

de Cleyre, Voltairine (1866–1912)

Political theorist and feminist whose work made a significant contribution to the development of the Anarchist movement in the United States. Name variations: (pseudonym) Fannie Fern (not to be confused with journalist Sara Payson Willis Parton who changed her name legally to Fanny Fern ). Pronunciation: Vol-TAIR-ean dee CLARE. Born Voltairine de Claire on November 17, 1866, in Leslie, Michigan; died on June 12, 1912, in Chicago, Illinois; third daughter of Hector Auguste de Claire and Harriet (Clarke) de Claire (a seamstress); attended the convent of Our Lady of Lake Huron, Sarnia, Ontario, Canada; never married; children: Harry (b. 1890).

Embarked on first lecture tour in Michigan (1884); influenced by events surrounding the Haymarket riot, Chicago (1886); traveled to Great Britain on lecture tour (1897); affected by the assassination of President McKinley in Buffalo, New York, by anarchist sympathizer (1901); shot and seriously wounded in Philadelphia (1902); traveled to Norway (1903); supported peasants after outbreak of Mexican revolution (1911).

Selected publications:

(poems) The Burial of My Yesterday (1885); (pamphlet) "The Gates of Freedom" (1891); (pamphlet) "In Defence of Emma Goldman and the Right of Expropriation" (1893); (poems) The Gods and the People (1896); (pamphlet) "The Question of Women vs. Orthodoxy" (1896); (pamphlet) "The Modern Inquisition in Spain"(1897); (pamphlet) "The Worm Turns" (1900); (pamphlet) "The Catechism of Anarchism" (1902); (pamphlet) "The Making of an Anarchist" (1903); (pamphlet) "Anarchism and American Traditions" (1908); (pamphlet) "The Dominant Idea" (1910); (pamphlet) "The Mexican Revolution" (1911); (pamphlet) "Francisco Ferrer" (1911); (pamphlet) "Direct Action" (1912). Many of these pamphlets are reprinted in her Selected Works, edited by Hippolyte Havel (1914).

On the evening of December 19, 1902, a young man named Herman Helcher walked on to a platform in a hall in Philadelphia where Voltairine de Cleyre was delivering a lecture. As he approached, Helcher drew a revolver from his pocket and shot her three times from close range. Although seriously wounded, de Cleyre refused to identify the assailant, who was known to her, to the police. Later, when Helcher was apprehended, Voltairine wrote that his actions should be attributed to temporary mental instability and that he should not be sent to prison.

De Cleyre's remarkable response to her erstwhile assassin was not due to any feelings of sympathy towards Helcher, whose amorous overtures she had previously rejected. Rather, her actions were consistent with her belief as an anarchist that all legal and administrative institutions of the state (such as the police and prisons) only seek to exercise an illegitimate power of coercion over the individual. Such power is illegitimate because it is incompatible with the anarchist ethical ideal of personal freedom mediated by a respect for the autonomy and liberty of others. In her mind, though Helcher's actions were wrong in failing to regard the rights of another, it would have been equally wrong to subject his freedom to the coercive power of the state.

Voltairine de Cleyre was born in 1866 into a poor, working-class family in Leslie, Michigan. Her father Hector de Claire (who had emigrated from Belgium in 1854) and mother Harriet de Claire appear to have been active in the abolitionist movement, helping escaped slaves from the South to pass over the border into Canada. Both prided themselves on being "freethinkers" and celebrated this fact by naming their youngest daughter after the famous nonconformist philosopher of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire.

In 1867, the family moved to Little Village, Clinton County, Michigan, but shortly thereafter Hector and his wife separated. Voltairine then moved with her mother and sister Adelaide de Claire (her other sister had previously died in a drowning accident) to nearby St. Johns where, in 1872, she entered Clinton County elementary school. By all accounts, Voltairine was a precocious and intelligent child who, even at this early age, was deeply affected by the plight of the factory laborers in the surrounding communities. In a school notebook, written when she was no more than 11 years of age, she noted with feeling that the "degradation of the workers is horrible" and expressed a desire to do something to alleviate their condition.

Voltairine's mother only worked intermittently as a seamstress, and as a result the family's life in St. Johns was often marked by extreme poverty. This difficult situation was exacerbated by the fact that Harriet seems to have had few feelings of warmth or affection for her daughters. Voltairine, in particular, became increasingly difficult to control as she began to rebel against the harsh disciplinary regime that her mother sought to impose.

I die, as I have lived, a free spirit, an Anarchist, owing no allegiance to rulers, heavenly or earthly.

—Voltairine de Cleyre

Following completion of elementary school in 1878, Voltairine left St. Johns and went to live with her father in Port Huron, Michigan. By this time, Hector had abandoned his earlier secular beliefs and had once again taken up the Catholic faith of his youth. Over the strenuous objections of Harriet (who had originally been brought up as a Protestant), he enrolled his daughter in the convent of Our Lady of Lake Huron in Sarnia, Ontario. A story subsequently arose that he had chosen the convent in order that Voltairine should eventually become a nun. In fact, however, it appears that Hector was more concerned to find an educational institution that would both develop his daughter's recognized intellectual capacities as well as provide an environment of emotional and physical self-control, two qualities that she clearly lacked.

The next five years proved to be a testing time. Although she was an excellent scholar, Voltairine found herself in a state of constant disagreement with the nuns and the discipline they attempted to enforce. On a number of occasions, she fled the convent for her mother's home in St. Johns only to be fetched back each time by her father. Although she was deeply unhappy, Voltairine refused to be cowed by her circumstances and instead wrote to her sister that she was full of an "immortal spirit of rebellion." It was perhaps one of the manifestations of that spirit that prompted her, at this time, to alter the spelling of her surname from de Claire to de Cleyre.

After graduating in December 1883, Voltairine broke with her father completely and returned to live with her sister and mother in St. Johns. For the next three years, she attempted to establish a living for herself as a private teacher of English and music. Her lack of success was not due to her lack of teaching abilities but, rather, to the lack of teaching opportunities in the confines of the small town. Voltairine filled her spare time constructively, however, by reading extensively from a variety of classical and scientific literature. She soon put this reading to use in a series of public lectures, given at locations throughout Michigan, in which she spoke on a variety of anti-religious topics. In 1885, de Cleyre published her first volume of poems, which she pointedly entitled The Burial of My Yesterday and which included the lines, "And now humanity, I turn toward you/ I consecrate my life to the service of the world."

De Cleyre's political beliefs began to be focused in 1886 in the aftermath of the Haymarket affair in Chicago in which a bomb was thrown which killed or injured several policemen. In the aftermath, four anarchists (who were widely considered to be innocent of the crime) were hanged. The entire incident rapidly became a cause célèbre and drew many, including Voltairine, to sympathy with the radical cause.

The following year, she moved briefly to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she combined her activities as a public lecturer with a new vocation as writer for the anti-establishment journal the Progressive Age (under the pseudonym of Fannie Fern). It was not, however, until she attended a talk by Clarence Darrow (best known for his role as defense attorney at the 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial in Dayton, Tennessee) that she began to identify herself openly as a socialist.

In 1888, de Cleyre met two men who had a significant impact on her future. The first, Dyer D. Lum (born in Geneva, New York, in 1839) was the author of The Economic Aspects of Anarchism. He advocated a theory known as "anarcho-syndicalism," a position that views industrial associations or trade unions as the organizational germ of a future non-authoritarian society and advocates the use of mass strikes as the most effective means of attaining that goal. Lum had a crucial influence in molding Voltairine's intellectual development (she was later to refer to him as her "spiritual father"). He gradually won her over to the anarchist cause by encouraging her to read the works of such distinguished theoreticians as the American Benjamin Tucker and, in particular, France's Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Lum also influenced her to move to Philadelphia, then the major center of anarchism in North America, where she eventually came into contact with such famous contemporary anarchists as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. In the same year, 1888, Voltairine met James Elliott (1849–1935), a Philadelphia carpenter who was active, albeit in a minor way, in the radical movement. The nature of their early relationship is obscure, but it is known that by late 1889 Voltairine was pregnant. Early the following year, she gave birth to a son, Harry.

After Voltairine's death, a spurious story would circulate claiming that Elliott had prevented her from living with the child. On the contrary, from the beginning, motherhood seems to have played no role in Voltairine's self-image. Thus, immediately following the birth, she left her partner and son and went to live in Kansas for a year. Although, on her return, she once again went to live with Elliott, she refused to acknowledge any responsibility for Harry. When de Cleyre and Elliott eventually parted (in 1894), their son continued to live solely with his father who, as time went on, displayed increasing signs of mental instability. It was only a few years before her own death that Voltairine was able to bring herself to affect a partial reconciliation with Harry. Remarkably, the young man appears to have borne her no ill-will for the treatment he had been afforded.

One positive outcome of this affair was to galvanize de Cleyre to reflect more deeply on the issue of the role of women in society. She produced two important pamphlets, "The Gates of Freedom" (1891) and "The Case of Women vs. Orthodoxy" (1896), which, in the words of Margaret Marsh , represent "the most complete articulation of the anarchist-feminist position to appear in the nineteenth century."

De Cleyre argued that there is an inextricable link between the economic structure of society and the social institution of marriage. Only by breaking that link will women be able to achieve the goal of true equality and be in a position to assert their individual autonomy and freedom of control over their own person. This is a difficult task that ultimately requires nothing less than the complete abolition of prevailing capitalist relations of ownership and control of society's means of production. An important start can be made, however, if women begin to acknowledge a belief in the possibility of personal autonomy and freedom. De Cleyre rejected the notion that this could be achieved through the medium of organized groups. Rather, she advocated individual acts of rebellion in which each woman sought to challenge, in her own way, the customary roles that society demanded of her (for instance, the pressure to marry and bear children). Such acts, de Cleyre believed, would create the conditions for a fundamental restructuring of all the traditional social relationships between men and women.

Throughout the 1890s, Voltairine continued to expand her circle of radical friends. In 1892, she met and collaborated with Saverio Merlino, an important Italian anarchist recently arrived in the United States, in the production of the bimonthly journal Solidarity. De Cleyre suffered a hard blow in the following year, however, with the death of Dyer Lum. Despite their difference in age, they enjoyed a deep emotional and intellectual affinity that was partially revealed in 1896 in de Cleyre's second volume of poems, The Gods and the People.

Apart from one theoretical work on anarchism (a defense of her friend Emma Goldman published in 1893), Voltairine's most significant activity at this time remained public lecturing. She spoke frequently before large, if sometimes skeptical, audiences, urging them to find in the radical principles of anarchism a continuation of the work of more conventional American thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. At the same time, because she always refused to accept payment for her lectures, Voltairine was forced to earn what she could as a private teacher. She taught English to the children of Russian-Jewish immigrants and, in turn, learned Yiddish so well that she was able to contribute to that community's anarchist journal, Freie Arbeiter Shtimme.

In 1897, de Cleyre traveled to London and from there embarked on an extensive lecture tour of England and Scotland. She made the acquaintance of a number of important figures, including Peter Kropotkin (widely regarded as the leading anarchist theoretician of the period) and Max Nettlau, the anarchist historian, who later described her as the "pearl of anarchist literature." Somewhat to her surprise, she discovered that her reputation as an anarchist-feminist theoretician had preceded her, and that she was held in considerable regard by the European radical movement.

The highlight of this trip, however, was her meeting with several Spanish anarchists (the "Montjuich deportees," named after the prison in Barcelona where they had been held). These were the survivors of a group who had been arrested, tortured, and in some instances executed following a bomb attack in which they had played no part. Their brutal treatment at the hands of the Spanish authorities was widely condemned by the general public in Britain. On her return to the United States later the same year, de Cleyre published an important pamphlet on their experiences, "The Modern Inquisition in Spain." From this time on, she was increasingly regarded as the most important link bridging the European and North American anarchist movements.

Despite her increasing reputation, the turn of the century proved a difficult time for de Cleyre. She began to suffer from a chronic earand-throat infection that often left her bedridden for weeks at a time. Moreover, following the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 by an anarchist sympathizer, the anarchist movement fell into public disrepute, and it became increasingly difficult for de Cleyre to carry on her work as a lecturer. She became emotionally depressed, and there is some evidence to suggest that she considered committing suicide.

In 1903, as she was recuperating from Helcher's attempt on her life, de Cleyre was invited to Norway by Kristofer Hansteen, a leading European anarchist. In many ways, this seems to have been her happiest period, as she gradually emerged from the depths of her physical, emotional, and intellectual despair. When she returned to the U.S. in 1907, she was ready to resume her career as a lecturer and, more significantly, make her most important theoretical contributions to anarchist thought.

In two pamphlets, "Anarchism and American Traditions" (1908) and "The Dominant Idea" (1910), Voltairine developed what can now be recognized as one of the earliest critiques of modern consumer culture. She argued that modern society can be principally characterized by its love of material possessions. The desire to own and consume such possessions has effectively become, for the great majority of people, their paramount goal. Moreover, although these individuals may claim that this quest is fulfilling, in reality, it only gives rise to an unremitting mood of personal dissatisfaction. The problem, therefore, is to convince these individuals that only a radically different style of life will result in a more satisfied self.

De Cleyre was less forthcoming in proposing concrete measures whereby such a transformation could occur. She was convinced that salvation did not lie in the capitalist system which, after all, had created the problem in first place. As an anarchist, she favored a decentralized economy run according to principles of workers' self-management, and she advocated programs of education and propaganda as the most conducive means whereby this might be achieved. Most important (and here she recalled her earlier feminist writings), individuals should seek personal freedom through the exercise of their own autonomy and respect for the rights and liberties of others.

In the last few years of her life, Voltairine became increasingly active in the anarchist movement. She left Philadelphia in 1910 and moved to Chicago where she became involved with an anarcho-syndicalist labor organization called the International Workers of the World (the "Wobblies"). The Wobblies championed a program of revolutionary change not dissimilar to that advocated by her old friend Lum, and in 1912 she published a pamphlet ("Direct Action") that strongly sympathized with their position.

When the Mexican revolution broke out in 1911, de Cleyre worked tirelessly organizing meetings in support of the peasants' cause. She began to learn Spanish with the aim of traveling to Mexico in order to participate in the rebellion at first hand. Before she could do so, she was subject to a recurrence of her ear infection. De Cleyre entered a hospital in Chicago in June 1912, and there, due to complications following surgery, she died at the age of 45.


Avrich, Paul. An American Anarchist: A Life of Voltairine de Cleyre. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

de Cleyre, Voltairine. Selected Works. Edited by Hippolyte Havel. NY: Mother Earth, 1914.

Marsh, Margaret. Anarchist Women, 1870–1920. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1981.

Muñoz, Vladimir. Anarchists. NY: Golden Press, 1981.

suggested reading:

Woodcock, George. Anarchism. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979.

Dave Baxter , freelance writer, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

About this article

de Cleyre, Voltairine (1866–1912)

Updated About content Print Article