Mar 1, 1979
Voltairine de Cleyre
“That such a brilliant, unusual woman would be a feminist is no surprise.”
EMMA GOLDMAN called her “the most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced.” Yet today Voltairine de Cleyre is virtually unknown even among libertarians. She is discussed only briefly in histories of American anarchism and is not even mentioned at all in the more general studies of James Joll, George Woodcock and Daniel Guerin. Though her writing was both voluminous and powerful, she appears in only one modern anarchist anthology. (Man! An Anthology of Anarchist Ideas, Essays, Poetry and Commentary, edited by M. Graham.) Only two recent collections of American radical thought include her classic “Anarchism and American Traditions”; and ironically, neither is primarily anarchist in content. (See American Radical Thought, edited by Henry Silverman, and Law and Resistance, edited by Lawrence Veysey.)
Voltairine de Cleyre was, in the words of her biographer, Paul Avrich, “A brief comet in the anarchist firmament, blazing out quickly and soon forgotten by all but a small circle of comrades whose love and devotion persisted long after her death.” But “her memory,” continues Avrich, “possesses the glow of legend.”
In An American Anarchist: the Life of Voltairine de Cleyre (Princeton University Press,1978), Avrich makes that legend come alive, revealing not only Voltairine de Cleyre the anarchist but Voltairine de Cleyre the person as well. Researched with Professor Avrich’s usual thoroughness and skill, but never dry, this biography paints a fascinating portrait of a woman whose story richly deserves to be told.
Born in a small village in Michigan in 1866, Voltairine, plagued all her life by poverty, pain and ill health, died prematurely at the age of 45 in 1912. The short span of her life, ending before the great events of the 20th century, is, in Avrich’s opinion, the major reason why Voltairine de Cleyre has been overlooked, unlike the longer-lived Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.
The strength of will and independence of mind which so strongly characterized this remarkable woman manifested themselves early in Voltairine’s life. Forced into a Catholic convent school as a teenager, she chafed at the stifling, authoritarian atmosphere and was later to speak of “the white scars on my soul” left by this painful experience. Bruised but unbroken, Voltairine emerged an atheist and soon gravitated toward the flourishing freethinkers’ movement. Influenced by Clarence Darrow, she flirted briefly with socialism but her deep-running anti-authoritarian spirit soon rejected it in favor of anarchism.
As with Emma Goldman, the hanging of the Hay-market martyrs made a profound impression on Voltairine and was the major impetus in her turn toward anarchism. In 1888, she threw herself into the anarchist movement, dedicating herself passionately and unceasingly to the cause of liberty for the rest of her life.
Though seldom in the public limelight—unlike Emma Goldman, she shrank from notoriety—Voltairine was a popular speaker and an untiring writer. In spite of financial circumstances which forced her to work long hours,and despite a profoundly unhappy life which included several near-suicides, an almost fatal assassin’s bullet, and a number of ill-fated love affairs, she authored hundreds of poems, essays, stories and sketches in her all too brief life. Highly praised by her colleagues for the elegance and stylistic beauty of her writings, Voltairine possessed, in Avrich’s opinion, “a greater literary talent than any other American anarchist,” surpassing even Berkman, Goldman and Benjamin R. Tucker. Goldman herself believed Voltairine’s prose to be distinguished by an “extreme clarity of thought and originality of expression.” Unfortunately, only one collection of her writings—The Selected Works of Voltairine de Cleyre, edited by Berkman and published by Mother Earth in 1914—was ever put together, leaving much fine material buried in obscure journals.
Both Voltairine’s life and her writings reflect, in Avrich’s words, “an extremely complicated individual.” Though an atheist, Voltairine had, according to Goldman, a “religious zeal which stamped everything she did … Her whole nature was that of an ascetic.” “By living a life of religious-like austerity,” says Avrich, “she became a secular nun in the Order of Anarchy.” In describing that persistence of will which inspired her, the anarchist poet Sadikichi Hartmann declared, “… her whole life seemed to center upon the exaltation over, what she so aptly called, the Dominant Idea. Like an anchorite, she flayed her body to utter more and more lucid and convincing arguments in favor of direct action.”
“The Dominant Idea,” wrote Emma Goldman in her commemorative essay Voltairine de Cleyre, “was the Leitmotif through Voltairine de Cleyre’s remarkable life. Though she was constantly harassed by ill-health, which held her body captive and killed her at the end, the Dominant Idea energized Voltairine to ever greater intellectual efforts, raised her to the supreme heights of an exalted ideal, and steeled her Will to conquer every handicap in her tortured life.”
Yet the ascetic also had the soul of a poet. In her poetry and even in her prose, Voltairine eloquently expressed a passionate love of music, of nature and of Beauty. “With all her devotion to her social ideals,” says Emma, “she had another god—the god of Beauty. Her life was a ceaseless struggle between the two; the ascetic determinedly stifling her longing for beauty, but the poet in her determinedly yearning for it, worshipping it in utter abandonment… .”
Another manifestation of Voltairine’s complex nature was her ability to be both rational and compassionate, a combination that Benjamin Tucker, like some modern day individualist anarchists, thought led to inconsistency and ambivalence. Voltairine didn’t see it that way. “I think it has been the great mistake of our people, especially our American Anarchists represented by Benjamin R. Tucker, to disclaim sentiment,” she declared. In her essay, “Why I am an Anarchist,” she wrote, “It is to men and women of feeling that I speak … Not to the shallow egotist who holds himself apart and with the phariseeism of intellectuality, exclaims, ‘I am more just than thou’; but to those whose every fiber of being is vibrating with emotion as aspen leaves quiver in the breath of Storm! To those whose hearts swell with a great pity at the pitiful toil of women, the weariness of young children, the handcuffed helplessness of strong men!”
But Voltairine was no emotional sentimentalist, wanting in serious arguments. Though Tucker became increasingly skeptical of her talents, most of her associates considered her a brilliant thinker. Marcus Graham, editor of Man!, called her “the most thoughtful woman anarchist of this century” while George Brown, the anarchist orator, declared her “the most intellectual woman I ever met.” Joseph Kucera, her last lover, praised her logical, analytic mind. Avrich himself, a careful historian not given to undue praise, concludes that she was a “first-rate intellect.”
Voltairine’s political stance in the anarchist spectrum was no less complicated than her other views and even less well-understood. Avrich dispels the myth created by the erroneous claims of Rudolph Rocker and Emma Goldman that Voltairine became a communist anarchist. In 1907, points out Avrich, Voltairine replied to Emma’s claim, saying, “I am not now and never have been at any time a Communist.” Beginning as a Tuckerite individualist, Voltairine turned in the 1890s to the mutualism of Dyer Lum. But she eventually grew to the conclusion that neither individualism nor collectivism nor even mutualism was entirely satisfactory. “I am an Anarchist, simply, without economic labels attached,” she was finally to declare.
Unhyphenated anarchism or “anarchism without adjectives” had other adherents as well—Errico Malatesta, Max Nettlau and Lum among them. These advocates of non-sectarian anarchism tried to promote tolerance for different economic views within the movement, believing that economic preferences would vary according to individual tastes and that no one person or group had the only correct solution. “There is nothing un-Anarchistic about any of [these systems],” declared Voltairine, “until the element of compulsion enters and obliges unwilling persons to remain in a community whose economic arrangements they do not agree to.”
Voltairine’s plea for tolerance and cooperation among the anarchist schools strikes a modern note, making us realize how little things have changed. Factionalism rages yet, with fervent apostles still all too eager to read the other side (whether “anarcho-capitalist” or ‘anarcho-communist”) out of the anarchist fold. The notion that the pluralistic anarchist societies envisioned by people like Voltairine de Cleyre might in fact be the most realistic expectation about human nature seems even more lost on anarchists today than in her time.
Another of Voltairine’s special concerns was the issue of sexual equality. In a time when the law treated women like chattel, “Voltairine de Cleyre’s whole life,” says Avrich, “was a revolt against this system of male domination which, like every other form of tyranny and exploitation, ran contrary to her anarchistic spirit.” That such a brilliant, unusual woman would be a feminist is no surprise. “Let every woman ask herself,” cried Voltairine, “Why am I the slave of Man? Why is my brain said not to be the equal of his brain? Why is my work not paid equally with his?” These themes of sexual equality and feminism provided the subjects of frequent lectures and speeches in Voltairine’s years of activity, including topics like “Sex Slavery,” “Love in Freedom,” “The Case of Woman vs. Orthodoxy,” and “Those Who Marry Do Ill.”
The subject of marriage was one of Voltairine’s favorite topics. Though she valued love, she totally rejected formal marriage, considering it “the sanction for all manner of bestialities” and the married woman “a bonded slave.” Her own unfortunate experiences with most of her lovers, who, even without the ties of formal marriage, treated her as sex object and servant, convinced Voltairine that even living with a man was to be avoided. When she learned that William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecroft (her heroine) had lived in separate apartments even though they were lovers, she was delighted. “Every individual should have a room or rooms for himself exclusively,” she wrote to her mother, “never subject to the intrusive familiarities of our present ‘family life’ … To me, any dependence, any thing which destroys the complete selfhood of the individual, is in the line of slavery and destroys the pure spontaneity of love.”
Not surprisingly for that day, Voltairine’s bad experiences with the traditionalism of her lovers was a misfortune she shared with Emma Goldman. Though totally different in personality—“Voltairine differed from Emma as poetry differed from prose,” says Avrich—the lives of the two women had curious parallels. Most of their lovers turned out to be disappointingly conventional in matters of sexual roles but there was in each woman’s life at least one lover who was not of this traditionalist stripe. Each loved a man who was her intellectual equal and who treated her as an equal—for Voltairine, it was Dyer Lum, for Emma, Alexander Berkman. But, sadly, both women lost these men as lovers. Lum committed suicide in 1893 and Berkman’s 14 years in prison left psychological scars that changed the nature of his physical relationship with Emma, if not their emotional one.
But in other matters, Voltairine and Emma had little in common. In fact, they quickly took a personal dislike to each other. Voltairine thought Emma flamboyant, self-indulgent, unattractive and dumpy; Emma considered Voltairine ascetic and lacking in personal charm. Emma claimed that “physical beauty and feminine attraction were withheld from her,” another myth that Avrich shows to be false. In truth, most of Voltairine’s comrades, both men and women, found her beautiful, elegant and charming. The photos of Voltairine included in the biography testify to the truth of these views—pictured is a delicate woman with a soft, mysterious beauty that was in sharp contrast to Emma’s earthy robustness. Emma, a friend once pointed out, was not above jealousy.
Yet, in spite of their personal differences, Emma and Voltairine respected each other intellectually. For her part, Voltairine publicly defended Emma on several occasions, including the passionate plea, “In Defense of Emma Goldman and Free Speech,” which Emma notes in her commemoration of Voltairine. In that essay, Voltairine de Cleyre (Oriole Press, 1932), Emma pays eloquent tribute to Voltairine. She was, writes Emma, “a wonderful spirit … born in some obscure town in the state of Michigan, and who lived in poverty all her life, but who by sheer force of will pulled herself out of a living grave, cleared her mind from the darkness of superstition—turned her face to the sun, perceived a great ideal and determinedly carried it to every corner of her native land … The American soil sometimes does bring forth exquisite plants.”
We are indebted to Paul Avrich for bringing this remarkable woman out of her obscurity and displaying the blossoms of that “exquisite plant” in all their inspiring beauty.
Sharon Presley is National Coordinator of the Association of Libertarian Feminists. This essay is the first in her projected series on libertarian and anarchist feminists.