ties to the Abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad,
along with the harsh and unrelenting poverty that she grew up in
and being named after a philosopher (Voltaire) most definitely contributed
to the radical rhetoric that she developed shortly after adolescence.
After schooling in the convent, Voltairine began her intellectual
involvement in the Free Thought Movement (it being primarily anti-Catholic
and anti-clerical) by contributing articles to free thought periodicals
her time in the free thought movement in the early 1880s, de Cleyre
was influenced by Thomas
Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft especially,
and also Henry David Thoreau, Big Bill Haywood, Clarence Darrow,
and later Eugene Debs. After the hanging of the Haymarket martyrs
in 1887, however, she became an anarchist. "Till then I believed
in the essential justice of the American law of trial by jury,"
she wrote in a 1914 autobiographical essay, "After that I
Cleyre was known as an excellent speaker and writer — in
the opinion of Paul Avrich, her biographer, she was "a greater
literary talent than any other American anarchist" —
and as a tireless advocate for the anarchist cause, whose "religious
zeal," according to Goldman, "stamped everything she
did.... Her whole nature was that of an ascetic."
de Cleyre was esteemed by Emma Goldman and wrote an essay in her
defense. However, the two women disagreed on some essential points:
"Miss Goldman is a communist; I am an individualist. She
wishes to destroy the right of property, I wish to assert it.
I make my war upon privilege and authority, whereby the right
of property, the true right in that which is proper to the individual,
is annihilated. She believes that co-operation would entirely
supplant competition; I hold that competition in one form or another
will always exist, and that it is highly desirable it should."
several years De Cleyre associated herself with the American individualist
anarchists and adopted the philosophy. In her 1894 essay In Defense
of Emma Goldman and the Right of Expropriation, de Cleyre wrote
in support of the right of expropriation while remaining neutral
on its advocacy: "I do not think one little bit of sensitive
human flesh is worth all the property rights in N. Y. city...
I say it is your business to decide whether you will starve and
freeze in sight of food and clothing, outside of jail, or commit
some overt act against the institution of property and take your
place beside TIMMERMANN and GOLDMANN."
however, de Cleyre was moved to reject individualism as well:
"Socialism and Communism both demand a degree of joint effort
and administration which would beget more regulation than is wholly
consistent with ideal Anarchism; Individualism and Mutualism,
resting upon property, involve a development of the private policeman
not at all compatible with my notion of freedom."
she became one of the most prominent advocates of "anarchism
without adjectives," a movement in anarchism which focused
on harmony between the various factions and did not advocate anything
beyond the basic conception of anarchism as anti-state and anti-capitalist.
In The Making of an Anarchist, she wrote, "I no longer label
myself otherwise than as 'Anarchist' simply."
ended by embracing anarchist communism, arguing in "Why I
am an Anarchist" that "the best thing ordinary workingmen
or women could do was to organise their industry to get rid of
money altogether . . . Let them produce together, co-operatively
rather than as employer and employed; let them fraternise group
by group, let each use what he needs of his own product, and deposit
the rest in the storage-houses, and let those others who need
goods have them as occasion arises." In 1912 she argued that
the Paris Commune, while "making war upon the State, she
had not made war upon which creates the State . . . the Commune
respected property . . . [and] had left common resources in private
hands . . In short, though there were other reasons why the Commune
fell, the chief one was that . . . the Communards were not Communists.
They attempted to break political chains without breaking economic
ones." ("The Commune Is Risen")
however, in no way contradicted her support for anarchism without
adjectives as communist-anarchists, including Peter Kropotkin
and Errico Malatesta, always stressed that in an anarchist society
people who did not want to live as communists would be free to
work their own land or tools.
de Cleyre's 1912 essay in defense of direct action is widely cited
today. In this essay, de Cleyre points to examples such as the
Boston Tea Party, noting that "direct action has always been
used, and has the historical sanction of the very people now reprobating
her 1914 essay entitled Sex Slavery, Voltairine de Cleyre condemns
ideals of beauty that encourage women to distort their bodies
and child socialization practices that create unnatural gender
roles. The title of the essay refers not to traffic in women for
purposes of prostitution, although that is also mentioned, but
rather to marriage laws that allow men to rape their wives without
consequences. Such laws make "every married woman what she
is, a bonded slave, who takes her master's name, her master's
bread, her master's commands, and serves her master's passions."
de Cleyre also adamantly opposed the standing army, arguing that
its existence made wars more likely. In her 1909 essay, Anarchism
and American Traditions, she argued that in order to achieve peace,
"all peaceful persons should withdraw their support from
the army, and require that all who wish to make war do so at their
own cost and risk; that neither pay nor pensions are to be provided
for those who choose to make man-killing a trade."
de Cleyre was close to and inspired by Dyer D. Lum, "her
teacher, her confidant, her comrade". On June 12, 1890 she
gave birth to a son, Harry, fathered by freethinker James B. Elliot.
Throughout her life she was plagued by illness and depression,
attempting suicide on at least two occasions and surviving an
assassination attempt on December 9, 1902. Her assailant, Herman
Helcher, was a former pupil whom she later forgave, writing "It
would be an outrage against civilisation if he were sent to jail
for an act which was the product of a diseased brain." The
attack left her with chronic ear pain and a throat infection that
often adversely affected her ability to speak or concentrate.
de Cleyre died on June 6, 1912, in Chicago, Illinois. A collection
of her speeches, The First Mayday: The Haymarket Speeches, 1895-1910,
was published by the Libertarian Book Club in 1980 and in 2004,
AK Press released The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader, edited by AJ