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PRESLEY, Sharon "Voltairine de Cleyre"
Article published on 15 September 2009
last modification on 27 April 2015

by r-c.
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This is Paper 1 of the Libertarian Feminist Heritage
Series published by the Association of Libertarian
Feminists. It was originally published in Issue 8 of The
Storm!
(Winter 1979).

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. Only two recent collections
of American radical thought include her classic
"Anarchism and American Traditions"; and, ironically,
neither is primarily anarchist in content.

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."

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 that 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 "the white scars on my soul" left by this
painful experience. Bruised but unbroken, Voltairine
emerged an atheist and soon gravitated toward the
flourishing freethinker’s 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 Haymarket
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 that forced her to work long
hours, and despite a profoundly unhappy life, which
included several near-suicides, and 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
writing, 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 ofwill that 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
Lietmotif 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 well understood. Avrich dispels the myth created
by the erroneous claims of Rudolf 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
individualis, Voltairine turned in the 1890s to the
mutualism of Dyer Lum. But she eventually grew to the
conclusion that neither individualism no 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
most lost on anarchists today than in her time.

Probably Voltairine’s best-known intellectual
contribution is the often-reprinted essay "Anarchism and
American Traditions," in which she shows how the ideas
of anarchism follow naturally from the premises on
which the American Revolution was based. The
Revolutionary Republicans, she says, "took their starting
point for deriving a minimum of government upon the
same sociological ground that the modern Anarhcist
derives the no-government theory; viz., that equal liberty
is the political ideal." But the anarchist, unlike the
revolutionary republicans, she goes on to point out,
cannot accept the premise of majority rule. All
governments, regardless of their form, say the anarchists,
will always be manipulated by a small minority. She
then goes on to cite other similarities between the ideas
of the anarchists and the republicans, including the belief
in local initiative and independent action. "This then was
the American Tradition," she writes, "that private
enterprise manages better all that to which it is equal.
Anarchism declares that private enterprise, whether
individual or cooperative, is equal to all the undertakings
of society."

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 equal of his brain? Why is my work
not paid equally with his? Why must my body be
controlled by my husband? Why may he take my
children away from me? Will them away while yet
unborn? Let every woman ask." "There are two reasons
why," Voltairine answered in her essay, "Sex Slavery,"
"and these ultimately reducible to a single principle—the
authoritarian supreme power GOD-idea, and its two
instruments—the Church—that is, the priests—and the
State—that is, the legislators...These two things, the mind
domination of the Church and the body domination of
the State, are the causes of Sex Slavery."

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 Willaim Godwin and
Mary Wollstonecraft (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 sex 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 my 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 Avrich’s
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,
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."

P.S. :

Website on Voltairine de Cleyre


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