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CRASS, Chris. "Voltairine de Cleyre - a biographical sketch"
Article published on 14 September 2009
last modification on 15 September 2009

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Chriss Crass

Voltairine de Cleyre was born on November 17, 1866 in
Leslie, Michigan. She was named after the philosopher
Voltaire who her father admired for his ’free thought’
beliefs on such subjects as religion. Voltairine’s family
lived in "extreme and unrelieved poverty" as described in
Paul Avrich’s biography, An American Anarchist. While
the material conditions of her childhood were
impoverished she was raised in a family that was
connected to strong intellectual and political tendencies
in American society. The family was tied to the
Abolitionist struggle against slavery on her mother’s
side. Her maternal grandfather not only held abolitionist
politics but participated in the Underground Railroad that
helped fugitive slaves escape to Canada. Her father had
immigrated from France and brought artisan socialist and
free thought convictions with him. One of Voltairine’s
two sisters commented "Our mother was a remarkable
woman. Father was a brilliant man. It is no wonder
Voltai was a genius." The family however was to suffer
greatly under the tremendous burden of poverty. While
her father worked long hours for little pay, and her
mother did sewing work in the home, the children
remained "underfed" and "bodily weak" according to
Voltairine’s sister Addie. Addie further mentions that she
believes that the poverty of their childhood helped
develop Voltairine’s radicalism and "the deep sympathy
and understanding that she had for poverty in others".
Economic poverty also impacted the parents in the
family. Avrich writes that economic difficulties
contributed to the growing friction between Voltairine’s
mother and father and the two eventually separated.

Voltairine went to school in a convent for three and a
half years, during her high school education. She had
been living with her father, who decided that the convent
would both cure her laziness and give her the manners
necessary to survive. While it seems highly contradictory
for her anti-clerical free thought father to send his
daughter to a Catholic school, Avrich puts the decision
into a more sympathetic perspective. Avrich argues that
her father was terrible frustrated by the economic
situation facing him, and did not want Voltairine to
experience the same poverty throughout her life. Her
father hoped that the convent would give her the skills
necessary to make it economically. Voltairine’s
experience in the convent did much to shape her life.
Avrich explains that while it did teach her various skills
such as French and the piano, it also pushed her
rebellious spirit in an anti-authoritarian direction.
In her essay, "The Making of an Anarchist", she explains
the impact and lasting influence of the convent upon her
thinking. "I struggled my way out at last and was a
freethinker when I left the institution, three years later,
though I had never seen a book or heard a word to help
me in my loneliness. It had been like the Valley of the
Shadow of Death, and there are white scars on my soul
yet, where Ignorance and Superstition burnt me with
their hellfire in those stifling days. Am I blasphemous? It
is their word, not mine. Besides the battle of my young
days all others have been easy, for whatever was
without, within my own Will was supreme. It has owed
no allegiance, and never shall; it has moved steadily in
one direction, the knowledge and assertion of its own
liberty, with all the responsibility falling thereon. This, I
am sure, is the ultimate reason for my acceptance of

Upon leaving the convent Voltairine went to work
offering private lessons in music, French, and fancy
penmanship. Thus begins, as Avrich points out, her lifelong
career in private teaching by which she supported
herself until her death. Voltairine also began her
vocation as a public lecturer and writer. Having left the
convent, she went to work escaping the authoritarian
influences of the church through her participation in the
growing free thought movement, which was, according
to feminist author Wendy McElroy, an "anti-clerical,
anti-Christian movement which sought to separate the
church and state in order to leave religious matters to the
conscience and reasoning ability to the individual
involved". Avrich writes, "Voltai threw her energies into
the free thought movement. She was in fact to remain a
lifelong secularists and anti-Catholic, writing for free
thought periodicals and lecturing before free thought
organizations... For between the anarchist and free
thought movements there was a close and long-standing
affinity. Both shared a common anti-authoritarian
viewpoint and common tradition of secularist
radicalism." It was through her involvement in the free
thought movement that Voltairine discovered anarchism
- as was a common development for many anarchists at
this time, most notably among native-born American
anarchists. In 1886, Voltairine began to write for and
then soon became the editor of a weekly free thought
newspaper, The Progressive Age. At this time she also
began to travel the lecture circuit around Grand Rapids
Michigan, where she was living, and other Michigan
towns delivering speeches on Religion, Thomas Paine,
Mary Wollstonecraft (who was one of her heroes), and
free thought generally. She was soon giving lectures in
Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston. She also made
frequent tours on behalf of the American Secular Society
throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania. She addressed
rationalist groups, liberal clubs, and free thought
associations. Her reputation as a speaker spread, and
many found her lectures to be "richly studded with
original thought", as anarchist/feminist Emma Goldman
commented. In addition to her lecture tours, which were
growing throughout the East and Middle West, she was
contributing articles and poems to many of the leading
secularist publications in the country.

In December of 1887, Voltairine was to begin expanding
her ideas and beliefs into areas of economic and political
liberty. It began when she heard a lecture on socialism
presented by Clarence Darrow. Writing about the lecture
in the publication,Truth-Seeker, shortly thereafter she
noted, "It was my first introduction to any plan for
bettering the condition of the working-classes which
furnished some explanation of the course of economic
development, and I ran to it as one who has been turning
about in darkness runs to the light." Before December
ended Voltairine declared herself a socialist. She was
drawn to the anti-capitalist message of socialism and the
cry for working class struggle against the current
economic order. However, as Emma Goldman explained,
her "inherent love of liberty could not make peace with
the state-ridden notions of socialism". Voltairine found
herself hard pressed to defend socialism in debates with
anarchists. Additionally, one of the most important
events in American anarchism had just taken place, and
it was to have a powerful effect on her life’s work. On
November 11th, 1887, four anarchists were hung by the
State of Illinois. These anarchists were to be known as
the Haymarket Martyrs, and their imprisonment, farcical
trial and execution galvanized support around the world
and gained a wide audience for their radical political and
economic ideas of a society without bosses, landlords,
and politicians.

In May of 1886, when Voltairine first heard the news of
these anarchists’ arrest, she proclaimed, "let them hang".
Voltairine found herself momentarily caught up in the
anti-anarchist, anti-union and anti-immigrant sentiment
that made headlines throughout the country on May 5th,
the day after the Haymarket Tragedy which was to make
history. On May 1st, 1886, a general strike took place in
cities around the United States. Hundreds of thousands
of working class people took to the streets in massive
marches demanding the eight-hour work day as an
immediate reform in the economy. For years a growing
eight-hour work day movement had been growing in the
industrial centers of the country. The city at the forefront
of this movement was Chicago, and in Chicago the
movement was largely led and organized by anarchists.
The capitalist press denounced the movement, and the
bosses feared the growing power of the workers’
organizations. On May 3rd, 1886, the Chicago police
opened fire on striking workers and killed and wounded
several people. Anarchist organizers called for a protest
rally the next day. On May 4th a meeting of workers was
held at Haymarket Square where several hundred
listened to radical unionist speakers. The police
surrounded the area and declared it an unlawful
assemble. The police stormed the workers’ rally and from
the side of the workers came a bomb that killed one
officer and wounded others. The police immediately
conducted illegal raids on anarchist homes and offices
and arrested and questioned hundreds of people. Eight
men were singled out as the leaders and were found
guilty of the police murder regardless if they were even
present at the rally. International support was rallied, and
the anarchists issued appeals and statements from prison
that were circulated around the world. Two men were
committed to life sentences, one to a fifteen year
sentence, one who had been sentenced to hang
committed suicide in prison refusing to allow the state to
take his life, and four men were hung on the scaffolds,
November 11, 1887. Voltairine came to quickly regret
her initial response to the Chicago anarchists
imprisonment, and shortly after their execution she
announced her dedication to the cause of anarchism and
human liberation. Thus began her life-long passion to the
cause of anarchism. She went to work studying the ideas,
concepts, and philosophies of anarchist thought. Avrich
writes that the Haymarket martyrs were the chief factor
in her conversion to anarchism. It was the "specific
occasion which ripened tendencies to definition" writes
de Cleyre.

Like many other anarchists of this time period, the
Haymarket anarchists weighed heavy on the thoughts,
emotions, and commitment of Voltairine de Cleyre
throughout her life. The anniversary of the Haymarket
Martyrs’ execution was always marked by
commemoration ceremonies in various cities across the
world, with most taking place in the United States. The
ceremonies would not only pay tribute to the Haymarket
Martyrs’ and the anarchist principles for which they died,
but it was also a time of renewal to keep on fighting and
organizing. The ceremonies were generally held in
lecture halls and speakers would rail against past and
current injustices and praise the acts of resistance and
movements for social change. Voltairine was a regular
fixture of these annual ceremonies, usually traveling to
the commemorations held in Chicago. Many found her
speeches at these ceremonies to be among her most
impassioned and inspiring. She spoke alongside many of
the most renown anarchists of the time: Emma Goldman,
Alexander Berkman, and Lucy Parsons who was married
to Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons and was one of the
most tireless organizers in the movement. The annual
commemorations remained an important event in
Voltairine’s life up until her death. She attended these
ceremonies sometimes in the midst of deep depression
and/or illness to find relief and inspiration. When she
passed away on June 20th, 1912, she was buried in
Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago next to her martyred
comrades and her her body lays close to the monument
that was built to pay tribute to the Haymarket anarchists’
sacrifice. Many other anarchits and radicals were buried
here as well, including Emma Goldman and Lucy

"The year 1888 marked a turning point in Voltairine de
Cleyre’s life," writes Avrich. "Not only was it the year in
which she became an anarchist and wrote her first
anarchist essays. It was also the year in which, while on
the lecture circuit, she met the three men who played the
most critical roles in her life: T. Hamilton Garside, with
whom she fell passionately in love; James B. Elliott, by
whom she had her only child; and Dyer D. Lum, with
whom her relationship, being intellectual and moral as
well as physical, transcended those with Garside and
Elliott, yet ended, like the others, in tragedy."
Garside was also a lecturer on social struggle, and while
Voltairine at the age of twenty-one fell in love, she was
soon devastated by his eventual rejection of her - as
many of her poems during this time reflect. Garside’s
importance rests largely in his contribution to
Voltairine’s depression, feelings of isolation, and the
development of her feminist thought on male and female
relationships and the position of women in society as sex

Dyer Lum’s relationship with Voltairine had a profound
influence on her political development and they built an
"unshakable" friendship according to Avrich. Lum was
twenty-seven years older than Voltairine and had
experienced much. He had been an abolitionist and
volunteered to fight in the Civil War with the intention
of ending slavery. He was a close associate of many of
the Haymarket martyr’s and had worked alongside them
in their organizing efforts. He was also a prolific writer
and he and Voltairine collaborated on a lengthy social
and philosophical anarchist novel that was unfortunately
never published and has since been lost. They also
collaborated in the elaboration of their politics. At the
time their was intense debate and hostility between
various ideological wings of the anarchist movement.
There were the individualist anarchists that maintained a
deep hostility to the state and any centralized
organization and believed in personal liberty and held to
the belief in private ownership of property: property as
defined as the right of people to their own labor. There
were the socialist and communist anarchists that
organized for the end of the state, capitalism, and
denounced private property as an institution that
enslaved people to bosses and landlords. There were
various schools of thought on how anarchist economics
should be developed, and intense debate over strategies
that should be employed in the making of a new society.
Voltairine and Dyer Lum wrote extensively for
publications representing all of these perspectives and
they pushed forward a theory of anarchism without
adjectives. They argued for, anarchism as a struggle
against authoritarianism and domination that would
allow room for various experiments with economic
structuring of life. One of Voltairine’s most popular
essay, "Anarchism", outlined her thinking on this
subject. She argued for greater tolerance in the anarchist
movement for different ideas and she put forward a
strong case demonstrating the important features of the
various economic schools of thought and their common
struggle for human liberty and egalitarianism. She also
extended her framework of toleration to the Christian
Anarchism of Tolstoy and many others at the time who
had been criticized by the atheists in the movement. That
she embraced the christian anarchists of the movement
points to her own ability to have tolerance, as she was a
major free thought and secularist writer and lecturer at
the time.

While she and Lum shared many of the same beliefs,
Avrich points out that they also had debates on vital
issues, "for example, the position of women as it is and
as it should be" and he notes that Voltairine took a "more
pronounced view" then Lum on what was frequently
referred to at the time as "the woman question". They
also debated the role of violence in making social
change. Lum believed that revolution would inevitably
involve a violent struggle between the working class and
the employing class and his participation in the Civil
War to ’end slavery’ as be believed was but one example
of the unfortunate violence that accompanies social
transformation. Voltairine held to a non-violent belief in
social change, but also held a deep sympathy and
understanding for those who used violent methods. She
was critical, but understanding of the various
assassinations committed by anarchists during the turn of
the century. When President McKinley was shot by Leon
Czolgosz, she explained that it was the violence of
capitalism and economic inequity that pushed people to
use violence.

Voltairine’s commitment to non-violence and sympathy
for those who used violence was put to the test later in
her life. As has already been mentioned Voltairine
supported herself through private lessons. Most of these
lessons centered around teaching english to Jewish
workers and families, with whom she had tremendous
respect and worked with frequently. Towards the end of
1902 one of her former students, Herman Helcher, who
suffered mental illnesses attempted to assassinate her.
She was on her way to teach when Helcher walked up to
her and fired a pistol point blank into her chest. When
she fell to the ground two more bullets where fired into
her back. She managed to run a block before collapsing.
One of her other students, a doctor, immediately found
her and called an ambulance. She was in critical
condition and many feared that she would not survive.
Within a few days she began to recover and her
condition stabilized. What she did next shocked many,
infuriated some, and gained her respect far and wide. In
keeping with her belief that capitalism and
authoritarianism corrupt people and push them to the use
of violence, she "in accordance with the teachings of
Tolstoy, the doctrine of returning good for evil" (Avrich
p.174) refused to identify Helcher as her assailant or to
press any charges against him. She then wrote a letter
that was published by the daily paper of Philadelphia,
where she was living at the time. The letter read:
"The boy who, they say, shot me is crazy. Lack of proper
food and healthy labor made him so. He ought to be put
in an asylum. It would be an outrage against civilization
if he were sent to jail for an act which was the product of
a diseased brain."

"...I have no resentment towards the man. If society were
so constituted as to allow every man, woman and child to
lead a normal life there would be no violence in this
world. It fills me with horror to think the brutal acts done
in the name of government. Every act of violence finds
its echo in another act of violence. The policeman’s club
breeds criminals."

"Contrary to public understanding, Anarchism means
’peace on earth, good will to men’. Acts of violence done
in the name of Anarchy are caused by men and women
who forget to be philosophers - teachers of the people -
because their physical and mental suffering drive them to

Upon recovery Voltairine began speaking throughout
Philadelphia on subjects such as "Crime and
Punishment" and on prison reform and abolition. She
continued to work for clemency for Helcher. Avrich
writes that "Voltairine de Cleyre’s speech was widely
covered in the Philadelphia press." The local press, who
had been strongly anti-anarchist, softened their tone
when reporting on Voltairine, and she even became
something of a celebrity as her act had gained admirers
from even the most critical of people.

Voltairine and Dyer Lum’s relationship ended within five
years. As Avrich already pointed out the tragedy that
runs throughout Voltairine’s love relationships, Lum
committed suicide in 1893. Lum had been experiencing
severe depression, something that Voltairine herself was
no stranger to. Voltairine herself had come close to
suicide on several occasions as a result of terrible
depression and illness. Voltairine’s health was severely
effected by the economic poverty that she lived in
throughout her life. While she was able to pull herself
out, or had help from others to escape depression, Lum
was unable to.

The third man that Voltairine met in 1888 was James B.
Elliot. Elliot was an organizer in the free though
movement, and when the Friendship Liberal League
invited Voltairine to lecture for them in Philadelphia the
two met. Voltairine was to remain most of her adult life
in Philadelphia from 1889-1910. Soon after moving to
Philadelphia she began a relationship with Elliot that was
short-lived . However during their short relationship,
Voltairine became pregnant. On June 12, 1890, Harry de
Cleyre was born. Harry was to be Voltairine’s only child.
Voltairine had no intentions of being a mother and did
not want to raise a child. Avrich writes that "neither
physically nor emotionally nor yet financially was she
able to cope with the responsibility of motherhood".
Harry was raised by his father in Philadelphia, and while
there was little contact between Harry and Voltairine, her
son maintained an enormous amount of love, respect and
admiration for his mother throughout his life. Infact,
Harry took his mother’s name not his father’s and later in
life named his first daughter Voltairine.

In Philadelphia Voltairine spent much of her time
teaching and she continued to write and lecture
frequently. In Philadelphia she helped organize the
lecture series of the Ladies’ Liberal League, which was a
free thought organization that she helped found in 1892.
The League featured lectures on sex, prohibition, crime,
socialism and anarchism. She also helped form the
Social Science Club, an anarchist reading and discussion
group. She wrote frequently for the most prominent
anarchist and free thought newspapers and magazines,
and organized open-air meetings that attracted hundreds
to hear speeches by anarchists and radical unionists from
around the country. She arranged meetings, collected
funds for propaganda, distributed literature, and dozens
of other tasks necessary to maintain and build a
movement. In 1905 Voltairine and several friends started
the Radical Library, which, as she explained, was to
provide radical literature to workers for little pay and
maintain hours that allowed working people access.
Much of this work was done alongside other women
active in the Philadelphia anarchist movement - most
notably, Natasha Notkin, Perle McLeod and her close
friend Mary Hansen.

Voltairine de Cleyre made two trips to Europe during
this time. As a speaker who had traveled the country
many times and as an organizer hosting international
speakers, Voltairine had come to know many radicals in
Europe. With the encouragement and support from
anarchists in England, she made her trips to Europe.
When she was in Europe she delivered dozens of lectures
on "The History of Anarchism in America", "The
Economic Phase of Anarchism", "The Woman
Question", and "Anarchism and the Labor Question".
While she was there she also established ties within the
international movement. While staying in England she
met with comrades from Russia, Spain and France in
addition to numerous contacts and friends she made in
England. Upon returning to the United States she began
writing a section called "American Notes" for the
anarchist newspaper, Freedom, which came out of
London. She also began one of her first translation
projects. She translated the French anarchist Jean Grave’s
book into english. Throughout her life she translated
poems and articles from Yiddish into English and she
translated the anarchist educator Francisco Ferror’s book
The Modern School from Spanish into English. The
english translation of The Modern School book helped
build the Modern School movement in the United States
that in the early 1900’s created dozens of schools which
experimented with anarchist education and collective

During the years of 1890-1910 Voltairine de Cleyre was
one of the most popular and most respected anarchists in
the country, and amongst anarchists internationally - her
writings were translated into Danish, Swedish, Italian,
Russian, Yiddish, Chinese, German, Czech and Spanish.
She was also one of the most radical feminists of her
day, and she along with other anarchist women pushed
for fundamental change on "the Woman Question". In a
lecture at the Ladies Liberal League in 1895 she stated
the sex question "is more intensely important to us then
any other, because of the interdict which generally rests
upon it, because of its immediate bearing upon our daily
life, because of the stupendous mystery of it and the
awful consequences of ignorance of it." Over the years
she delivered lectures on "Sex Slavery", "Love in
Freedom", "Those Who Marry Do Ill", and the "Case of
Women vs. Orthodoxy". She also spoke frequently about
and wrote poems and articles about Mary Wollstonecraft
who she considered to be a pioneering voice for women’s
equality among english speaking people. Avrich writes
that her "whole life was a revolt against this system of
male domination which like every form of tyranny and
exploitation ran contrary to her anarchistic spirit."
Voltairine declared "Let every woman ask herself, 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, giving me in exchange what he deems fit?"
Avrich notes that "Much of this outrage was plainly
rooted in Voltairine’s own experience, in her treatment
by most of the men in her life... as a sex object, breeder,
and domestic servant."

In her own life she tried to practice the feminist
principles that she was advocating. She spoke repeatedly
about women maintaining a room of their own, to
maintain autonomy and independence. Though she had a
hard time making the money to pay rent, she maintained
a room of her own and even while involved in
relationships kept separate quarters. While she was
intensely involved with Dyer Lum earlier in her life the
two lived separately and she looked upon this as an
important aspect of their relationship. She worked hard
to raise consciousness through her lectures, essays,
poems, discussion groups, and living example. Voltairine
often spoke of a moral revolution that would change not
only social arrangements of oppression but also social
relationships that are based on oppression.
In an essay called "Let Our Mothers Show the Way"
from the book Reinventing Anarchy, Again, Elaine
Leeder analyzes the importance of anarchist women in
the development of anarchist thought.

Leeder writes, "Anarchist women believed that changes
in society had to occur in the economic and political
spheres but their emphasis was also on the personal and
psychological dimensions of life. They believed that
changes in the personal aspects of life, such as families,
children, sex, should be viewed as political activity. This
is a new dimension that was added to anarchist theory by
the women at the turn of the century." Leeder points out
that anarchist women "helped bring the domestic sphere
of life within the anarchist tradition" thus they "built
upon" the largely male defined anarchist tradition.
The struggle for sexual equality in society generally and
in the anarchist movement particularly was carried out
by many different women, but the two that made the
deepest impressions were Voltairine de Cleyre and
Emma Goldman. Emma Goldman was arguably the most
widely known and notorious anarchist in the United
States. There were many similarities between these two
women. They had each been strongly effected by the
Haymarket Martyrs execution, they each traveled widely
lecturing and organizing, and they each were frequent
contributors to radical publications. They each fought for
women’s liberation in society and within the ranks of the

In an essay on Voltairine by Sharon Presley, another
commonality is discussed. Presley writes, "Not
surprising for that day, Voltairines’s bad experiences
with the traditionalism of her lovers was a misfortune
she shared with Emma Goldman. ...Most of their lovers
turned out to be disappointingly conventional in matters
of sex roles". While Emma and Voltairine shared many
of the same politics and passions, they developed
personal differences that kept them at odds with one
another for most of Voltairine’s life. According to
Presley, Voltairine thought Emma to be "flamboyant,
self-indulgent, unattractive, and dumpy." Emma in turn
thought Voltairine lacked in personal charm and in
physical beauty and feminine attraction.
Voltairine and Emma were able to put their personal
differences aside on several occasions and eventually
built a supportive relationship. Emma came to
Voltairine’s aid when she was sick and Voltairine
publicly defended Emma when she had been repeatedly
arrested while giving speeches at rallies of the
unemployed during the economic recession of 1908.
Voltairine issued an essay "In Defense of Emma
Goldman and Free Speech". When Emma Goldman
started her publication, Mother Earth, Voltairine
immediately became a regular contributor and strong
supporter. After Voltarine’s death, Mother Earth
published a commerative issus on the life and work of de

Finding herself in a deep depression and plagued by
illness, Voltairine moved to Chicago in 1910. She
continued to lecture and write, but also maintained her
pessimism for the future and doubt as to the value of her
own contribution to the struggle for human liberation.
"During the spring of 1911, at the moment of her deepest
despair, Voltairine’s spirits were lifted by the swelling
revolution in Mexico, and especially by the activities of
Ricardo Flores Magon, the foremost Mexican anarchist
of the time," writes Avrich. Voltairine and other
anarchists went to work raising funds to aid the
revolution and began lecturing on the events taking place
and their importance in the international struggle. Flores
Magon edited the anarchist newspaper Regeneracion,
which was popular not only in Mexico but also in
Mexican-American communities throughout the
Southwest. Voltairine became the papers Chicago
correspondent and distributor and helped form a
solidarity group to build support and raise funds. In the
last year of her life she wrote her powerful essay, "Direct
Action" and vocally supported the militant unionists of
the Industrial Workers of the World. After suffering
several weeks of severely weakened health, Voltairine
died on June 20th, 1912. According to Avrich, two
thousand attended the funeral at Waldheim cemetery
where she was buried next to the Haymarket martyr’s.
In 1914 Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman
published the Selected Works of Voltairine de Cleyre
which was described as "an arsenal of knowledge for the
student and soldier of freedom".


My understanding of Voltairine de Cleyre’s life comes
largely from Paul Avrich’s book An American Anarchist:
The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre. I had read a collection
of her essays several years ago, and reread them along
with two others that I found. I was able to find two brief
biographical sketches of Voltairine on an anarchistfeminist
webpage on the internet. The biographical
essays were written by Sharon Presley and Saara Basse.

My essay owes much to the research done by Paul
Avrich who has been the foremost historian on
anarchism in the United States. His biography on
Voltairine was his first of six books [to date] on
American anarchism. While I have found Avrich’s work
to be extremely valuable and insightful, I am also
awaiting the writings by others that bring new ideas and
radical perspectives to the study of history. Avrich
outlines his method of historiography in the introduction
of Voltairine’s biography. In writing about the history of
anarchism, Avrich looks at major figures and explores
their lives, thoughts, activities, and the impact that they
had on the movement and society. Reading about
Voltairine’s life - her struggles, her passion, and her ideas
- has taught me much about this important figure in
anarchist and feminist history. What I would love to read
after having read this book, is one that looks at the
anarchist and feminist movements from a people’s
history perspective. This is a perspective that looks at the
many different people, organizations, and communities
involved in making the movements viable and alive. I
would like to know more about the many different
groups that existed, periodicals that came out, and
campaigns that were organized. I want to know more
about all of the people that organized the hundreds of
events that Voltairine spoke at. I want to know more
about the internal dynamics and structures of the
movements and how it managed to survive and expand.
The book that represents this decentralist and grassroots
people’s history approach to historiography is Charles
Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing
Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. While
looking at important figures, the communities and the
movement remain the central figures in the books
impressive analysis. Payne states that when we focus our
attention on the big speeches and big marches (or big
personalities) of a movement, we overlook the day-today
organizing that is often tedious, slow and hard work.
However, it is the everyday organizing that gives the
speeches and marches their meaning and significance,
according to Payne. I agree entirely.

Avrich has began the process of recovering history and
has provided some of the most fascinating books on
anarchist history. It is the responsibility now of others to
take up this project of not only recovering lost history,
but interpreting and making sense of the past from
radical perspectives that will help us understand histories
of social change so that we can be more effective in our
own struggles in the present and future.

For example, in the book by Avrich and the two short
biographical essays, all of them mention the hostility
between Voltairine de Cleyre and Emma Goldman. This
hostility kept these two powerful women at odds with
each other for a good part of Voltairine’s life. While
Avrich provides details about why they disliked one
another, the other two only mention the nasty comments
each made about the other’s personal charm, unattractive
physical appearances, and personality styles. What I
would like to see is an analysis of how gender roles,
sexism, and male domination contributed to the hostility
between these two anarchist/feminists who struggled for
so many of the same reasons and with so much passion. I
believe that Voltairine and Emma had mutual hostility
for another largely because of internalized sexism that
positions women against one another and that this was in
large part, because the anarchist movement at the time
was overwhelmingly male dominated and only limited
space was provided for women. Limited space, in terms
of public recognition, credit for work, and movement
wide respect. Voltairine and Emma were pitted against
one another in a struggle over scarce social resources
allowed to women in a patriarchal society and
movement. Both Emma and Voltairine had to fight to
make women’s issues heard in the movement, and
constantly found themselves challenging sexist attitudes
and patterns of behavior in their comrades and lovers and
in society generally. The struggle against sexism and
male domination remains a central feature of the
contemporary anarchist movement. As Voltairine had to
force anarchist men to recognize the importance of the
"women’s question", anarchist women today have written
articles, organized workshops, held meetings, and
protested sexism in the movement. In San Francisco, a
Women’s Discussion Group was formed by and for
activist women. The group was initiated by anarchist
women to create a forum for activists to share
experiences and learn from one other in an attempt to not
only challenge male domination, but also to address the
impact sexism has on relationships between women.
Food Not Bombs activist Johnna Bossuot was one of the
founders of the discussion group and she explained that
it was formed so that women could begin to improve
dynamics between one another and build support to
simultaneous confront power inequality in the activist
community and in society in general. The impact of
sexism and male domination on women’s relationships is
an issue that needs to be addressed more. The ways that
men can actively challenge patriarchy and work in
solidarity with women against sexism is an issue that
needs to be explored more frequently and in more depth.
One of the shortcomings that I found in Avrich’s book
was the lack of attention paid to Voltairine’s
relationships with other women, while they were
mentioned and referred to, none of her close
relationships with women were explored in detail.

The literature that I was able to read that was actually
written by de Cleyre was brilliant. I only wish that her
many other essays and articles could be collected and
published. Unfortunately many have been lost, including
her autobiography.


What can we learn from Voltairine’s life and from the
ideas that she put forward? While Voltairine helped
establish many key ideas and concepts of anarchist and
feminist thought from 1890-1910, it is the responsibility
of radicals today to learn from our past while also
looking for more information and different perspectives
to expand our analysis and activities.

When Voltairine was speaking on marriage, sex
inequality, women’s autonomy, and the ending of class
exploitation, the mainstream feminist movement at the
time was organizing to secure the vote for white women:
Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton were the
foremost representatives of the suffrage movement.
While the mainstream feminist movement spoke out
against a number of issues effecting women, they looked
upon the vote as a significant tool to use in the struggle
for equality. What the suffrage movement struggled for
was entrance into the formal political sphere of
bourgeois democracy. When they spoke of equality, it
was the status of rights held by white men that was
viewed as the goal. At the time Black feminists and
Black women’s clubs also protested demanding suffrage
for Black as well as white women. Black women were
also organizing against racial violence and exploitation
in a white supremacist society. While white suffragists
wanted equality of rights with white men, Black women
struggled for equality of rights for Black women and
men in a race and class based society.

Voltairine and other anarchist feminists of this time fell
somewhere between these two currents of feminist
movement. Voltairine, Emma Goldman, and others
lashed out at the suffrage movement as a struggle that
would fail to accomplish its goals of equality. Look at
the working men who have the vote now, they said, have
they secured any better standing in society as a result of
their vote - have they managed to escape the poverty and
exploitation that dominates their lives. Voltairine
theorized on the need to apply direct action in the
struggle for egalitarianism. While the reformers hope to
one day elect a representative that will one day pass a
law to improve working conditions - the radicals
organize in the workplaces and strike for immediate
gains. Direct action is the path to social change she
argued, as it not only works to achieve improved
conditions it also empowers people to take control of
their lives. Voltairine also criticized the suffragists for
their acceptance of capitalism and the state. As long as
class exploitation and authoritarianism exist then
political equality is of little meaning. While critical of
the white suffragists, the Black feminists could have also
been critical of the largely white anarchist movement.
While anarchists were fiercely opposed to slavery, they
failed, for the most part, to develop a systematic
understanding of race, slavery, colonialism, and white
supremacy in the United States and how these factors
contributed to the development of class relations and
capitalism generally. Voltairine de Cleyre, and other
anarchists, made reference to the horrors of slavery and
the dispossessing of land from the indigenous
population, but, in general, these history shaping factors
were not included in the shaping of anarchist theories
and struggles at the turn of the century. Many today
critique the failure of the contemporary anarchist
movement to seriously analyze white supremacy, white
skin privilege, colonialism, and race generally. African-
American anarchists have been at the forefront of not
only developing anarchist theories of white supremacy,
but also pushing the larger movement to seriously
address these issues. Voltairine was critical of the
suffragists and argued for the abolition of capitalism and
hierarchical relationships, but she nevertheless thought in
terms of white society.

The contemporary feminist movement has experienced
tremendous debate about the failure of white women to
acknowledge race, about the need to understand the
intersectionality of systems of power, privilege and
exploitation. Women of color feminists over the past
thirty years have produced an enormous amount of
literature analyzing race, class, gender, and power.
bell hooks, in her essay, Black Women: Shaping
Feminist Theory, writes "white women who dominate
feminist discourse today rarely question whether or not
their perspective on women’s reality is true to the lived
experiences of women as a collective group. Nor are
they aware of the extent to which their perspectives
reflect race and class biases..."

Voltairine de Cleyre wrote about and lectured on the
need to abolish marriage and the nuclear family as
institutions which made women slaves. Voltairine spoke
of the need for women to find a room of their own so as
to maintain their autonomy. She also spoke about the
right of women to satisfy themselves sexually though
free love relationships in which women maintained the
right to begin and terminate relationships as they wished.
When she was speaking on marriage, the family, and
sex, the dominate model of womanhood centered around
submissiveness to the husband, sexual chastity until
marriage and then only for the sake of reproduction, and
duty to the family. However this was the model of white
womanhood during the Victorian age, not for
womanhood generally. For example, during slavery and
under white supremacy generally, the Black family was
torn apart, women were forced to labor under the same
conditions of men regardless of so-called "femininity",
men did not have sanctioned authority over women,
children or themselves for that matter. Slavery destroyed
long term relationships between Black people, and
further generated deformed notions of Black sexuality
used to control the Black community: the Black woman
whore and the Black male rapist figure prominently in
the white imagination. As a result of these collective
experiences, Black women feminists at the turn of the
century were advocating for strong families and
marriages. In her essay, Our Mother’s Grief: Racial
Ethnic Women and the Maintenance of Families, Bonnie
Thorton Dill looks at the histories of African-Americans,
Chinese Sojourners, and Chicanos and concludes that
"Reproductive labor for Afro-American, Chinese-
American, Mexican-American women in the nineteenth
century centered on the struggle to maintain family units
in the face of a variety of cultural assaults. Treated
primarily as individual units of labor rather than as
members of family groups, these women labored to
maintain, sustain, stabilize, and reproduce their families
while working in both the public(productive) and
private(reproductive) spheres".

While Voltairine was familiar with the experiences of
white working class women in the United States and the
effects of patriarchy and sexism in their lives, she was
largely unaware of, or atleast wrote little about, the lives
of women of color. The reason it is important to look at
the development of her ideas, is because she and other
radical women like Emma Goldman have contributed
greatly to the foundation on which feminist theory and
movement of the last thirty years has grown. Her ideas
on direct action, birth control, sexual relationships,
marriage, the family, the need for autonomous space in
living arrangements, and belief in egalitarianism found
expression in many of the writings of women involved in
the resurgence of feminist movement in the 60s, 70’s and
into today. In her book "Patriarchy and Accumulation on
a World Scale", Maria Mies writes of the emerging
Women’s Liberation movement of the last thirty years
and describes the development of "body politics". "By
speaking openly about their most intimate relations with
men, their sexuality, their experiences with menstruation,
pregnancy, childcare, their relationship to their own
bodies, the lack of knowledge about their own bodies,
their problems with contraception etc. the women began
to socialize and thus politicize their most intimate,
individual and atomized experiences." Reading this I am
reminded of the statement made by Elaine Leeder that
anarchist women at the tun of the century, like
Voltairine, brought the domestic sphere of life within the
anarchist tradition and politicized many of the same
issues outlined by Mies. Mies also makes another claim
that strongly connects Voltairine to contemporary
feminism. Mies writes "the feminist movement is
basically an anarchist movement which does not want to
replace one (male) power elite by another (female)
power elite, but which wants to build up a nonhierarchical,
non-centralized society where no elite lives
on exploitation and dominance over others". The critique
of authority and domination alongside the anarchist
analysis of a free society that was put forward
relentlessly by Voltairine throughout her life has
contributed to the egalitarianist politics of the feminist
movement today.

While many of the ideas and theories developed by
Voltairine and other anarchist women have benefited
feminist movement, the universalizing of white women’s
experience as that of women generally has also
continued. As bell hooks mentioned, much of
mainstream feminism is being written from a white (and
middle to upper class) bias that marginalizes or ignores
women of color and working class/poor women’s
experiences and ideas. I believe that if Voltairine was
alive today she would be on the forefront of the struggle
within both feminist and anarchist movements to develop
analysis that looks at the intersection of race, class and
gender and she would agitate for direct action to bring
about radical change.

I have looked at the debates, discussions, tensions, and
struggles within feminism, not because I believe that
these issues are only relevant to feminism, but rather that
it is within feminist writings and movement that I have
found the most sophisticated, radical, practical and
4inspiring analysis of power relations and the struggle for

Voltairine de Cleyre remains an important figure in the
anarchist and feminist tradition, and her life and work
continues to inspire many. Social Justice activist,
Heather Whitney, who recently read Voltarine’s
biography explained that "the need for anarcha-feminist
argument is as important today as it was in the 19th
century. To me it seems absolutely necessary to analyze
class when talking about the dynamics of power and our
goals towards liberation. When I read about Voltairine
de Cleyre I was righteously impressed with her
outspoken views on women’s rights and class dynamics.
She spoke truth to issues of women’s health and
reproductive freedom as being essential... she may have
been made an anarchist by Haymarket, but she was a
feminist by birth".

The life and work of Voltairine de Cleyre along with the
lessons that we can learn from her example challenge
and inspire us to keep organizing, theorizing, and
dreaming of a liberatory society based on the principles
of cooperation, mutual aid, egalitarianism, and anarchist feminism.

Chris Crass is a social justice organizer with Food Not
Bombs in San Francisco

P.S. :

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