Voltairine de Cleyre is one of the most fascinating people in history. She was a contemporary of Emma Goldman but until she was plucked from obscurity by Paul Avrich in the 70s, many had not heard of her. She is not exactly “known” now but at least in certain circles her voice lives on. Unlike many of the historical anarchists we know of, de Cleyre was American born. She was born in Michigan in 1866 to an American mother and a Communist, French father. Her father was born out of revolutionary French fervor and therefore he named her Voltairine (after Voltaire).
Her story, like many of those born to immigrants (or who were immigrants) starts out in abject poverty. Her father worked odd jobs and her mother took care of the children. At a young age, de Cleyre was sent of to a convent for her education. It was in this staunchly religious environment that she began to form her ideas about religion and politics. From her essay “The Making of an Anarchist” de Cleyre speaks of the pain of growing up in a convent, “the old ancestral spirit of rebellion asserted itself while I was yet fourteen, a schoolgirl at the Convent of Our Lady of Lake Huron, at Sarnis, Ontario. How I pity myself now, when I remember it, poor lonesome little soul, battling solitary in the murk of religious superstition, unable to believe and yet in hourly fear of damnation, hot, savage, and eternal, if I do not instantly confess and profess!” Perhaps it was her upbringing in a Communist household that prevented her from believing in God, or perhaps she was innately suspicious of religion as a female growing up in Victorian America. This strong atheist view point stayed with de Cleyre her whole life and it is at the heart of her feminist philosophy.
Both de Cleyre and Goldman were radical, female Anarchists. They believed in full emancipation from the government, from men and from the rules that confined them to pregnancy and ignorance. Around the time that Goldman was beginning her activist career in New York, de Cleyre was moving to Philadelphia. She moved to Philly and wanted to live independently, so she started working as a teacher and tutor to some of the poorest in the city. She never worked in a traditional school but taught piano, reading and writing to immigrants in the City’s tenements. This work confirmed her feelings towards government, religion and women’s issues. She saw some of the worst living conditions directly related to how immigrants were seen by society and how women were seen by men.
De Cleyre had very strong opinions about marriage and kids. In her essay “Those who Marry Do Ill” de Cleyre discussed the issues of marriage and how it is equal to sex slavery for women. Marriage to women of the early twentieth-century was similar to that of a prison according to de Cleyre, she wrote that men are “our Masters! The earth is a prison, the marriage-bed is a cell, women are the prisoners, and you are the keepers!” She would not agree to marry in her lifetime and believed that “men and women [should] so arrange their lives that they shall always, at all times, be free being in this regard as in all others.” Freedom above all else is what de Cleyre sought and so when she gave birth to her only child, she felt the confines of motherhood and abandoned him with his father.
In 1890 Voltairine de Cleyre gave birth to her first and only child Harry Elliott. The event was not something she enjoyed and fell into a deep depression. She spoke of the event in “An American Anarchist” by Paul Avrich, “I think I hardly laughed once for the year preceding and accomplishing his birth.” Having a child according to Emma Goldman, “did not fit into her life, her plans, at all…She had things she wanted to do with her life, and he was not part of them.” Getting pregnant and raising a child in de Cleyre’s position would have been very complicated. Beyond being poor and not having access to proper birth control, she was not married and her son was destined to be a bastard. Harry was lucky enough to be raised by his father but would suffer the injustice of being born out of wedlock and the rejection of his mother. De Cleyre writes many essays on the topic of birth, children and marriage because it was something she believed women were forced into by man and church. They were not in charge of their own bodies and since birth control was illegal, a woman was destined and subjected to many pregnancies. Often these multiple pregnancies had ill effects on a woman’s mind and body. She would be forced to bear children despite the health and safety of her and her family.
De Cleyre’s politics were very clearly about emancipation and the right for women to chose their paths. She was not anti-marriage because of the loving union humans may have sought but rather because of the religious and political ties. She was an early advocate for free love, homosexuality and birth control. She did not advocate for people to stop having sex or stop having babies but yet do so out of free choice. De Cleyre writes, “while I’m am not over and above anxious about the repopulation of the earth, and should not shed any tears if I knew the last man had already been born, I am not advocating sexual total abstinence.” She later writes “I would have men and women so arrange their lives that they shall always, at all times, be free beings in this regard as in all others.” She felt the government and the church had too much power over how women conducted their reproductive business. The lack of freedom to decide if and how many resulted in many unwanted pregnancies leaving “little babies, helpless, voiceless little things…forced into this world to struggle and to suffer, to hate themselves, to hate their mothers for bearing them to hate society and to be hated by it in return.” She had first hand knowledge of this experience with her own son and went on to write a very lengthy poem called “Bastard Born” in 1891.
Why do you clothe me with scarlet of shame?
Why do you point with your finger of scorn?
What is the crime that you hissingly name
When you sneer in my ears, “Thou bastard born?”
Am I not as the rest of you,
With a hope to reach, and a dream to live?
With a soul to suffer, a heart to know
The pangs that the thrusts of the heartless give?”
I am no monster! Look at me —
Straight in my eyes, that they do not shrink!
Is there aught in them you can see
To merit this hemlock you make me drink?
As we still see today, De Cleyre’s criticisms about the church and government having too much control over our reproductive lives are real. Women continue to debate with government over access to affordable birth control and the legality of abortion. See here an article where a fully insured woman has to wait 6 months to get approval for an iud (and could obtain a gun in less than 2 days), or see here, an article where Pope Francis is considering pardoning women who have had abortions. Sure this sounds like a progressive step for the Catholic church but it also sounds like a lot of power given to a man, and institution over how you conduct your sexual and reproductive life. At some point we have to walk away from these traditional notions of what women’s roles are and declare reproductive emancipation!
An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre (1978)