Voltairine De Cleyre | John Hawthorne

Voltairine De Cleyre is perhaps less a rogue and more an exquisite rebel, as she is termed in a collection of her essays (See Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine De Cleyre – Anarchist, Feminist, Genius: SUNY 2005). 

Having passed away in 1912 before the great (tragic) events of the 20th century, it is an unfortunate outcome of history that she has been overshadowed by that other famous female anarchist, Emma Goldman. 

As a libertarian who saw collectivism as antithetical to true freedom, her observations on developments on the Russian Revolution would have provided a more critical insight than the self-righteous pontifications of Goldman, who had no interest in overturning the established order unless it permitted her to dance. Indeed, De Cleyre’s conviction that “the amount of administration required by Economic Communism would practically be meddlesome government, denying equal freedom” (The Firebrand, July 11, 1897) are nothing but prescient considering how really existing socialism would dialectically materialize in reality. Despite much bitterness and resentment directed towards De Cleyre during her lifetime, Goldman would later go on to describe her as “one of the three great anarchist women of modern times” (Man!, May 1935). 

The daughter of a French Catholic family who grew up in Leslie, Michigan, USA, Voltai, as she was affectionately known, was named after the famous French Enlightenment wit who was admired by her father. Despite the excruciating poverty of her upbringing, Voltairine was a precocious child and the family scrimped enough to send her to a Catholic convent school in Sarnia, Ontario, with the belief it would provide a better education than that afforded by public schools, as well as taming her rebellious instincts. Despite her attempts to escape and professed aversion to all things religious, her time at the convent certainly had a strong influence upon De Cleyre’ character, if not temperament. In her dedication for the cause of absolute liberty to the detriment of her own personal health and welfare, De Cleyre had something of the ascetic about her. 

After the convent, De Cleyre moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, which functioned as base from which she travelled on lecturing tours on behalf of the freethought movement. She later became editor of the freethinking newspaper, The Progressive Age. A talented poet, De Cleyre signalled her conversion to freethought and libertarian in the composition, The Burial of my Past Self. The religious fervent is obvious: 

And now, Humanity, I turn to you; I consecrate my service to the world! 

perish the old love, welcome to the new- 

Broad as the space-aisles where the stars are whirled! 

(Selected works, Mother Earth Publishing 1914, edited by Alexander Berkman, available online) 

Despite her individualist zeal, De Cleyre was easily guiled by love and became pregnant by fellow freethinker, James B. Elliot. However, she had no interest in being a mother and decanted Elliot and his relatives. She also developed an intriguing relationship with labour activist, and poet, Dyer Lum, which Goldman described as equal part teacher, confidant, and comrade. A bookbinder by trade, Lum was associated with the Haymarket martyrs and after failing to retaliate against the authorities, he declined into a deep depression and committed suicide by poison. Voltairine has sensed the end was near and wrote a similarly titled reply to Lum’s poem, You and I in the Golden Weather in 1892, the last verse of which reads: 

You and I, when the years in flowing 

Have left us behind with all things that die, 

With the rot of our bones shall give soil for growing 

The loves of the Future, made sweet for blowing By the dew of the kiss of the last good-bye! (Selected Works)

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