by Chris Crass of www.infoshop.org
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 Anarchism..."
Upon leaving the convent Voltairine went to work offering private lessons in music, French, and fancy penmanship. Thus begins, as Avrich points out, her life-long 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 Parsons.
"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 objects.
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, there 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" than 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:
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. In fact, 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 learning.
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 movement.
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 Cleyre.
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 paper's 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 martyrs.
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 anarchist-feminist 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-to-day 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 non-hierarchical, 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 inspiring analysis of power relations and the struggle for egalitarianism.
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.