The leading female anarchist in America, little known now but a prominent figure in the 1890s and 1900s. Her upbringing in a convent made her an atheist, and she opposed marriage in all its forms. She did not espouse a particular view of economics except that people should rely on individual enterprise rather than government; and could not be coerced into accepting a prevailing economic model. As well as an orator and writer for her cause, she was also a poet.

I had never heard of her until tonight, chancing on her name in an essay by Bernard Levin about her more famous compeer Emma Goldman, and I was fascinated by her name. As Levin said, it's like something out of Amanda McKittrick Ros. But it's real. Her father was French, and in his early years a freethinker, so he named her after Voltaire. She was born on 17th November 1866 in the small town of Leslie, in Michigan. They lived in poverty.

Her father recanted his freethinking, returned to the church, and packed little Voltairine off to Ontario to be educated and with luck become a nun. She hated the hypocrisy of the place and of the Church, ran away several times, and was fixed in her own freethinking. From the age of 19 she lectured on free thought in Chicago. She heard Clarence Darrow speak and flirted with socialism.

In 1886 the Haymarket Massacre occurred, when police were killed at a protest meeting and retaliated with force. The execution of the alleged ringleaders on flimsy evidence shocked her and led her into discovering anarchism. She experimented with the various flavours of it, in terms of how the economy was to be managed, but finally developed her own doctrine of choice and non-coercion, "anarchy without adjectives" as it had been called.

She spent most of her time thereafter in Pittsburgh, writing and speaking, preaching toleration and pacifism, having a number of unsatisfactory love affairs, all this shaping her published views and the influence she would have. The one lover who treated her as a true intellectual and moral equal, Dyer Lum, committed suicide in 1893.

I have noded her best-known essay, Anarchism and American Traditions.

Voltairine de Cleyre died on 6th June 1912, at the age of 45, worn out with illness and suffering. She is buried in Waldheim Cemetery near the Haymarket martyrs, whom she had commemorated in verse. In 1914 the anarchist Alexander Berkman brought out a commemorative Selected Works. A biography by Paul Avrich entitled An American Anarchist appeared in 1978. When I first came across her name and it inspired me to node, I doubted I would find anything on the Web, but a search throws up many detailed articles and archives on her specifically, including her essays and poetry.


I am! The ages on the ages roll:
And what I am, I was, and I shall be:
by slow growth filling higher Destiny,
And Widening, ever, to the widening Goal.
I am the Stone that slept; down deep in me
That old, old sleep has left its centurine trace;
I am the plant that dreamed; and lo! still see
That dream-life dwelling on the Human Face.
I slept, I dreamed, I wakened: I am Man!
The hut grows Palaces; the depths breed light;
Still on! Forms pass; but Form yields kinglier Might!
The singer, dying where his song began,
In Me yet lives; and yet again shall he
Unseal the lips of greater songs To Be;
For mine the thousand tongues of Immortality.

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