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Wednesday’s Woman … Voltairine de Cleyre

February 5, 2014

I am lucky,  drawing near to the end of my working life, I work in an environment where women  are fairly treated. However this has not always been the case; women in a capitalist society and the consumer culture are abused, used and taken for granted by employers, husbands and politicians.

I spend much of my time researching for women through the ages who have fought against this.  I thought the movement began in the 1960s; but it seems there were women speaking out about birth control, anti-marriage and independence before women had the right to vote.  

While dipping into Quiet Rumours again I came across Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912) she was an American anarchist writer and feminist.  She spoke out, opposing the state, marriage and the domination of religion in sexuality and women’s lives in general.  

She was named after Voltaire the well known enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher, and  born in Michigan,to a poor and unhappy household. At twelve her father eager for her to be better educated sent her to  Catholic Convent; she says in her essay that ‘by early influences and education I should have been a nun and spent my life glorifying’  as her school friends were doing still doing as she spoke. She goes on to say that she still pitied the little girl ‘battling solitary in the murk of religious superstition unable to believe’ but not having the courage to say otherwise.  

Three years later she left the convent a free thinker; but without having read  a book or heard a word of encouragement.  Her story ‘The making of an anarchist’   written during the time that followed has a cinematic feel.   

While she become influenced by Thomas Paine the English-American political activist and author and Mary Wollstonecraft the eighteenth-century English writer, philosopher, and advocate of women’s rights, amongst many others it was after the hanging of the Haymarket protesters in 1887, when she became an anarchist. “Till then I believed in the essential justice of the American law of trial by jury,” she wrote in an autobiographical essay, “After that I never could”.

Voltairine was considered an excellent speaker and writer and a tireless advocate for the anarchist cause.  She was a colleague of Emma Goldman it is said while they disagreed on many issues they maintained a loyal relationship.  She had a son by James B Elliott; but she had no part in his upbringing; Harry was bought up by his father.

Between 1889  and 1910 Voltairine lived in Philadelphia among the poor Jewish immigrants where sympathy for anarchist beliefs was common.  Here, she taught English and music and she learned to speak and write in Yiddish.

Throughout her life she suffered poor health and depression; attempting suicide more than once.  December 19th 1902 a former student tried to kill her; she understood that he was ‘rendered insane’ so she forgave him saying, ‘ It would be an outrage against civilisation if he were sent to jail for an act which was the product of a diseased brain’. The attack left her with chronic ear pain and a throat condition that affected her speech and her ability to concentrate.  

Voltairine de Cleyre died on June 20th 1912 from septic meningitis. She is buried near Emma Goldman, the Haymarket defendants and social activists in the Forest Home Cemetery formerly known as Waldheim Cemetery



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