The Dominant Idea|
The libertine anarchist Emma Goldman wrote that Voltairine de Cleyre was "the most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced." Goldman had met de Cleyre in Philadelphia in 1893. And while the relationship between the two women was strained at times they both fought on the same side in the great American political war against capitalism. That war was raging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the fruits of the Industrial Revolution turned sour on the vines in cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. History has been more generous to Goldman in terms of recognition but de Cleyre might actually be the more interesting and complex personality.
Voltairine de Claire (she later changed it to de Cleyre but no one seems to know why) was born in the rural Michigan town of Leslie on November 17, 1866. Her father, an admirer of Voltaire, named his daughter in honor of the French philosopher. Her early childhood was notable for the poverty her family endured.
There has been some debate about her appearance. Her biographer, Paul Avrich, describes Voltairine as a "pretty child, with long brown hair, blue eyes." Goldman on the other hand wrote, "...physical beauty and feminine attraction were withheld from her, their lack made more apparent by ill health and her abhorrence of artifice." Indeed Voltairine did suffer from a weak physical constitution and she was frequently ill. Perhaps by the time Goldman met her Voltairine's appearance had diminished. Or, perhaps Goldman was just being catty. The couple of photographs this writer has seen indicate Voltairine was neither exceptionally pretty nor exceedingly ugly; but such issues are truly in the eyes of the beholder. (Emma Goldman herself could hardly be described as conventionally attractive.)
Despite the fact that her father was at one point a progressive thinking man by the time his daughter reached puberty he decided to send her to a Catholic school in Canada. In September 1880 Voltairine was enrolled in the Convent of Our Lady of Port Huron in Ontario. She graduated in December 1883 but the experience of the rigid parochial school left an indelible impression on the young woman. It effectively turned her into a devout anti-authoritarian and an atheist.
In the 19th century one code word for atheism was "freethought." The rise of the Freethought movement led by individuals like Mark Twain and Robert G. Ingersoll placed an emphasis on this world as opposed to the next one. (In the 20th century the term "secular humanism" is used to describe similar Freethought concepts.) De Cleyre's reaction to her convent education led her intellectually and emotionally to pursue the philosophy of the Freethought movement. She did not attend college but undertook a rigorous self-education and for the first couple of years after her formal schooling ended she studied and then began lecturing on Freethought ideas. She wrote and became an editor of The Progressive Age a weekly Freethought newspaper. To support herself she tutored in English, music and penmanship.
The seeds of de Cleyre's political awakening were planted on May 4, 1886 when the so-called "Haymarket Square Riot" occurred in Chicago. A bomb exploded during a demonstration by workers led by anarchists advocating an eight-hour workday. Seven policeman and four civilians were killed. Initially repulsed by the anarchists' use of such violence her attitude transformed when a sham trial of eight anarchists resulted in the execution of four of them on November 11, 1887 These men were to be known as the "Haymarket Martyrs." (One committed suicide before being hung and three others went to prison for seven years.)
Another event that greatly influenced de Cleyre occurred in December 1887 when she heard a lecture on socialism by Clarence Darrow (1857-1938). So persuaded was she by the logic of Darrow's speech and its anti-capitalist message that she became, almost immediately, a socialist. Not satisifed with the philosophy of socialism she soon embraced anarchism. For the rest of her life de Cleyre would commit herself to the underdog, the disenfranchised or what the German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) would later call the "fellaheen."
In 1888 de Cleyre was traveling around lecturing on the social struggle of the working class and the poor. It was at this time that the 21-year-old met another social activist, T. Hamilton Garside. She fell in love with Garside. But as one commentator suggests his eventual rejection of her was devastating and contributed "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." (Sharon Presley). De Cleyre's feminism was significant. She opposed marriage referring to it as "the sanction for all manner of bestiality."
Garside was not her only romance. In 1888 while lecturing in Philadelphia for the Friendship Liberal League she met James B. Elliott. In 1889 she moved to Philadelphia where she would continue her social activism. Her affair with Elliott would be short-lived but important for it resulted in the birth to her only child, Harry, on June 12, 1890. By all accounts de Cleyre was not well equipped for motherhood, either emotionally or physically. Harry would be raised by Elliott's family and had only minimal contact with his mother.
De Cleyre also met and fell in love with the anarchist Dyer D. Lum who was 27 years her senior. This relationship too ended unhappily when Lum committed suicide in 1893 by ingesting an overdose of opium. Emma Goldman summed up de Cleyre's romances: "[T]he men who came into her life...were too overawed by her intellectual superiority, which held them for a time. But the famished soul of Voltairine de Cleyre craved for more than mere admiration...Each [lover] in his own way turned on her with a ruthless blow and left her desolate, solitary, heart-hungry."
De Cleyre stayed in Philadelphia where she worked frequently with the immigrant Jewish population giving English and music lessons. She continued to lecture and organize. In 1892 she founded the Ladies Liberal League and helped form the Social Science Club. In 1897 she took a brief trip to lecture in England and Scotland. On December 19, 1902 a former student, Herman Helcher, who suffered from mental disease and apparently was in love with de Cleyre shot her as she was boarding a bus. Her wounds were significant but she survived. She took a trip to Norway to convalesce and upon her return to Philadelphia resumed her social activism by setting up in 1905 the Radical Library League. Her bouts with physical ill health and mental depression continued.
De Cleyre moved back to Chicago in 1910. Apparently there were a couple of suicide attempts and her notebooks reveal a letter she wrote in which she contemplates ending her life. On January 20, 1912, at age 45, she died from illness. She is buried in Chicago's Waldheim Cemetery, the same cemetery that the "Haymarket Martyrs" were put to rest. She is in fact buried very near their graves.
De Cleyre wrote much during her life. Her Selected Works were edited and published by Alexander Berkman in 1914. Much of her prose displays the tension she felt between the inner and outer aspects of her life and how it related to her role as a social activist. For example, the dichotomy she felt between egoism and altruism is displayed in the following brief excerpts. The first is from her essay "Crime and Punishment" (1903):
I believe that the purpose of life (insofar as we can give it a purpose, and it has none save what we give it) is the assertion and the development of a strong, self-centered personality.In a later essay entitled "The Dominant Idea" (1910) she writes,
To conceive a higher thing than oneself and live towards that is the only way of living worthily.De Cleyre lived during a time when the agrarian culture of the country was being dramatically transformed by the science and technology of the Industrial Revolution. While some saw the benefits many others suffered the consequences. It was to those who suffered that de Cleyre devoted her life. Her dominant idea was to help others. Perhaps she knew this to be the right way to live because of her own suffering.