Adventures in Feministory: Voltairine de Cleyre, Anarchist without Adjectives


Voltairine de Cleyre was an Anarchist thinker, lecturer, and writer. A contemporary of Emma Goldman's, she was known for her strength of will and commitment to the power of the individual. (Incidentally, she was also a total babe.) 
I wanted to write about de Cleyre for the obvious reason that she was a totally brilliant early feminist, but also because while Goldman, her colleague and sometimes adversary, was and continues to be a hugely famous progressive hero, de Cleyre is a relatively obscure figure. This is partly because she died young and partly because she wasn't nearly as gregarious as Goldman, preferring to publish and fundraise in relative solitude. But! The work she did, though different than Goldman's, was just as important.
De Cleyre was born in 1866 in rural Michigan. She came from a progressive family: her grandfather was an abolitionist, and her father was an atheist who named her after Voltaire. When she was thirteen, she was sent to a convent, from which she promptly tried to escape. She swam across a river and hiked 17 miles to get away, but she ran into family friends who had her sent back, and she stayed in the convent for four years.

Although that escape attempt was an early testament to the power of her will, de Cleyre's years in the convent would actually help shape her particularly American brand of Anarchism. She considered herself an "Anarchist without adjectives," meaning that instead of breaking off into a sect and arguing with other Anarchists, she thought it important that everyone who believed in Anarchism support each other in order to further their common goals. From reading and talking to people about de Cleyre and Goldman, I've found that de Cleyre's identification as an Anarchist without adjectives is a significant part of what separated her from Goldman. Another of the biggest differences between the two is that while Goldman and her ideas were originally European, de Cleyre's insistence on freedom was very much shaped by the tradition of American transcendentalism. She read Thoreau and wrote poetry influenced by nature.

De Cleyre was also influenced by Mary Wollstonecraft. She was a feminist because she held the radical belief that every human should be totally free. In her awesome 1890 essay, "Sex Slavery," she declared that conventions of dress, standards of purity, and the institution of marriage were all prisons for women. "The question of souls is old," she wrote. "We demand our bodies, now."

Throughout her short life (she died at 45), de Cleyre suffered from chronic illness and depression. But what amazes me about her is that despite her personal suffering, she was intensely focused and incredibly compassionate. In 1902 a former student of de Cleyre's shot her three times. Predictably, he claimed that he was in love with de Cleyre and that she had broken his heart. Not only did de Cleyre survive, during her recovery she worked to raise money for her shooter's lawyer fees so he could be released from prison. She wrote: "I think this is a case where all Anarchists are concerned that the world may learn our ideas concerning the treatment of so-called 'criminals.'" Even though she had renounced violence, it was against what she believed to allow anyone, even someone who had tried to kill her, to be imprisoned.

If you want to learn more about Voltairine de Cleyre, I suggest Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre—Anarchist, Feminist, Genius, edited by Sharon Presley and Crispin Sartwell.

by Lindsay Baltus
View profile »

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

8 Comments Have Been Posted

Now this is the kind of woman

Now this is the kind of woman that girls should have as a role model!

"a total babe?!"

Thanks for the history lesson, she sounds like an amazing person... But is the mention of her attractiveness really necessary?! I wonder what she would think of that particular lens through which to describe her character? Perhaps a little roll in the grave? (at least).

A babe nonetheless

Hi Nancy,

While I don't take issue with your point that perhaps mentioning her physical appearance was unnecessary, I don't think you're right in saying that I described her character through that lens. Actually, I wrote that her physical attractiveness was incidental, and put the mention of it in parentheses. Then I went on to write about her accomplishments and her beliefs without mentioning her appearance again. Nevertheless, I stand by my belief that she was a beautiful woman, and I think her amazing life and character are part of what made her such a babe.

Thanks for reading,

i'm confused

how did she go from having an awesome atheist father to getting sent to a convent?

Good question

Hi Lucy,

From what I've read, it seems that de Cleyre's father sent her to the convent because he thought she'd receive a better education there. I also know that her family was very poor and struggled to feed themselves, so it's possible that she was sent away so that her family could feel sure that she was being taken care of. Sending her to the convent wasn't a religious decision on her father's part, and actually what de Cleyre learned there influenced her decision to become an atheist herself.

Thanks for the question!

*anarchist history nerd hat on*

Voltairine's father had rededicated himself to his faith by that point, as well, and was hoping that she would learn discipline and respect for authority, which she, ahem, lacked as a kid.

I wrote a paper on her last semester and it's kind of my dream to write a comic about her. I'm pretty much obsessed with her and know entirely too much trivia about her life. (ASK ME A QUESTION ABOUT HER. DO IT.)

Also, not to harp on the babe thing, but it does irritate me that every historian writing about her HAS to take time to point out that she was totally hot. It irks me especially given that it's more often than not pointed out in the context of comparing her looks to Emma Goldman's, in a weird sort of "who was hotter" way - Paul Avrich did it in An American Anarchist, Margaret Marsh did it in Anarchist Women 1870-1920, and it bothers me. Nobody ever talks about whether Peter Kropotkin was a "babe", or whether he was hotter than Johann Most.

mention of voltairine's appearance

In <I>Exquisite Rebel</i>," I commented on her appearance too in my bio of her but ONLY because I was responding to Emma Goldman's comment that physical beauty was withheld from her--clearly not true. Avrich was ALSO responding to what Emma said, as Marsh was also. So if you want to criticize someone, criticize Emma. She started it. Emma, alas, as I pointed out in the ER bio, was not above being envious in a petty way. Otherwise I would not have brought it up nor, I suspect, would the others.

Sharon Presley, Co-Editor <I>Exquisite Rebel</i>

P.S. Your point about the guys is an interesting one, and probably correct, but then, on the other hand, none of the anarchist men were in fact "hot," were they?


There's nothing wrong with calling her a 'total babe'. I agree. She was a intelligent, passionate and beautiful! What's wrong with that? I agree: She was a total babe! -Mavis Rose

Add new comment