Thursday, June 9, 2011

Lost daughter: Voltairine de Cleyre

There is no end to the reverberations of far-reaching lives. Mary Wollstonecraft can't be dissociated from her daughters -- her biological daughters and those who come under her influence, her political descendants over subsequent centuries....Present-day generations, in the choices and opportunities open to us, are Wollstonecraft's heirs.
This is the opening paragraph to the final chapter, "Generations", of Lyndall Gordon's 2005 biography. She describes the influence of Mary's ideas on the pioneer socialist Robert Owen and his Irish supporter William Thompson; MW's sister-in-law, a little-known biologist who shared the same name; towering literary figures such as Elizabeth Barrett, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf; teacher turned writer Olive Schreiner; and others. I call these Mary's sons and daughters -- some are lost (obscure), but not all. 

Lyndall Gordon does not mention an American anarchist with a wonderful name. Today's post will introduce you to this lost daughter, Voltairine de Cleyre. That nominal double-whammy -- the homage to the French philosopher, and yet the aristocratic particle as well -- is indeed her birth name: her father, a French-Flemish immigrant to the United States, was a fervent free-thinker, though later he more or less incarcerated his teenage daughter in a Canadian convent. Anyway, context before detail:
Nature has a habit now and then of producing a type of human being far in advance of the times: an ideal for us to emulate; a being devoid of sham, uncompromising, and to whom the truth is sacred; a being whose selfishness is so large that it takes the whole human race and treats self only as one of the great mass; a being keen to sense all forms of wrong, and powerful in denunciation of it; one who can reach in the future and draw it nearer. Such a being was --
The sentence could end with "Mary Wollstonecraft", couldn't it? But it ends in fact with the strange, and virtually unknown, name "Voltairine de Cleyre" (1866-1912). (By the way, the original does say "selfishness". It seems an odd use: a stretch, to indicate that the individual's conception of self includes the whole world. I'd prefer to recast the sentence.) This tribute was written by Jay Fox (1870-1961), and cited approvingly at the very beginning of the 1914 introduction to VdC's work Anarchism & American Traditions. (Available via Google Books and Anarchist Archives.) That introduction was written by Hippolyte Havel (1871-1950), a Czech anarchist who settled in Greenwich Village, New York City; it appears in a curtailed form in the 1932 edition. The fuller version contains another paragraph that is equally true of MW:
Like many other women in public life, Voltairine de Cleyre was a voluminous letter writer. Those letters addressed to her comrades, friends, and admirers would form her real biography; in them we trace her heroic struggles, her activity, her beliefs, her doubts, her mental changes — in short, her whole life, mirrored in a manner no biographer will ever be able to equal.
Her collected works can be found here, with tempting titles such as: Sex Slavery, The Making of an Anarchist, The Paris Commune, The Economic Tendency of Freethought, Haymarket Speeches, In Defence of Emma Goldman, Dawn Light of Anarchy, The Dominant Idea, and The Gods and the People. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote on these topics too, a century before: sex slavery (not prostitution, but the legal trap of marriage), the making of her political thoughts (e.g. republicanism), revolution in Paris, economics and earning one's living. She wrote of religion: thinking through ideas for oneself. She wrote in defence of Richard Price. She wrote of the dawning of a new hope for humankind, before it was drowned in blood.

VdC was also a poet,one of the few genres which MW did not try. She is the author of the poem entitled "Mary Wollstonecraft", which appeared on this blog a fortnight ago, written on the 114th anniversary of MW's birthday. Another of hers is called "Bastard Born", and its first stanza is:
Why do you clothe me with scarlet of shame? 
Why do you point with your finger of scorn? 
What is the crime that you hissingly name 
When you sneer in my ears, "Thou bastard born?"
The attitudes depicted here had not moved on much from those of 1790s London, when MW, pregnant with the future Mary Shelley, decided she could not bear to bear another bastard, to inflict society's insults on the newborn child as they risked raining down on fatherlesss Frances Imlay, and so she and William Godwin did the needful at St Pancras Church.

Voltairine de Cleyre rejoices in an entire website of her own,, which appears to have been set up by Sharon Presley to publicise her 2005 co-authored book. Exquisite Rebel brings the anarchist works back into print, introduced and contextualised with biographical essays before each section. Presley is, according to the book's  page on the SUNY Press site, "the founder and Executive Director of Resources for Independent Thinking and the National Coordinator of the Association of Libertarian Feminists". The biography page on the Voltairine site draws the link explicitly to Mary Wollstonecraft:
The subject of marriage was one of Voltairine's favorite topics. Though she valued love, she totally rejected formal marriage, considering it "the sanction for all manner of bestialities" and the married woman, "a bonded slave." Her own unfortunate experiences with most of her lovers, who even without the ties of formal marriage, treated her as a sex object and servant, convinced Voltairine that even living with a man was to be avoided. 
When she learned that William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (her heroine) had lived in separate apartments even though they were lovers, she was delighted. "Every individual should have a room or rooms for himself exclusively," she wrote to her mother, "never to subject to the intrusive familiarities of our present 'family life.' To me, any dependence, any thing which destroys the complete selfhood of the individual, is in the line of slavery and destroys the pure spontaneity of love."
A room of one's own: did Virginia Woolf get the idea, or the phrase, from here?

More breadcrumbs: VdC suffered a physical attack while in Britain. To recuperate, she went to... drumroll... Norway! Did she have the Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark with her, to read on the voyage? I wish I knew where exactly she went. And why did she choose there? Was she consciously following in Mary's footsteps? What time of the year was it? No one would go in November just for fun.

And then, via the magic of Twitter, I began chatting with @Voltairine1, which led, in a convoluted kind of way, to my being given this brief biography. I am not at liberty to say who wrote it.  So cloak and dagger! 

Although she was far less well known than her contemporary Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre made significant contributions in many areas of human rights.

Born in Leslie, Michigan in 1866, de Cleyre struggled throughout her life against the brutal social, cultural, and economic conditions of a society in which women had few legal rights.  Employment opportunities were scarce for most women - and those that were available offered poor wages and harsh conditions. Puritanical sexual mores further acted to stifle progress in all areas of human rights for women. The patriarchal system stubbornly held on to the Victorian notion that women should be subservient to men and "keepers of the hearth". Access to birth control and abortion was virtually illegal and extremely inaccessible.

In this context, Voltairine de Cleyre rebelled against conventional American culture and governmental institutions - along with all forms of authoritarianism.  She did not believe in the suffrage movement (as did more mainstream feminists).  Instead, her far-reaching vision called for the end of sex roles and "every tie that renders one a master, another a serf; every law, every statute, every be-it-enacted that represents tyranny; everything you call American privilege that can only exist at the expense of international right."

Besides completing a voluminous collection of essays and poetry, de Cleyre taught English and music to Jewish immigrants.  All the while, she suffered through life-long poverty, illness, and bouts of severe depression. In 1902, after surviving an assassination attempt by a former pupil who was stricken with a fever-induced psychosis, de Cleyre was reported to have said:  "It would be an outrage against civilization if he were sent to jail for an act which was the product of a diseased brain."

In 1912 de Cleyre succumbed to meningitis at the age of forty-five at St. Mary of Nazareth hospital in Chicago. She is buried at Waldheim Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois.

Photos of Voltairine de Cleyre and Hippolyte Havel from Wikicommons


  1. Thanks again for this illuminating piece of writing.
    The unity (through love) of 2 amazing intellectual forces (Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin) is a rare occurrence indeed.
    Godwin's own contribution to anarchist philosophical thought is unquestionably crucial. In fact, is he not the first writer to actually provide a clear description of anarchist principles?
    Godwin was also highly critical of the institution of marriage.
    Perhaps one could say that the anarcha-feminist philosophical road was first paved by these 2 courageous lovers....I can only imagine the intellectually provocative conversation that took place many a night at their dinner table...:)


  2. It is wonderful to hear from you here! You are a secret favourite of mine, in that VdC is such an unexpected "find". Unexpected to me, at any rate.

    I wouldn't claim any sort of expertise on Godwin, but yes, his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Manners is still read by political philosophers and anarchists, I believe.

    I love your image of their intellectually provocative dinner table!

    I should alert you, and all Godwin fans, to the Diary project, run by the Bodleian:

  3. Thank you!

    Through cyberspace I soon go in the direction of the Diary project link.
    You continue to inspire... I have decided to revisit (and post) another sparkling Mary piece - written by an old Comrade:
    Emma Goldman..

    "Mary Wollstonecraft, Her Tragic Life and Her Passionate Struggle for Freedom" -by Emma Goldman (1911)

  4. Well, then, clearly I need to queue up a Thursday piece on Emma Goldman as a "lost daughter" -- though what did she make of Mary's deism? And I have a couple of people already in the queue, one of whom is a slender thread, requiring more research. Not on Google = doesn't exist. To the British Library I will go...

  5. I truly love this blog. Thanks again for all the informative features.

    Here is a nice selection I would like to share:

    Again and Again she returned to this theme. “Every individual should have a room or rooms for himself exclusively,” she wrote to her mother, “never subject to the intrusive familiarities of our present ‘family life.’ A ‘closet’ where each could ‘pray in secret,’ without some persons who love him assuming the right to walk in and do as they please. And do you know how I was pleased beyond measure the other day to find that William Godwin, the great English philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mrs. Shelley, taught and as far as possible practiced the same thing just 100 years ago.” “To me,” she told her mother, “any dependence, any thing which destroys the complete selfhood of the individual, is in the line of slavery and destroys the pure spontaneity of love.”*

    *Selection from: “An American Anarchist The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre”-by Paul Avrich

  6. I made your latest comment into a post of its own a few days ago.