Voltairine de Cleyre (November 17 1866 June 20 1912) was, according to Emma Goldman, "the most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced." Today she is not widely known, possibly as a result of her early death.
Family ties to the Abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, along with the harsh and unrelenting poverty that she grew up in, and being named after the philosopher (Voltaire), definitely contributed to the radical rhetoric that she developed shortly after adolescence. After schooling in the convent, de Cleyre began her intellectual involvement in the strongly anti-clerical freethought movement by lecturing and contributing articles to freethought periodicals.
During her time in the freethought movement in the mid- and late 1880s, de Cleyre was especially influenced by Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Clarence Darrow. Other influences during her life were Henry David Thoreau, Big Bill Haywood, and later Eugene Debs. After the hanging of the Haymarket protesters in 1887, however, 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."
She was known as an excellent speaker and writer in the opinion of biographer Paul Avrich, she was "a greater literary talent than any other American anarchist" and as a tireless advocate for the anarchist cause, whose "religious zeal," according to Goldman, "stamped everything she did.
She was close to and inspired by Dyer D. Lum, "her teacher, her confidant, her comrade," but Lum committed suicide in 1893. On June 12, 1890, she gave birth to a son, Harry, fathered by freethinker James B. Elliot; however, the child was taken from her when she refused to live with Elliot.
Throughout her life she was plagued by illness and depression, attempting suicide on at least two occasions and surviving an assassination attempt on December 19 1902. Her assailant, Herman Helcher, was a former pupil who had earlier been rendered insane by a fever, and whom she immediately forgave. She wrote, "It would be an outrage against civilization 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 infection that often adversely affected her ability to speak or concentrate.
Voltairine de Cleyre died on June 20 1912, at St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital in Chicago, Illinois from septic meningitis. She was buried at the Waldheim Cemetery (now Forest Home Cemetery), in Forest Park, Chicago.
For several years de Cleyre associated herself primarily with the American individualist anarchist milieu. Her early allegiance to individualism can be seen in the way she differentiated herself from Emma Goldman: "Miss Goldman is a communist; I am an individualist. She wishes to destroy the right of property, I wish to assert it. I make my war upon privilege and authority, whereby the right of property, the true right in that which is proper to the individual, is annihilated. She believes that co-operation would entirely supplant competition; I hold that competition in one form or another will always exist, and that it is highly desirable it should.
Despite their early dislike for one another, Goldman and de Cleyre came to respect each other intellectually. In her 1894 essay In Defense of Emma Goldman and the Right of Expropriation, de Cleyre wrote in support of the right of expropriation while remaining neutral on its advocacy: "I do not think one little bit of sensitive human flesh is worth all the property rights in N. Y. city... I say it is your business to decide whether you will starve and freeze in sight of food and clothing, outside of jail, or commit some overt act against the institution of property and take your place beside Timmermann and Goldman."
Eventually, however, de Cleyre was moved to reject individualism. In 1908 she argued "that the best thing ordinary workingmen or women could do was to organise their industry to get rid of money altogether" and "produce together, co-operatively rather than as employer and employed." ("Why I am an Anarchist"). In 1912 she argued that the Paris Commune's failure was due to its having "respected [private] property." In her essay, "The Commune Is Risen", she states that "In short, though there were other reasons why the Commune fell, the chief one was that in the hour of necessity, the Communards were not Communists. They attempted to break political chains without breaking economic ones...
"Socialism and Communism both demand a degree of joint effort and administration which would beget more regulation than is wholly consistent with ideal Anarchism; Individualism and Mutualism, resting upon property, involve a development of the private policeman not at all compatible with my notion of freedom. Instead, she became one of the most prominent advocates of "anarchism without adjectives." In The Making of an Anarchist, she wrote, "I no longer label myself otherwise than as 'Anarchist' simply."
Some disagreement exists as to whether or not Voltairine's rejection of individualism constituted an embrace of communism. Rudolf Rocker and Emma Goldman made such an assertion, but others, including biographer Paul Avrich, have taken exception. Anarchist author Iain McKay argues that de Cleyre's 1908 advocacy of a money-less economy was communism. Cleyre, herself, in response to claims that she had been an anarcho-communist, said "I am not now, and have never been at any time, a communist.