(1866-1912), anarchist feminist
CATHERINE HELEN PALCZEWSKI
Voltairine de Cleyre lectured and wrote for and about the anarchist and Free Thought movements from 1887 until her death on June 20, 1912. Originally a freethinker and socialist, she became an anarchist feminist. Although she departed in important ways from anarchist thought, she nevertheless saw anarchism as the solution to social ills, including those faced by women ( Marsh, 1981). Despite physical and financial constraints, she was an active lecturer who left a discursive legacy that demonstrates keen understanding of the physical, social, institutional, psychological, and emotional oppression faced by workers and women of all classes. Her speeches and essays on anarchy celebrate a form of individual autonomy that dovetailed with her calls for the emancipation of women and with radical elements of today's feminism. Finally, she delivered many eulogies, notably for the Haymarket martyrs, which transformed their deaths into inspiration for her cause.
De Cleyre's success as a rhetor was astounding, given the obstacles she faced. Because she chose to live a life consistent with her ideals, she took no payment for her anarchist work, supporting herself entirely by teaching English to Jewish immigrants. She rejected all state power, and, in a particularly telling incident when she was the victim of an assassination attempt by a former pupil, she not only refused to press charges but also petitioned for money to help pay for the defense of the man who shot her ( Free Society, January 11, 1903:5). Long work hours, coupled with chronically bad health, lessened her ability to travel the lecture circuit. Biographer Paul Avrich writes:
Had she been granted the financial means, the physical constitution, and the necessary leisure for sustained writing and speaking, Voltairine de Cleyre might have emerged in the forefront of both the anarchist and feminist movements. As it was, however, she was compelled to work long hours to earn a meager living, with the result that she remained largely in the background and out of the public consciousness, gaining sudden but fleeting prominence on a few dramatic occasions. ( 1978:6)
Nonetheless, her lectures had an extraordinary impact on her contemporaries. For example, George Brown, the most popular anarchist orator in Philadelphia, wrote of her:
To me, she was the most intellectual woman I ever met; the most patient, brave, and loving comrade I have ever had. She spent her tortured life in the service of an obscure cause. Had she done the same work in some popular cause, she would have been famous and the world would have acclaimed her, as I believe her to have been, the greatest woman America ever produced. (Quoted in Avrich, 1978:101)