America’s “Greatest Woman Anarchist” Who Rebelled Against the Accepted Order
Editor’s Note: The New York Times has in an occasional series featured obituaries of women whose life stories have been overlooked; this excerpt features one of them.
At 24, Voltairine de Cleyre appeared before Philadelphia’s Unity Congregation to deliver a lecture, provocatively titled “Sex Slavery.” She appealed to the assembled crowd: “Let woman ask herself, ‘Why am I the slave of man? Why is my brain said not to be the equal of his brain? Why is my work not paid equally with his?’”
The year was 1890. It was a time of rampant income inequality, stifling social roles for women and church-mandated morality, and many in the growing American middle class were ready for change.
De Cleyre rebelled against the accepted order and delivered searing critiques of capitalism and state power, whose abuses she saw manifested in many facets of life, from labor to prisons to marriage…. She adopted anarchism as a political philosophy and became one of the movement’s most prominent and determined supporters, establishing a reputation as a transfixing speaker and earning the admiration of her fellow freethinkers.
Her contemporary, Emma Goldman, called her “the poet-rebel, the liberty-loving artist, the greatest woman anarchist of America.”
De Cleyre, who was named after the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, was born November 17, 1866, in Leslie, Michigan. Her father, Hector de Cleyre, was an itinerant tailor from France who won his American citizenship fighting in the Civil War.
The question ‘Why I am an Anarchist,’ she wrote in 1897, “I could very summarily answer with, ‘because I cannot help it.’
The assassination of President William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901 unleashed a wave of anti-anarchist sentiment. When Senator Joseph R. Hawley of Connecticut offered $1,000 to anyone who shot an anarchist, de Cleyre responded with a letter telling him to save his money; he could kill her.
“I will stand straight before you at any distance you wish me to, and you may shoot, in the presence of witnesses,” she wrote. “Does not your American commercial instinct seize upon this as a bargain?” Voltairine de Cleyre died on April 17, 1912, at the age of 45.
—Michael B. Dougherty, October 15, 2018.