This stimulating collection of the writings of Voltairine de Cleyre, an important anarchist writer of the late 19th and early 20th century, covers such diverse topics such as the Paris Commune, Crime and Punishment, the Mexican Revolution, Sex and Marriage, the McKinley Assassination —and of course her distinct interpretation of anarchism.
Voltairine De Cleyre (1866-1912), anarchist, poet, lecturer, writer and teacher lived in St. Johns, Michigan until 1880, when she was sent to a convent school in Sarnia, Ontario. After graduating she became active in freethought circles, and moved quickly from socialism to anarchism. From the late 1880s until her death in 1912, De Cleyre was an energetic anarchist and a prolific writer, living in Philadelphia and then Chicago. She was a contemporary and acquaintance of Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Benjamin Tucker and other prominent anarchists of the time. Emma Goldman described her as “the poet-rebel, the liberty-loving artist, the greatest female anarchist of America.” Max Nettlau, a historian of the anarchist movement, considered her to be “the pearl of Anarchy,” outshining her contemporaries in “libertarian feeling and artistic spirit.” She published hundreds of poems, essays, stories, and sketches, mainly on themes of social oppression, but also on literature, education, and women’s liberation. She died on June 23, 1912 and was buried in Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago.
“My father was a French Communist and my mother a New England Puritan, and you might know that the offspring of such a union was sure to become enthusiastic over something or other. I was born in Michigan, where I went to school. Even as a schoolgirl I devoted considerable attention to some of the subjects which interest me now, and although I had but ill-defined ideas, they were the foundation for my subsequent studies.
“When I left college I was a free thinker, and I delivered a series of lectures upon free thought. I had always been interested in the relation of the sexes, and after leaving college I devoted a great deal of thought to the subject. About six years ago, while I was delivering a lecture on free thought in Linesville, Pa., I met a Chicago lawyer whose name was C.S. Darrow. He attended one of my lectures and I became acquainted with him. A short time after that I heard him lecture on socialism, and in fifteen minutes I was a socialist.
“I remained a Socialist for about six weeks, and then I found the true solution of the social problem. I became an Anarchist. It was customary at our meetings to have short discussions in which anyone in the audience could join if he wanted. Among the regular visitors there was a jeweler named Morzersky, who was a communistic Anarchist. He frequently spoke at these meetings in favor of anarchism, using the Socratic method in his reasoning.
He took advantage of my own arguments to push me into a corner and make me admit that I was all wrong. I had many long talks with him, in which I stood up for socialism and he for anarchism-authority versus individual liberty. He could never convince me of the truth of communism, but what he told me induced me to study anarchism as a science. I read Stephen Pearl Andrew’s ‘Science of Society,” Lysander Spooner’s letter to Grover Cleveland, and Proudhon’s, “What is Property?” and gradually I became an Anarchist.”
“When did you begin to lecture?”
“I have never been what is commonly called an agitator, not that I have not been willing to become one, but because I have not the ability. To become an agitator one must be able to speak without much preparation. My speeches must always be prepared, and it takes me quite a long while to prepare them. I don’t care much for extemporaneous speakers. Their speeches are disconnected and badly arranged as a rule.
“I have not lectured often on anarchism although my anarchist ideas have influenced my views on every other subject. I look at everything through anarchistic spectacles.”
“Upon what other subjects do you lecture?”
“I have lectured on ethics, although of course my anarchism is as much a system of ethics as it is a system of economy; on religion, in which I am a free thinker, on the race question in relation to the development of society and on the woman question. I have delivered more lectures on the woman question than anything else.”
“And what are your ideas on that question?”
Miss de Cleyre smoothed her dress, placed her hands on her hips and answered with considerable animation:
“I believe that woman is the equal of man and should have all of the privileges which he receives. I do not stop to fuss with the question of franchise. I do not believe in the ballot either for men or for women. I believe in the equality of woman as a worker, a thinker, and as an individual. She should have the right to own property and not be interfered with by her own husband.”
She hesitated for a moment and then, leaning slightly forward with her hands-clasped in her lap, her face animated she went on speaking quickly and with considerable fire:
“Yes, the earth is a prison, the marriage bed is a cell, women are the prisoners and you men are the keepers. A man’s wife is his property. His will is her law. She has no rights. Her mind must be subservient to his, her body is his, her soul, if she has a soul, is his. The wedding ceremony makes her his slave. A prostitute is better off than she. She must submit to her husband whether or no.
“And I am opposed to this. I do not think it is right. I believe the wife should have exactly the same rights as her husband. Women should enjoy themselves in life as men do. A woman should be as free to dispose of her property and her children as her husband is.
“But oh! they are ignorant. They are all ignorant, ignorant, ignorant. they have not the intelligence to be unhappy. They do not feel their own misery.”
“And do you think that people who have sense are unhappy.”
“Yes. The more sense they have the unhappier they are. But then I do not think that happiness is the object of life. I do not think that we should devote ourselves to being happy.”
“What do you think is the object of life?”
“Progress. The development of the human race. I want people to know more. If in their search for knowledge they meet with unhappiness, it is a good thing. If they meet with unhappiness, it is their fate. They cannot escape it. It is true I am a pessimist, but I do not think we were meant to be happy. We are merely the cogs in the wheel of a mighty evolution, which moves around slowly and steadily until its work is over.”
“And what will happen then?”
“Ah, that is the great goal of the race. What it will be, no one can tell. As the human race progresses and becomes perfect I think it susceptibility to unhappiness will become keener. Conditions that do not exist to-day, or, if they did exist, we would look upon the indifference, will add to the unhappiness of the race in the future. As I said before, the progress that I believe in, is not toward a happier life. It it is towards a perfect, an ideal life, in which men and women will be as gods, with a gods power to enjoy and to suffer.
It may be that this progress will merely be a race for unhappiness and the sufferings of one generation may increase the sufferings of the next. But they will make it easier for those that come after them to strive for that goal to which, even without their cooperation, the great, unconscious forces impelling human kind. …”