The Extraordinary Intellectual Contributions to Society by Anarchist Voltairine De Cleyre

Many women are excluded from the annals of popular history, despite the infinite number of contributions that could benefit society. Voltairine de Cleyre (1866–1912) was one of many such women. A prominent anarchist in 19th-20th century America, this intellectual has been largely forgotten by the popular conscious. Yet, in the last 20 years she has experienced a resurgence within the historical community. With the increasing frequency of debates and discussions of how our society is structured, 2021 has become the perfect time to reexamine the life and teachings of anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre.

Part 1: A Short Bibliography

  • Born in Leslie, Michigan on November 17, 1866, to “freethinker” atheist parents, Voltairine was aptly named after the intellectual Voltaire
  • Her father was originally a Communist and fellow “free-thinker”, before being drawn back into Catholicism with zeal. As a result, Voltairine was forced to attend the Convent of Our Lady of Port Huron at the age of 13, dramatically shaping her views on authority and control.
  • In 1887, the Haymarket Square incident prompted the hanging of several prominent anarchists. This shaped her views on justice, the law, the police, and defined what anarchist she would eventually become.
  • Three years later, she bore a son with a man named James Elliot, Henry de Cleyre. After abandoning him due to the uncertainty of her capabilities in motherhood, she confronted the costs of female individuality, marriage, and sex in her writings.
  • In 1902, she was shot by an ex-student Herman Helcher, who was a heartbroken young man that believed Voltairine broke his heart. Following the shooting, she did not press charges, regardless of the numerous health problems that were caused from the incident. Voltairine even appealed for Herman’s freedom, stating that “ what this poor half-crazed boy needs is not the silence and cruelty of a prison, but the kindness, care, and sympathy which heal.”

All the while, Voltairine toured Europe and America giving lectures and engaging in discussion with fellow anarchists, such as Peter Kropotkin. For 14 years, she contributed writings to magazines, papers, journals, she wrote poetry, sketched, provided music and penmanship lessons, and taught English to Jewish communities in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago. She even raised money for the revolutionary anarchist movement in early 20th century Mexico. Voltairine was a bit of a polymath, making contributions to various fields through her writings and orations; all of her thoughts were conveyed through the lens of individualistic-anarchism.

A great book for further exploration on what being a polymath entails, and how you can strive to be one yourself. It's a really interesting and helpful book that has reshaped a lot of personal self-growth and discovery, so I definitely recommend it.

Part 2: Voltairines Anarchism: The Dominant Idea

Individualistic anarchism is a defense for the sanctity and liberty of the individual. Voltairine can be quoted with saying, “Librety is not the Daughter but the Mother of Order.”; through the individual freedom from the state, an ideal way of life could be found. But what was the core of Voltairine’s teachings? The solar system of her mind revolved around the Dominant Idea. It is the foundation of her anarchist-individualistic beliefs and the weapon against authoritarian practices.

  • The Dominant Idea boils down to a debate of mankinds inherent nature, either being based on freewill or environmental determinism. Voltairine believed that “my conception of mind, or character, is not that it is a powerless reflection of a momentary condition of stuff and form, but an active modifying agent, reacting on its environment and transforming circumstances.” This psychological debate is still ongoing to this day, demonstrating her intellectual capability in a variety of fields.
  • It is because of this free will that God as a concept is a mere reflection of the authoritarian mentality, and therefore could not exist to Voltairine. “Because, if God is, then no human being, no thing that lives, ever had a right! He simply had a privilege, bestowed, granted, conferred, gifted to him, for such a length of time as God sees fit.” If there was a God, then the mind would no longer be an active modifying agent, conflicting with the Dominant Idea.
  • As a result, her style of teaching and leadership did not depend on telling people what to do. Rather, she made the choice to respect the autonomy of her students. As an anarchist, Voltairine did not believe she was in any position to dictate to people what their actions were to be.
  • Therefore, marriage was seen as a detriment to the liberty of the woman in the 19th c. Voltairine’s essay “Sex Slavery” states the following: “[Marriage] is the vilest tyranny where a man compels a woman he says he loves, to endure the agony of bearing children that she does not want, and for whom, as is the rule rather than the exception, they cannot properly provide. It is worse than any other human oppression; it is fairly God-like!” Voltairine viewed this patriarchical authority as not only bad for women, but for men as well. It flew in the face of the freedoms for all parties involved, seeking only to further class inequality and increase the misery of capitalist society.

To change this, there had to be a better education system in place. Education that was free from the patriotic arms of the state, and focused more on the individuals needs.

Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

Part 3: Modern Educational Reform

Originally a lecture given in New York, October 1910, “Modern Educational Reform” is extremely relevant to our day and age. Voltairine recommended improvements to how, what, and where we teach our children, a process that would expand what we are capable of as individuals.

  • The crux of the educational problem for Voltairine is the authoritarian practices and uniformity of most teachers and the system. Students are not allowed to grow differently, their individual needs neglected for draconian punishments. For Voltairine, the teacher is a person of instinct, seeking to “preserve power” and neglecting any legitimate complaints the student has made in an effort to preserve authority and generational superiority. But the fact is that children develop to serve themselves, their generation, and the needs they will face. Teachers must be “willing to understand as well as be understood.”
  • For many parents, school is simply an institution to watch their children for the day. There is a presumption that the system provided by the State is good. Yet, it is only when children start mixing with bad crowds, learning bad language, and become burnt out physically and mentally that parents find something wrong. What should be taught is natural science, discovery, ways of thinking, enriching the intellect of the child and giving them the tools to go beyond being an automation for the State.
  • Voltairines recommended curriculum balances both the intellectual and physical side of school. Now that we know for certainty sitting is the new smoking, this curriculum should be considered. The local area and geography of a child locality should be taught, preferably in a rural setting (Voltairine had a major distaste for the urban sprawl, seeing it as a inhuman environment for any human, especially youth). Geology and zoology could be taught within this exploration. Using meteorology tools to measure the weather, how to draw maps, fractions through cutting things and putting them together, and seeing how things are industrially made are some components of this curriculum. Combined with intellectual stimulation, it would free the children from the servitude of the workingman. Order, health, and neatness are values to be preached. Gaining a true pride and respect for what one accomplishes would bring forth a generation of doers, not just consumers.

Once this curriculum is in place, the bonds of the capitalist society would be easier to break. The intellect of each individual would be nurtured and grow like a beautiful flower. And while complete societal collapse as an end goal is less than appealing, the lessons that Voltairine offers in regard to education are exceptional. Students should not have to be forced and dictated to learn things they will never use withintheir lifetime. Children should be enriched by the world, and become discoverers of what they deem to be important.

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

Part 4: Conclusions on a Forgotten American Legacy

Voltairine de Cleyre is an important figure in the intellectual legacy of America. Her teachings should be studied and evaluated in respect to how Western society will evolve. Voltairine advocated for all women to have “freedom to control her own person”, observed the link between Anarchistic thought and American revolutionary practices, and contributed to numerous discourses across disciplines. She was a genius and highly accomplished intellectual. The lessons that Voltairine has to offer would benefit our society today and how we plan to change it. Anarchism without purpose is not Liberty, but anarchism with a clear direction becomes the Mother of Order.

If you want to explore more of her writings, I highly recommend the books “Gates of Freedom: Voltairine de Cleyre and the Revolution of the Mind” (Ed. Eugenia C. DeLamotte, 2004) and “Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre — Anarchist, Feminist, Genius” (Ed. Sharon Presley and Crispen Sartwell, 2005). Additionally, Steve J. Shone’s essay “Voltairine de Cleyre: More of an Anarchist than a Feminist?” provides an interesting insight into the discussions surrounding Voltairine’s classification as an Anarchist-Feminist.

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