“The most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced” is what Emma Goldman called Voltairine de Cleyre. Influenced heavily by the 1887 execution of the Haymarket Affair suspects, de Cleyre swayed from her then socialist stance to adamant anarchist. Not absolving or diminishing the tragedy of those killed during the riot, she, along with many today, believed the trial of the convicted four was a sham. She is also known as an early feminist champion of Free Love.
On November 17, 1866, de Cleyre, a prolific writer and orator, was born in Leslie, Michigan. By all known accounts, she was a gifted student, completing grammar school with honors by age 12. Many of her essays, including The Economic Relations of Sex and Those Who Mary Do Ill, are available online.
It is reported her family participated in the Underground Railroad. First-person accounts of the Underground Railroad near Leslie have existed since the first decade of the 20thcentury. At that time it was neither fashionable nor without potential hazard to claim such.
By 1870 the family was living in Saint John’s, Michigan.
She was named after Voltaire by her freethinker and communist father Hector de Claire. He may have served briefly during the Civil War in the 11th Infantry Regiment Michigan. In her writings she changed his name to August. For undocumented reasons, she changed her family name as an adult. Hector later converted to Catholicism and placed his then 13-year-old daughter in the Convent of Our Lady of Lake Huron in Sarnia, Ontario.
This institution is often misidentified in her biographical information as the Convent of Our Lady of Port Huron. She reportedly tried to escape several times. Although she did develop some positive relationships there, in her 1903 essay The Making of an Anarchist, she derides that seminal period of her life as a catalyst against all forms of authority.
Upon leaving the convent she worked as a private tutor in music and as an English teacher to immigrants. She did not consider herself a gifted orator, but traveled a lecture circuit and wrote. Among the cities she lived in were Philadelphia and Chicago. She died June 20, 1912 in Chicago at the age of 44.
Although staunchly against marriage, she took several lovers in her life. (Presley, Sartwell pg.6) In 1890 she bore a son, Harry, to James Elliot. Voltairine did not want the responsibility of raising a child and he grew up with his father’s family. As an adult Harry took his mother’s last name and named one of his daughters after her maternal grandmother. In 1930 we find the then 6-year-old Voltairine living with her mother, siblings and maternal aunt Adelaide back in St. John’s.
Exquisite Rebel: The essays of Voltairine de Cleyre, by Voltairine De Cleyre, Sharon Presley, Crispin Sartwell, 2005
The Voltairine de Cleyre reader edited by A.J. Brigati, 2004.
Anarchy! : an anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother earth edited and with commentary by Peter Glassgo, 2001
Historic women of Michigan : a sesquicentennial celebration edited by Rosalie Riegle Troester, 1987
Women without superstition : “no gods–no masters” : the collected writings of women freethinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries edited by Annie Laurie Gaylor, 1997
National Park Service. U.S. Civil War Soldiers, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. M545 roll 11
1870 U.S. Federal Census
1880 U.S. Federal Census
1900 U.S. Federal Census
1930 U.S. Federal Census