Sometimes, a life is so brief, that in the scale of things it's very nearly forgotten. And yet, I am sure we can all agree that quantity of years can be far surpassed by the quality of those years.
Such is the voice we hear from today--Voltraine de Cleyre's career was brief, and her life was short, but it was powerful.
The overarching theme? Refuse to accept the right of authority. Always think for yourself.
And those are some very strong lessons indeed.
Who was Voltraine de Cleyre?
In 1866, in Leslie, Michigan, a baby girl was born. Her father named her "Voltraine" after Voltaire, a voice of the Enlightenment. Such a legacy to live up to! (1)
Voltraine lived in extreme poverty with her parents until she was 12 years old. Her father, seeking a better education for her, sent her to a convent in Sarnia, Ontario. However, Voltraine was never happy there and tried to run away multiple times--including swimming across Lake Huron once. The days in the convent had a profound impact on her:
This experience had the effect of moving her towards atheism rather than Christianity. Of her time spent there she said, "it had been like the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and there are white scars on my soul, where ignorance and superstition burnt me with their hell fire in those stifling days" (1)Her time in the convent helped move her further towards her eventual destination:
Bruised but unbroken, Voltairine emerged an atheist and soon gravitated toward the flourishing freethinkers' movement. Influenced by Clarence Darrow, she flirted briefly with socialism, but her deep-running anti-authoritarian spirit soon rejected it in favor of anarchism. (2)Her family's commitment to the Underground Railroad and abolitionist movement, coupled with her own life of poverty and pain, drove her radical politics through the decades. (1)
Voltraine's journey began in the freethought movement, where she was influenced by Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Clarence Darrow, Henry David Thoreau, Big Billy Haywood, and Eugene Debs After the hanging of the Haymarket protestors, Voltraine gave up on the system, joining the anarchist movement. (1)
Voltraine's short life was marked by pain. She was often sick, and attempted suicide twice. She survived an assassination attempt that left her permanently injured. On June 20, 1912, at St. Mary Nazareth Hospital in Chicago, from septic meningitis.
What did Voltraine have to say?
I die, as I lived, a free spirit, an Anarchist, owing no allegiance to rulers, heavenly or earthly.
If this is the price to be paid for an idea, then let us pay. There is no need of being troubled about it, afraid, or ashamed. This is the time to boldly say, “Yes, I believe in the displacement of this system of injustice by a just one; I believe in the end of starvation, exposure, and the crimes caused by them; I believe in the human soul regnant over all laws which man has made or will make; I believe there is no peace now, and there will never be peace, so long as one rules over another; I believe in the total disintegration and dissolution of the principle and practice of authority; I am an Anarchist, and if for this you condemn me, I stand ready to receive your condemnation. --Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre--Anarchist, Feminist, Genius
The paramount question of the day is not political, is not religious, but is economic. The crying-out demand of today is for a circle of principles that shall forever make it impossible for one man to control another by controlling the means of his existence. --The Economic Tendency of Freethought
What was Voltairine's impact?
Voltairine's short life has been nearly forgotten, but her essays are a gift to the intellectual world. Sharon Presley explains:
Both Voltairine's life and her writings reflect, in Avrich's words, "an extremely complicated individual." Though an atheist, Voltairine had, according to Goldman, a "religious zeal which stamped everything she did... Her whole nature was that of an ascetic." "By living a life of religious-like austerity," says Avrich,"she became a secular nun in the Order of Anarchy." In describing that persistence of will that inspired her, the anarchist poet Sadikichi Hartmann declared, "Her whole life seemed to center upon the exaltation over, what she so aptly called, the Dominant Idea. Like an anchorite, she flayed her body to utter more and more lucid and convincing arguments in favor of direct action."Presley goes on to say:
Probably Voltairine's best-known intellectual contribution is the often-reprinted essay "Anarchism and American Traditions," in which she shows how the ideas of anarchism follow naturally from the premises on which the American Revolution was based. The Revolutionary Republicans, she says, "took their starting point for deriving a minimum of government upon the same sociological ground that the modern Anarchist derives the no-government theory; viz., that equal liberty is the political ideal. " But the anarchist, unlike the revolutionary republicans, she goes on to point out, cannot accept the premise of majority rule. All governments, regardless of their form, say the anarchists, will always be manipulated by a small minority. She then goes on to cite other similarities between the ideas of the anarchists and the republicans, including the belief in local initiative and independent action. "This then was the American Tradition," she writes, " that private enterprise manages better all that to which it is equal. Anarchism declares that private enterprise, whether individual or cooperative, is equal to all the undertakings of society."
Voltairine's life shows a beautiful intersection of political and social ideologies and how a woman could stand at the crossroads of them and make her self heard.
That is quite the legacy to leave behind.
(1) "Voltairine de Cleyre". Wikipedia. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voltairine_de_Cleyre
> August 5, 2014.
(2) Sharon Presley. "Exquisite Rebel: Voltairine de Cleyre". <http://www.voltairine.org/biography.php> August 5, 2014.