VOLTAIRINE DE CLEYRE Biography - Theater, Opera and Movie personalities


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Voltairine de Cleyre (November 17, 1866-June 6, 1912) was, according to Emma Goldman, “the most gifted and brilliant anarchist woman America ever produced"; yet, even among most anarchists, she is today almost completely unknown. Born on November 17, 1866, in the small town of Leslie, Michigan, as a teenager she was forced into a Catholic convent, an experience that had the effect of pushing her towards atheism rather than Christianity. Once emerged from the convent, she identified with the free thinkers movement and with the socialism of Clarence Darrow.


After the hanging of the Haymarket martyrs in 1887, however, she became an anarchist, and remained so throughout her entire life. She was close to and inspired by Dyer D. Lum , “her teacher, her confidant, her comrade". On June 12, 1890 she gave birth to a son, Harry, fathered by freethinker James B. Elliot . De Cleyre was known as an excellent speaker and writer - in the opinion of Paul Avrich, her biographer, she was “a greater literary talent than any other American anarchist” - and as a tireless advocate for the anarchist cause, whose “religious zeal,” according to Goldman, “stamped everything she did…. Her whole nature was that of an ascetic.” She believed in an “anarchism without adjectives", reportedly declaring on one occasion, “I am an Anarchist, simply, without economic labels attached.”


Throughout her life she was plagued by illness and depression, attempting suicide on at least one occasion and suriviving an assassination attempt on December 9, 1902. Her assailant, Herman Helcher, was a former pupil who she later forgave, writing “It would be an outrage against civilisation if he were sent to jail for an act which was the product of a diseased brain".


Voltairine de Cleyre died on June 6, 1912, in Chicago, Illinois. A collection of her speeches, The First Mayday: The Haymarket Speeches, 1895-1910, was published by the Libertarian Book Club in 1980 and in 2004, AK Press released The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader, edited by AJ Brigati.