Voltairine de Cleyre

Written By: - Date published: 6:39 am, December 9th, 2017 - 15 comments
Categories: Abuse of power, class, class war, Ethics, families, feminism, gender, law, Left, patriarchy, political alternatives, Politics, religion, sexism, Social issues, vision - Tags: ,

Voltairine De Cleyre was born in 1866 in the town of Leslie, Michigan, and died in 1912 at the age of 45. She was…remarkable. And then she was forgotten.

This post is a bit different to “The Standard’s” normal posts. The intention is to generate debate on the ideas and thoughts expressed by Voltairine De Cleyre in her speech “Sex Slavery”.

A couple of links to the speech are at the foot of the post. It’s a packed ten pages and, given it was penned in 1890, you might have to take a minute to attune yourself to the language.

This post will be bumped back up to a prominent position on Saturday. The reason it’s up now is to give anyone who’s interested some time to have a read and a think. But if you want to comment in the meantime, then by all means, go for it.

There are just a couple of background details worth noting.

The speech was gathering support for Moses Harman, who had been sentenced to five years in jail for publishing a letter from a Dr Markland that fell foul of the Comstock Laws for obscenity. (Apparently, he used the word “penis”)

The term “Mrs or Mdm Grundy” pertains to someone who is priggish and conventional.


For a pdf link to the speech within a book of de Cleyre’s writings, go here (pp 227 – 237) or for a stand alone copy of the speech, go here.


15 comments on “Voltairine de Cleyre”

  1. Macro 1

    Lethe – thanks for the heads up on this which will be a fascinating read and hopefully lead to some great discussion.
    Just one minor point. Her birthplace was Leslie in the State of Michigan.
    As the Michigan v’s Ohio State University Football game is one of intense rivalry (Similar to All Blacks vs South Africa) I think your should amend the post to reflect the fact that Michigan is not a town in Ohio. 🙂

  2. tracey 2

    Thanks Lethe

  3. Sabine 3

    Beautiful writing. Thanks for making this known to us.

    Still so relevant.

    Quote: The question of souls is old – we demand our bodies, now. We are tired of promises, God is deaf, and his church is our worst enemy. Against it we bring the charge of being the moral (or immoral) force which lies behind the tyranny of the State. And the State has divided the loaves and fishes with the Church, the magistrates, like the priests take marriage fees; the two fetters of Authority have gone into partnership in the business of granting patent rights to parents for the privilege of reproducing themselves, and the State cries as the Church cried of old, and cries now: “See how we protect women!” The State has done more. It has often been said to me, by women with decent masters, who had no idea of the outrages practiced on their less fortunate sisters, “”Why don’t the wives leave?”
    SS.16 Why don’t you run, when your feet are chained together? Why don’t you cry out when a gag is on your lips? Why don’t you raise your hands above your head when they are pinned fast to your sides? Why don’t you spend thousands of dollars when you haven’t a cent in your pocket? Why don’t you go to the seashore or the mountains, you fools scorching with city heat? If there is one thing more than another in this whole accursed tissue of false society, which makes me angry, it is the asinine stupidity which with the true phlegm of impenetrable dullness says, “Why don’t the women leave!” Will you tell me where they will go and what they shall do? When the State, the legislators, has given to itself, the politicians, the utter and absolute control of the opportunity to live; when, through this precious monopoly, already the market of labor is so overstocked that workmen and workwomen are cutting each others’ throats for the dear privilege of serving their lords; when girls are shipped from Boston to the south and north, shipped in carloads, like cattle, to fill the dives of New Orleans or the lumber-camp hells of my own state (Michigan), when seeing and hearing these things reported every day, the proper prudes exclaim, “Why don’t the women leave?,” they simply beggar the language of contempt. ” Quote end.

    We are still asking the same questions, without ever daring to give the one true answer. We keep them poor, we keep them dependent, we keep them downtrodden, we keep them without options, and we blame them not only for their own short comings but also those of their partners, husbands, pimps, rapists, society, religion.

    things just never change.

    • Heather Grimwood 3.1

      to Sabine: can’t stop to read whole post presently but SS.16 is a profound summary of condition of so many past and present.
      At least we now have houses of refuge for some, and support for others if they know where to find it, but those steps come at end of a long road with which I suspect Voltairine de Cleyre was only too familiar.

  4. Bill 4

    So over 100 years ago there was (it seems) quite a significant movement advocating free love between people (ie -for the banishing of the bogus authority of both church and state that laid claim to the moral and legal right to sanction relationships between people).

    100 years on and it would appear that any goal, even an own goal, is something to be celebrated – eg, the ‘dancing in the streets’ that occasions the assimilation of the LGBTQ++ community into that “august” institution of marriage in various countries.

    Whatever happened to our dreams? Anyone…?

    • Incognito 4.1

      Whatever happened to our dreams? Anyone…?

      The ‘season for contemplation’ is almost upon us so I’m happy to oblige 😉

      Dreams are fleeting & fragile little things; blink and they’re gone; try to catch them and they disappear into thin air.

      Dreams need to be nurtured, gently, or they will wither away before they can germinate aspirations and Utopian thinking into your consciousness; if you or anybody else tramples on them they may never form roots and grow into actions in the real world.

      Unfortunately, when we grow up we seem to lose much of our child-like curiosity, joy, and zest for life; imagination and creativity get the spray-and-walk-away treatment because we must conform and uniformity is its (National) standard.

  5. red-blooded 5

    Thanks for introducing me to Voltairine de Cleyre, Lethe. Such passion and wit! Sarcasm used as a sword!

    As for the issue raised by Bill (free love vs marriage) I think I’d say that not all gay couples are going to want to marry, just as not all straight couples do. It’s still entirely just and proper that this choice should be equally available to all, though.

    I think it’s the issue of choice that is being celebrated – and that’s the same issue that Voltairine de Cleyre seems to have been so passionate about. She’s advocating for the right to control one’s own life and body: choice about whether or not to have children, whether or not to have sex, whether or not to marry or stay married, choice about how a married woman spends her time, choice about careers for women, choice about sensible clothing… And she’s saying that men need to respect women and not see them as lesser beings.

    As I read this, there was (unfortunately) a lot that still resonates – the struggle continues. I do think Voltairine would be happy to see how basic things like contraception and access to divorce have opened up choices for women, compared to her time, though.

    • Bill 5.1

      The point about marriage (notwithstanding Voltairine’s personal feelings on the matter) isn’t marriage per-se, but the presumption of the church/state duopoly that those two institutions be the sole determinants for what is, and what is not, going to be recognised as legitimate marriage – and all the legal and moral repercussions that flow from that.

  6. NZFemme 6

    I’ve been reading Voltairine obsessively of late. It is valuable I think, to read the entirety of Part V from “Exquisite Rebel”, to really give context to her worldview and anarchist politics. For example, she wasn’t just interested in expanding the choices of women to marry, divorce, have children or not – as an anarchist she believed the State had no business at all in the personal relationships of anyone, and that it was detrimental to lovers to cohabitate period.

    The following are excerpts from Part V – Those Who Marry Do Ill”

    “…It is of no importance to me whether this is a polygamous, polyandric, or monogamous marriage, nor whether it was blessed by a priest, permitted by a magistrate, contracted publicly or privately, or not contracted at all. It is the permanent dependent relationship which, I affirm, is detrimental to the growth of individual character, and to which I am unequivocally opposed. Now my opponents know where to find me.”

    “…Nowadays I would say that I prefer to see a marriage based purely on business considerations, than a marriage based on love. That is not because I am in the least concerned for the success of the marriage, but because I am concerned with the success of love. And I believe that the easiest, surest and most applicable method of killing love is marriage—marriage as I have defined it. I believe that the only way to preserve love in anything like the ecstatic condition which renders it worthy of a distinctive name—otherwise it is either lust or simply friendship—is to maintain the distances. Never allow love to be vulgarized by the common indecencies of continuous close communion. Better be in familiar contempt of your enemy than of the one you love.”

    This is incredibly radical, even now, and closely resembles the nascent Solo-Polyamory movement and aspects of contemporary Relationship Anarchy. And like Queer (the political theory – not simply the orientation) she seeks to deconstruct gender and all normative and quotidian relationships that spring from them via the State and church – which she hated with a passion.

    It would be a mistake, I think, to reduce Voltairene’s politics to the idea she was simply interested in increasing the choices available to women. Her position is far more radical than that, and her analysis of what we would now describe as the hetero-patriarchal matrix shows her broadening her inquiries to the damage this matrix does not just to women, but men also. She had an intersectional approach to her arnarcho-feminist politics that is amazingly contemporary.

    • SPC 6.1

      One wonders where the intersect is with economic independence, opportunity and capability – as to the issue of the affordability of individual property, (quite apart from ownership) when not cohabitating.

      There are also the intersect between relationship diversity, residence and parenting of children.

      These issues will exist regardless of religious tradition and continuing involvement of government.

      Of course one might infer a direction of society towards communal living and away from property ownership as providing the basis for a more diverse mode of living.

      • NZFemme 6.1.1

        Yes, I think there are multiple ways of being autonomous romantically/sexually that don’t mean living on your own – you might buy or rent a house with your best friend/s for example, or join or form an intentional community. You may decide to be an intentional single parent, or co-parent from two homes, as the majority of divorced people do. Or you may be happy in a much smaller footprint abode and live completely solo. The possibilities are endless really when you step out of the mindset of *must be part of a nesting couple with a white picket fence and 1/4 acre section*.

  7. NZFemme 7


    Yeah…I wasn’t exactly celebrating when marriage equality happened here. Lots of us queers (of the “political/theoretical +orientation” rather than just “umbrella term for the alphabet family queers”) were conflicted about it. Political queerness and queer theory is more akin to anarchy in many ways, and would rather see the deconstruction of the normative relationship/marriage escalator that would allow people to step off it completely.

    • Bill 8.1

      I’d doubt it.

      I can’t see Rand having accessed any De Cleyre writings, or being in any way familiar with her thoughts and ideas.

      Rand has always struck me as being a rather unfortunate and not altogether smart over-reaction to her experiences of state capitalism (or a bureaucratic command economy or whatever other label you want to use)

    • adam 8.2

      Voltairine was a individualist, not a capitalist anarchist. She rejected capitalism, and eventually embraced a form of mutualism. But it’s a possibility, she influenced Ayn Rand

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