Voltairine De Cleyre was born in Michigan in 1866 and was named after the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire. She grew up experiencing poverty and then was forced to live in a Catholic convent by her father, who thought it would provide a better education for her. Life at the convent did have a positive effect, but not the one that her father had hoped for. What Voltairine developed was not only a critical understanding of the world, she would also eventually identify as an atheist because of the oppressive nature of the Catholic education.
By the early 1880s she moved to the Grand Rapids area and eventually to Grand Rapids and was active in the anti-clerical, Free Thought Movement. Voltairine soon began writing for various publications and exploring other political disciplines. However, it was the Haymarket uprising in Chicago in 1886 that finally brought her to embrace anarchism. More specifically, it was the hanging of the Haymarket Martyrs in 1887, that solidified her belief and commitment in political anarchism.
There is an excellent zine produced by Sprout Distro in Grand Rapids on the history of Anarchism in Grand Rapids, with a section on De Cleyre that is worth citing:
In addition to De Cleyre’s deep feminist thought, she began devoting a great deal of time to the memory and legacy of the Haymarket Martyrs. In fact, between 1895 and 1910, she began to give speeches throughout the midwest and east coast on the anniversary of Haymarket, on May 1. Paul Avrich, the anarchist historian, eventually put together a collection of these Haymarket speeches by De Cleyre, in a small book entitled, The First Mayday: the Haymarket speeches 1895 – 1910.
In the speech she delivered in 1906 in Chicago, De Cleyre shared these eloquent words:
For the text of that entire 1906 speech, go to this link.
However, De Cleyre did not limit herself to writing just about the Haymarket Martyrs. She was a prolific writer of poetry and essays. In her poem entitled, The Burial of My Past, the anarchist wrote:
And now, Humanity, I turn to you;
I consecrate my service to the world!
Perish the old love, welcome the new –
Broad as the space-aisles where the stars are whirled!
Voltairine De Cleyre was an astute observer of the world. She wrote about anarchism and the particularly anarchism in America. She wrote about Direct Action, Crime & Punishment and the Paris Commune. In 1911, the year before she died, she wrote about the Mexican Revolution.
De Cleyre stated, “The Mexican revolution is one of the prominent manifestations of the world-wide economic revolt. It possibly holds as important a place in the present disruption and reconstruction of economic institutions, as the great revolution of France held in the eighteenth century movement.”
De Cleyre was an admirer of the Mexican anarchist, Rigardo Flores Magon and her last poem was dedicated to the Mexican Revolution.
Gods of the World! Their mouths are dumb!
But the shrouded Living, whose hearts were numb,
Have felt the beat of a wakening drum
Within them sounding – Dead Men’s tongue –
Calling: “Smite off the ancient rust!”
Have beheld “Resurrexit,” the word of the Dead,
Written – in – red.
from the poem, Written in Red
Voltairine De Cleyre died in 1912, at the young age of 46. However, despite her short life, she not only impacted those who heard her speeches, she continues to inspire generations of people who will consecrate their service to the world!