On this date in 1866, freethinker and anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre was born in Leslie, Mich., the dainty baby daughter of French immigrant Hector De Claire and Harriet Billings. Her father, a struggling tailor and admirer of Voltaire, coined her name. By four, bright "Voltai" had taught herself to read. Her father, after undergoing a change in personality, enrolled Voltai in a convent in Ontario, where "I suffered hell a thousand times while I was wondering where it was located. . . " she later wrote ("The Making of an Anarchist"). By 19, Voltairine declared herself a freethinker, marking the moment with a poem and pledging to "consecrate my service to the world!" In 1886, she became editor of The Progressive Age, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and changed the spelling of her last name. The following year she launched a lecture tour before freethought groups. Tall, slim, with arresting features, blue eyes and curly brown hair, she must have made an impression in her version of a Greek toga. Emma Goldman, in a short book written in 1932 after Voltairine's death, remembered "her pale face lit up with the inner fire of her ideal," praising her speeches as "richly studded with original thought."
The execution of four innocent anarchists in 1887 for the Haymarket bombing was the turning point of Voltairine's life. Although she dedicated herself to anarchism, every speech and article, whether on politics or feminism, contained her freethought views. She set off on a lecture tour in Kansas for the Woman's National Liberal Union. She founded a related league in Philadelphia, lectured on such topics as "Sex Slavery," advocated a day to recognize Mary Wollstonecraft as freethinkers had done for Thomas Paine, and lived meagerly, teaching immigrants and translating. In 1902, a deranged former pupil shot her at close range with 4 bullets. Expected to die, she not only survived but was back on the lecture circuit 3 months later. Voltairine even raised defense funds for the perpetrator, whom she called "the product of a diseased brain." In an eloquent essay, she decried punishment and imprisonment for its own sake, holding Christianity accountable for a "new class of imbruted men." ("Crime and Punishment," 1903). She was one of a number of prominent individuals, including Eugene V. Debs, Clarence Darrow, and Jack London, to speak at a free speech rally in 1909. Plagued by sinus problems, which had led to much suffering and many hospitalizations, she fell ill again in April 1912. Two brutal operations were performed, she suffered for 9 weeks and finally died on June 20, 1912. She was buried in the Waldheim Cemetery next to the graves of the Haymarket anarchists as 2,000 people gathered. Although known for her freethought poetry, her passionate, uncompromising essays are still timely, still provocative. D. 1912.