Voltairine de Cleyre

On this date in 1866, freethinker Voltairine de Cleyre was born in Leslie, Mich., to French immigrant Hector and Harriet (Billings) de Cleyre. Her father, a struggling tailor and admirer of Voltaire, coined her name. By age 19 she had 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. The next 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.

The execution of four innocent anarchists in 1887 for the Haymarket bombing was a turning point for her. She dedicated herself to anarchism, but every speech and article, whether on politics or feminism, included her freethought views. She set off on a lecture tour in Kansas for the Woman’s National Liberal Union and founded a related league in Philadelphia, lecturing on such topics as “Sex Slavery.” She lived meagerly by teaching immigrants and translating. She became pregnant by freethinker James B. Elliot and gave birth to their son Harry in June 1890. She and Elliot agreed that Harry would live with Elliot and she would have no part in his upbringing.

In 1902 a deranged former pupil shot her four times at close range. She survived and was back on the lecture circuit three months later. She 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.)

De Cleyre, long plagued by sinus problems, fell ill again in April 1912 and died of septic meningitis nine weeks later after two operations in 1912 at age 45. She was buried in Waldheim Cemetery next to the graves of the Haymarket anarchists as 2,000 people gathered. 

Photo: De Cleyre in 1891 at age 25.

Freedom From Religion Foundation