Voltairine de Cleyre

This is a précis from the chapter on this famous freethinker in

Women Without Superstition "No gods, No Masters"

Ed. Annie Laurie Gaylor

Named by her poor American, French immigrant parents in honour of Voltaire, who they admired, she became one of the foremost freethinkers of her era, championing women's rights, anti-authoritarianism, women's rights, free speech and freethought.

At four she objected to being refused entry to school and taught herself to read. Her parents separated and she was sent to a Convent school where she became preoccupied with religion "I suffered hell a thousand times while I was wondering where it was located..." and in The Making of an Anarchist she wrote - "How I pity myself now, when I remember it, poor lonesome little soul, battling solitary in the murk of religious superstition" In an autobiographical sketch she wrote:- "In the heart of Catholicism, the child of fourteen become a freethinker..."

She later described this time. "It had been like the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and there are white scars on my soul yet, where Ignorance and Superstition burnt me with their hellfire in those stifling days. Am I blasphemous? It is their word, not mine." At nineteen, she declared herself a freethinker, vowing  in a poem The Burial of My Past Self -

"And now, Humanity, I turn to you

I consecrate my service to the world."

In 1886 she became editor of The Progressive Age, and toured and wrote for the American Secular Union and other freethought papers. Emma Goldman praised her speeches as "richly studied with original thought." In Secular Education she wrote "it is better to study how to live rather than how to die; that it is better to have a religion of deeds rather than a religion of creeds, that it is better to work for humanity than for God". and that "If you do not educate your children, the church will do it for you, and with an object....". Of her convent years she wrote

" I have seen the watchwords of their machinations. I have seen bright intellects, intellects which might have been brilliant stars in the galaxies of genius, loaded down with chains, made abject, prostrate nonentities. .....murdered by the church" And later argued that  "Only by deposing priests, only by rooting out their authority, did it become logical to attack the tyranny of kings.

Her view was that unless the freethought movement has a practical utility in rendering the life of man more bearable, unless it contains a principle which, worked out, will free him from the all oppressive tyrant, it is just as complete and empty a mockery as the Christian miracle or Pagan myth.

At twenty one she was seduced and abandoned by a former preacher, and after other  'ill-fated'  personal experiences,  she became more involved in women's rights - as well as pacifism, direct action and free speech. allied to these issues she was an early critic of vengeful punishment. After being shot and wounded she defended her deranged attacker saying the it would be "an outrage against civilisation if he were sent to jail for an act which was the product of a diseased brain" and subsequently raised money for his defense. She held Christianity to blame for its punitive attitudes and for "a new class of imbruted men".

On free speech she spoke at free speech rallies and wrote "There is but one way that free speech can ever be secured, and that is by persistent speaking...speak. speak. speak, and remember that whenever anyone's liberty to speak is denied, your liberty is denied also, and your place is there where the attack is"

She founded the Ladies' Liberal League in the early 1890s and lectured on feminist issues, and was early in condemning marital rape. After a particularly notorious case she wrote :

"To the sexual tyrant there is no parallel upon earth; one must go to the skies to find a fiend who thrusts life upon his children only to stare and curse and outcast and damn them! And only through the marriage law is such tyranny possible"

She also asserted the necessity for  every person to have personal space and privacy.

Among the many writings and poems referred to in the book are excerpts from  Sex Slavery and  Crime and Punishment and the original lecture -The Case of Woman vs. Orthodoxy

"The question of souls is old - we demand our bodies, now. We hare tired of promises, God is deaf, and his church is our worst enemy" - Sex Slavery - 1890

"I can see on reason, absolutely none, why women have clung to the doom of the gods. I cannot understand why they have not rebelled"

                                                         The Case of Woman Vs Orthodoxy - 1896



Sex Slavery

"Sex Slavery" was a speech delivered after freethinker/feminist Moses Harman was sentenced to five years of hard labor in prison for publishing medical details about a particularly heinous case of marital rape in Lucifer, The Light-Bearer in 189 o. This speech was reprinted in The Selected Works of Voltairine de Cleyre (r9 r4), edited by Alexander Berkman. Much of the content of "Sex Slavery" sounds contemporary; the passage dealing with religion is excerpted here.

...LET WOMAN ASK HERSELF, "Why am I the slave of Man? Why is my brain said not to be the equal of his brain? Why is my work not paid equally with his? Why must my body be controlled by my husband? Why may he take my labor in the household, giving me in exchange what he deems fit? Why may he take my children from me? Will them away while yet unborn?" Let every woman ask.

There are two reasons why, and these ultimately reducible to a single principle-the authoritarian, supreme-power, God-idea, and its two instruments, the Church-that is, the priests-and the State-that is, the legislators.

From the birth of the Church, out of the womb of Fear and the Fatherhood of Ignorance, it has taught the inferiority of woman. In one form or another through the various mythical legends of the various mythical creeds, runs the undercurrent of the belief in the fall of man through the persuasion of woman, her subjective condition as punishment, her natural vileness, total depravity, etc.; and from the days of Adam until now the Christian Church, with which we have specially to deal, has made woman the excuse, the scapegoat for the evil deeds of man. So thoroughly has this idea permeated Society that numbers of those who have utterly repudiated the Church, are nevertheless soaked in this stupefying narcotic to true morality. So pickled is the male creation with the vinegar of Authoritarianism, that even those who have gone further and repudiated the State still cling to the god, Society as it is, still hug the old theological idea that they are to be "heads of the family"-to that wonderful formula of "simple proportion" that "Man is the head of the Woman even as Christ is the head of the Church." No longer than a week since an Anarchist (?) said to me, "I will be boss in my own house"-a "Communist-Anarchist," if you please, who doesn't believe in "my house." About a year ago a noted libertarian speaker said, in my presence, that his sister, who possessed a fine voice and had joined a concert troupe, should "stay at home with her children; that is her place." The old Church idea! This man was a Socialist, and since an Anarchist; yet his highest idea for woman was serfhood to husband and children, in the present mockery called "home." Stay at home, ye malcontents! Be patient, obedient, submissive! Darn our socks, mend our shirts, wash our dishes, get our meals, wait on us and mind the children! Your fine voices are not to delight the public nor yourselves; your inventive genius is not to work, your fine art taste is not to be cultivated, your business faculties are not to be developed; you made the great mistake of being born with them, suffer for your folly! You are women! therefore house-keepers, servants, waiters, and child's nurses!

At Macon, in the sixth century, says August Bebel, the fathers of the Church met and proposed the decision of the question, "Has woman a soul?" Having ascertained that the permission to own a nonentity wasn't going to injure any of their parsnips, a small majority vote decided the momentous question in our favor. Now, holy fathers, it was a tolerably good scheme on your part to offer the reward of your pitiable "salvation or damnation" (odds in favor of the latter) as a bait for the hook of earthly submission; it wasn't a bad sop in those days of Faith and Ignorance. But fortunately fourteen hundred years have made it stale. You, tyrant radicals (?), have no heaven to offer,-you have no delightful chimeras in the form of "merit cards"; you have (save the mark) the respect, the good offices, the smiles-of a slave-holder! This in return for our chains! Thanks!

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 them-selves, 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?"

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 see-ing and hearing these things reported every day, the proper prudes ex-claim, "Why don't the women leave," they simply beggar the language of contempt.

When America passed the fugitive slave law compelling men to catch their fellows more brutally than runaway dogs, Canada, aristocratic, unrepublican Canada, still stretched her arms to those who might reach her. But there is no refuge upon earth for the enslaved sex. Right where we are, there we must dig our trenches, and win or die....

These two things, the mind domination of the Church, and the body domination of the State are the causes of Sex Slavery. ...

Now for the remedy. It is in one word, the only word that ever brought equity anywhere-LIBERTY! Centuries upon centuries of liberty is the only thing that will cause the disintegration and decay of these pestiferous ideas. Liberty was all that calmed the bloodwaves of religious persecution! You cannot cure serfhood by any other substitution...

Women Without Superstition "No Gods, No Masters"