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Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 153-174

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Refashioning the Mind:

The Revolutionary Rhetoric of Voltairine de Cleyre

Arizona State University

A revolution means some great and subversive change in the social institutions of a people, whether sexual, religious, political, or economic. The movement of the Reformation was a great religious revolution; a profound alteration in human thought,—a refashioning of the human mind.
Voltairine de Cleyre, "The Mexican Revolution" (302)
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?... "Why don't the women leave!" Will you tell me where they will go and what they shall do?... [T]here is no refuge upon earth for the enslaved sex. Right where we are, there we must dig our trenches, and win or die.
Voltairine de Cleyre, "Sex Slavery" (351-52)

Voltairine de Cleyre belongs to a group of writers in the United States—late nineteenth-century freethinkers, anarchists, and sex-radicals—who continue to be excluded not only from the canon in general but even from the most progressive textbook anthologies. This exclusion renders their achievements invisible; it also obscures the broader social, cultural, and political context of many canonical authors, including such figures as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. De Cleyre has been the subject of excellent historical work, beginning with Paul Avrich's biography and followed by Margaret S. Marsh's chapter in Anarchist Women, but with the exception of Catherine Helen Palczewski's important considerations of de Cleyre's rhetoric and her views of sexuality and Wendy McElroy's positioning of her work in the context of nineteenth-century anarchist feminism, the project of exploring de Cleyre's place in American literary history has only just begun. In this light, the present essay is a plea for more serious consideration of Voltairine de Cleyre's [End Page 153] turn-of-the-century anarchist feminist writings, both fiction and non-fiction. It argues that de Cleyre, in her double focus on social and psychological transformation—on getting rid of what she called "institutions in the mind"—produced a rhetoric aimed at addressing what Angela Davis has called "the intensely social character" of the interior life (200).

De Cleyre was an American anarchist feminist who published hundreds of works—poems, sketches, essays, lectures, pamphlets, translations, and short stories—from the 1880s until her death in 1912 at the age of forty-five. 1 Born in 1866 into the poverty of a working-class family in Michigan, she inherited the New England abolitionist background of her mother's family and the French freethinking and communist background of her father, who named her for Voltaire. Despite his philosophical commitments and revolutionary roots, her father sent her to a convent school, which she said left "white scars" on her soul and drew her "Will" inexorably toward "the knowledge and assertion of its own liberty" ("Making of an Anarchist" 156). In 1886 and 1887 she became a lecturer and writer in the cause of freethought, which she defined as "the right to believe as the evidence, coming in contact with the mind, forces it to believe. This implies the admission of any and all evidence bearing upon any subject which may come up for discussion" ("Economic Tendency" 3). Among the subjects that came up for discussion in late nineteenth-century freethinking circles were marriage, sexuality, birth control, women's rights, race relations, labor relations, evolution, the existence of God, and the relation of the state to the individual. On all of these...


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