Rachelle Slobodinsky Yarros in “Liberty” (1895)

[one_third padding=”0 10px 0 0px”]

Rachelle Slobodinsky Yarros was the co-author, with Voltairine de Cleyre, of the dialogue “The Individualist and the Communist,” which appeared in the journal Twentieth Century in 1891. She also produced two dialogues for Liberty, where her husband, Victor Yarros, was a regular contributor. The second dialogue—and the continuation by Benjamin R. Tucker—are imagined responses to the events in Grant Allen’s 1895 novel, The Woman Who Did.

[/one_third][two_third_last padding=”0 0px 0 10px”]

Another Case of Doubting Politician.

To the Editor of Liberty:

Mr. Labadie’s letter in Liberty a few months ago, in answer to a doubting friend, was of peculiar interest to me. I also have a very good friend who objects to the so-called “extreme deductions” which we draw from the principle of equal freedom. This friend, I am sorry to say, is George A. Schilling, who needs no introduction to Liberty. He has tried to convince me of the unsoundness of our position on certain questions.

I am very anxious that some of the ablest representatives should throw more light on this subject, for Mr. Schilling’s benefit, as well as for the benefit of others, who seem to stop short in their deductions, for some strange reason. I hope that it is due only to the lack of logic.

Let me state the substance of some of our discussions in the form of a dialogue between two friends.

Failure number one.

First Friend. I can’t go as far as some of you Anarchists do. I don’t see my way clear. I don’t believe a person has a right to constitute himself sheriff and executioner, as some of you assert.

Second Friend. Why not?

First Friend. Because it is dangerous to allow an interested person to perform such functions. At one time, in the early period of civilization, there prevailed such arrangements, and the result was that a great many outrageous injustices were committed.

Second Friend. Who, then, is to perform these functions? A voluntary organization t I don’t think any Anarchist will object to that. In fact, they recognize the necessity of such organization in order to economize time and labor. Still, if any person insist on performing those functions for himself, he must be given the right, or rather, he must not be prevented under the law of equal freedom. When you realize that present societies demand compensation for these services and usually fix their own prices too, allowing no competition in the market, I don’t see how you fail to perceive the gross violation of the law of equal freedom.

First Friend. I don’t see my way clear. I think we shall require some form of compulsory organization as long as people are not perfect. We cannot trust human nature.

Second Friend. And so you admit that you believe in violating the law in this case? [If I am not mistaken, my friend once admitted it.] I think that you exaggerate the gravity of the alleged evil of a person constituting himself sheriff and executioner. What does it really mean? It simply means that a person can, if he chooses, protect himself and his property, and, if necessary, take the punishment of trespassers on his person or property into his own hands

You must not forget that, as the principles of justice are becoming clearer, and the law of equal freedom more intelligently recognized as the right basis of society, the number of citizens who are ever ready to protect the rights of others as well as their own and to enforce justice is constantly increasing. The invader, no matter whether he assumes the form of a sheriff and executioner or any other form, will be quickly recognized and punished. The necessity of carefully refraining from invasion will be felt greatly in such society, and this will go far to prevent invasion. To say that “in the early period of civilization we had such an arrangement” is absurd. How much did those people know about equal freedom or justice?

Failure number two.

My friend, too, seems to be troubled about the banana-peeling on the sidewalk. He does not think that persuasion, public opinion, or the boycott would do any good in this case. He, too, insists that we must have a law against it. And yet you should hear how ably he argues that the most complex social relations can be regulated without laws; how he shuns what an important part public opinion and the boycott will play in the future when we shall have fewer laws!

Failure number three.

First Friend. Either our children belong to us or they belong to society.

Second Friend. The children certainly don’t belong to society. As long as parents support children, they have certain rights over them, and to a certain extent they belong to them.

First Friend. Have parents a right to prevent a child from reading vile books?

Second Friend. Yes.

First Friend. And, since all fathers have a right to prohibit or prevent their children from reading such books, have not all fathers a right to come together and pass a law prohibiting the sale of such books?

Second Friend. Not at all. The conclusion does not follow from the premises. To prohibit the sale would be an invasion. The person selling the book does not compel your child to buy it, and still less to read it. He is therefore not an invader.

First Friend. He is invading my child’s mind. You give me the right to protect my child, but deny me the proper means. To my mind it is a clear case of invasion, and I believe in prohibiting the sale of such books.

Second Friend. You are confused. Don’t you see that by trying to sell any book a person exercises no compulsion? Where is the invasion and the crime?

First Friend. I know that you, too, will some day see these points as I do.

Second Friend. I shall be sorry for myself, because I shall then be as illogical as you are.

I hope that T. or some other competent writer will give another explanation of these peculiar phenomena than the one T. has already given in the case of the “Politician’s Doubts.” I should dislike to have to apply it to my friend’s case.

Rachelle Slobo-Yarros.

Rachelle Slobodinsky Yarros, “Politician’s Doubts,” Liberty 11 no. 5 (July 13, 1895): 8.

“The Woman Who Did.”

Florence. I have hardly been able to do anything since Herminia’s death. Day and night I find myself thinking about her. How I did love and admire her! The news of her death almost killed me, it came so suddenly and so unexpectedly.

Laura. It was not so unexpected to me. I had often thought that, if some day Dolores disappointed her mother, in not being able or desirous to “regenerate humanity,” there would be nothing left for Herminia to live for, according to her own words. Indeed, I could never understand how Herminia, with her good sense, could have had such implicit faith that her daughter would necessarily be a second Herminia. It almost seemed as if she must have taken heredity for something of known quality and quantity; and, even if that was the case, she entirely overlooked the importance of environment in the formation of the character of children. Environment does not only mean the immediate influence of parents and surroundings at home, but includes everybody and everything that a child comes in contact with and receives impressions from. Herminia had no rational basis for such implicit faith,—none except her own hopes and desires. It really pained me to see her cherish that faith. I remember once telling her that my personal experience, as well as the experience of others, had been that the children of extreme radicals turn out to be conservatives almost always.

Florence. How do you account for it?

Laura. Well, it is perhaps due to the fact that the children of radicals are very often deprived of a good many material comforts and pleasures, and also because, while still very young and consequently very impressionable, they are made to suffer for the “sins” of their parents by other children as well as adults; perhaps these two factors have something to do with the formation of strong prejudices against heresy and non- conformity in general.

Florence. The question, to my mind, is really: what was there left for Herminia to live for, since Alan was dead and Dolores had disappointed her so dreadfully? She certainly could not have done anything for the freedom of women.

Laura. She could have done a good deal, if she had been rational. Had she been less sure that Dolores would necessarily take up her own cause, she would not have been crushed, when Dolores proved to have no sympathy at all with her mother’s views. No doubt it would have been disappointing and extremely painful to be so cruelly treated by her own child, but she would have been able to take a more philosophical view of the matter, and would not consequently have put an end to her own life. Then, Herminia was a victim of a false philosophy of life. She had old-fashioned altruistic ideas. She believed she had “duties” to her sex. She felt that she must fight a certain “battle,” which had been imposed upon her. In fact, she did everything in a spirit of self-sacrifice or martyrdom. Such interpretations of one’s impulses to do what is right are always sure to lead to keen disappointments. It does not seem to me that a person starting out in that way can ever accomplish as much as one who rationally interprets his motives. Such people are usually crushed by the unforeseen amount of suffering which they have to endure.

Florence. Tell me just what you mean by “ old-fashioned altruistic ideas.”

Laura. Under the head of old fashioned altruists come, first, those who believe in a supernatural being imposing upon them duties, and next those who consider self of secondary importance and claim that we live primarily for the happiness of others. When self cries out for one thing, and the happiness of “others” cries for the very opposite thing, it is said to be our duty to sacrifice self. That is what would be called an absolutely altruistic motive, which, however, is an impossibility, because it would lead to the destruction of all selves, which means destruction of the very thing that we are said to live for. There is no motive that has no self in it, although not all motives are equally selfish. A woman with rational views might do just what Herminia did,—i. e., if asked to marry a man she loves, she might refuse, not because of her duties to her sex, and so on, but because she desired to avoid marriage laws which she regarded as the cause of slavery of women. Some might go further, as Herminia did, and say: “I wish to set an example to women, and show that they can get rid of that slavery, if they really wish. Although I fully realize what a hard task it is, and that it means suffering and struggle, I want to do it.” Such action would be regarded as unselfish, but there would clearly be the gratification of self in it. A woman who should set out with such motives would be able to stand more hardship, for there is self there; she would not be crushed so easily, because she would not worry over the fact that she had not performed her duties. If she were compelled to give up this method of protesting against the marriage institution, she could still live and look for other means to further the cause. Such a woman would not at least discourage other women in attempting to follow her steps. She would not give the conservatives warrant to say “that those who violate our laws must die.” She would live and fight in spite of the numerous obstacles.

Florence. I am sure that Herminia’s followers have enthusiasm and courage enough not to be deterred by anything.

Laura. You never told me plainly that you agreed thoroughly with Herminia, but I have suspected it of late. But, Florence, have you reached the point when you are ready to repeat Herminia’s experiment? It would cause me great pain, if that were really the case.

Florence. I have long wished to speak to you about it, for I care more for your opinion than for that of anybody else, Laura! I have considered the subject thoroughly, and, since I have learned what marriage is, from what slavery it sprang, by what unhappy sacrifices it is maintained and made possible, I have felt that I could never marry, no matter how I loved. I feel that I too could give my life as a sacrifice for the freedom of women. I condemn the women who have turned traitors to their sex.

Laura. I see plainly where you stand now. I scarcely hope to make you see the irrationality of such conduct, for, like Herminia, you are of the impulsive variety of women, and never benefit by others’ experience. But still I wish to tell you my views on the subject.

Florence. I always try to be reasonable. But I confess that I feel intensely the evil of the marriage institution.

Laura. Why, Florence, every true believer in individual liberty feels that the marriage institution is a relic of slavery, and, as such, must be protested against and denounced, just as we denounce every other institution which violates individual freedom. I have no justification for the existence of the marriage laws, but I insist that every rational person, who has the desire to sacrifice his life as a protest against the marriage institution must think over carefully the following questions: Is the marriage institution the greatest existing evil? Can this question be approached directly, or does it depend on the solution of more fundamental economic and political questions? Is freedom of women possible without economic independence, and is economic independence possible under present conditions? Is self-sacrifice of individual women the only, or even the wisest, way to undermine this existing and strongly-supported institution, and have we not sufficient reason to think men will try to enforce the marriage laws as long as they fail to see that individual liberty is the essential condition of real human happiness?

Florence. I remember the time, and that was not so very long ago, when you yourself warmly advocated Herminia’s principles, and did not shrink from any practical application of them. It is curious to see how practical you have become!

Laura. I believe more in freedom of women than I ever did before; in this respect I can never change as long as my mental faculties remain unimpaired. But I have become more practical, and I am not ashamed of it. I see more clearly what I then saw only faintly,—that, marriage or no marriage, a woman is not and cannot be free, unless she is economically independent. Unless she can provide for her own needs, she is a man’s slave in some form or degree (it might be in a very civilized form, by the way), be he her legal or illegal lover or husband. The majority of women are not awakened to the real cause of their slavery. Why do they live a life of legal prostitution? Not from fear of the law, or even of public opinion, but from the instinctive fear of the hard struggle for their own, as well as their children’s, material existence. When they are treated brutally by their husbands, they forget the law, they forget public opinion, but they cannot forget the poverty that is in store for them, if they leave the house of their lord and master. Take, for instance, actresses or other independent women; marriage does not enslave them, if they wish to be free, because they are independent materially of their husbands.

Florence. I don’t see why you talk so much of the importance of economic independence to me, just as if I or Herminia did not realize it?

Laura. No, you do not realize it, for a full realization would necessarily make you see that such independence, for a woman who acts out her conviction, is, today, a practical impossibility; that, if a woman lives with a man outside of marriage, especially if she has children, she is lost as far as the possibilities of supporting herself are concerned. The neighbors—in fact, the entire community—take excellent care that she should suffer, for they fear the effect of her example upon their own children, and so she must necessarily fall back for her support on the man she associates with. Think of the prospect to a young, intellectual, ambitious, active woman, with probably a profession she loves, with all the zeal for actual freedom, finding herself in a state of thorough dependence for her own and her child’s support, becoming suddenly isolated from the world of her friends, for most of them are usually either conservative or lacking the courage to receive her. To depend on only one person for your companionship, to be left practically with very few or no friends at all, coupled with the possibility of ceasing to love this man, or noticing signs of his indifference—imagine, if you can, the horror of such a situation! Take Herminia’s experience. Could she have gone on teaching school? Was she not obliged to give it up? Was she not deprived thereby of her economic independence? Was she not entirely and wholly dependent on Alan’s companionship? Supposing he had lived, he might have proven himself to be an entirely different person, as soon as he realized that he was practically Herminia’s master, that she was no longer the respected Miss Barton, who was perfectly independent, who supported herself by teaching school, but Alan Merrick’s mistress, who was at his mercy as far as her material and moral support were concerned. He might have been influenced even instinctively by it, as every husband is rightly supposed to be, after the law gives him the mastership over a woman who was once free, and whom he probably even loved. Alan might have then asserted his authority in many things that concerned Herminia, and then what?

Florence. The only thing to do in such a case is to put an end to any relations with such a man.

Laura. To put an end is not so easy, when you think what a desperate struggle Herminia had to make for the very scanty support of herself and Dolores after Alan’s death. She who, if married, would have been able to support herself and child in comfort! When you think of the prospect left to a woman under such conditions, you will then realize that the choice is really between two evils,—i. e., poverty, privation, sneers, for herself and young child on the one hand, and submission to her lord on the other. It is very hard to choose under such conditions. To talk about freedom of choice reminds me of the claim of some people that the workingmen are as free as their masters. What are their alternatives? Starvation, or starvation wages Now and then they get desperate and decide actually to starve; that is the time when they strike, but they usually soon decide (at least, the majority of them do) that starvation wages are, after all, better than no wages at all, because then at least the power to protest is left to you.

Florence. But you must not forget that Alan was a good man; if he had lived, the world would not have triumphed. He certainly would have helped Herminia to accomplish her desired end.

Laura. You don’t seem to realize that you too are giving your case away. You practically admit that with him she would have accomplished everything, without him nothing. What does this mean, but thorough dependence on a man? With Alan, rich, influential, living in splendor, of course Herminia would not have suffered. He would have protected her as every rich man protects his mistress. She might never have realized how cruel the world is to its heretics. She might have gone on thinking and pitying her sisters who have not the courage to free themselves. But, if the question had been put to her in what way her position was different from the position of every married woman, she would have had great difficulty in answering it Realizing, as she must have realized on reflection, that her own, as well as her child’s, happiness depended entirely on Alan, what freedom of choice would have been left for her? Of course, as long as Herminia only wished to do what Alan happened to approve, there would have been no trouble; but neither is there any trouble among a married couple under such conditions. But was she freer to do things without Alan’s consent than any married woman? He might have tyrannized over her at any time he chose. She either would have had to give in to her illegal lord, or else face misery for herself and child. You say that Alan was a good man. I have no doubt of that, but there are some other good men whose sense of justice is strong, who thoroughly believe that men and women have the same rights to life and the exercise of their faculties, but those very men, when they marry, differ little, we are told, from other husbands; but, if that is true, the illegal husbands are much more dangerous, because the women are practically more at their mercy.

R. S. Y.

Rachelle Slobodinsky Yarros, “The Woman Who Did,” Liberty 11 no. 15 (November 16, 1895): 6–7.

The Woman Who Didn’t.

The conversation between Florence and Laura which R. S. Y. reports on another page was still in progress when R. S. Y. left the room. Fortunately I was eavesdropping and heard it to the end. Here is the rest of it.

Florence. Are there any married women among our acquaintances who married rather than live in illegal relations, because thereby they could enjoy an economic independence impossible to a woman who has an acknowledged lover?

Laura. Why, yes; there’s Mary Jane, who married Peter.

Florence. Hm! Let me see; Mary Jane has no children, I believe?

Laura. None.

Florence. Am I right, also, in thinking that it was not, and is not, her intention to have any?

Laura. You are.

Florence. And that she knows enough of sexual physiology to enable her to make it, if not absolutely sure, at least highly probable, that her intention will not be thwarted?

Laura. That is also true.

Florence. Then we can hardly allow her to plead anxiety regarding her offspring in extenuation of her choice of a married life.

Laura. But think of the friends that she would have lost, had she chosen to live illegally.

Florence. Is it not true that she has a large circle of friends among people like ourselves,—Anarchists or people only less radical?

Laura. Yes.

Florence. Do you think that many of these would have treated her with less consideration, if she had chosen a more Anarchistic method of life?

Laura. Probably not; but she has also conservative friends whom she values.

Florence. Values conservative friends!

Laura. Certainly. Why do you exclaim? Would you, then, exclude from your circle of friends all people not in agreement with you?

Florence. By no means. But I would not accept, much less value, the friendship of those who would exclude from their circle of friends all people not living in accordance with their views. One who marries to save such friendship cannot, it seems to me, really look upon marriage as the detestable slavery which Mary Jane professes to consider it.

Laura. But what if the aid of such friends were essential to Mary Jane’s economic independence?

Florence. That, indeed, is a motive which one might be forced to entertain, though at the expense of pride. But the need of such aid is growing less and less, and is much overrated even now. You and I know women who have had, not one, but several, lovers, and who, nevertheless, in legitimate callings that are de- pendent on conservative patronage, are supporting, not only themselves, but others. However, let this pass. Granting that such friends are serviceable, was marriage the only way by which Mary Jane could hold them? In your elaborate defence of such women as Mary Jane you seem to have overlooked the fact that it is not absolutely essential to the continuation of the universe, or even of Mary Jane herself, that she should live with Peter, either legally or illegally. As a single woman, could not the “young, intellectual, ambitious, and active” Mary Jane have kept her friends, pursued her profession, achieved economic independence, and satisfied her zeal for freedom and reform?

Laura. Certainly. But she loved Peter.

Florence. So you admit that by entering into the slavery of matrimony she gained nothing but Peter. The choice that she made, then, was not between illegal relationship, accompanied by poverty and disappointment of ambition, on the one hand, and, on the other, marriage with its accompanying prosperity and success. Her real choice was between the freedom of celibacy without Peter, and the slavery of marriage with Peter. The case of Mary Jane, which you have been at such pains to defend, may be stated in these simple words: she wanted Peter more than she wanted freedom.


Benjamin R. Tucker., “The Woman Who Didn’t,” Liberty 11 no. 15 (November 16, 1895): 4.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.