Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Past and Future of the Ladies’ Liberal League” (1895-96)



Voltairine de Cleyre

I have assumed a serious and severe office that of historian and prophet. But, pardon me, I intend to be neither serious nor severe; for this is an occasion rather for exchanging greetings and putting ourselves in good humor than being serious, and my talk will be somewhat governed thereby.

Our history is short, but, to borrow a ponderous phrase of Renan’s “of interest to the philosophic mind.” At last it ought to be; if it is not so much the worse for the philosophic mind.

We were born in February 1892, and like the celebrated author of Innocents Abroad, we ran alone ten minutes after we were born,—only he had the misfortune to get tangled up in his long clothes, while we, being the child of the New Women and the New Man, (comparatively new I mean, not of the “bloomer” yet, but considerably outside orthodox traditions) we were never swaddled in long clothes, but kicked freely and healthily from the beginning. I spoke with levity, but if we had dubbed ourselves the Kicking Society, in all seriousness it would not have been amiss. The first act of our life was to kick against an unjust decree of our parents, and we have unflinchingly stood for the kicking principle ever since. Now, if the word kicking is in bad repute with you, substitute non-submission, insubordination, rebellion, revolt, revolution, whatever name you please which expresses non-acquiescence to injustice. We Have done this because we love liberty and hate authority, and the sentiment is bound to find vent somehow, “as the sap climbs upward to the flower,” to make use of an illustration from Kropotkine.

How then, some stranger will inquire, does it happen that you, standing for so bold a principle, have such an innocuous name,—Ladies’ Liberal League? Sirs, though our parents were reformers, men and women grown gray in a good cause, we beg you to remember that they are gray, and to look leniently on their foibles. We are the child of the Friendship Liberal League, and that worthy society, grand and courageous as it has been and still is, and no one enjoys paying so deserved a tribute better than I, has yet approached that mellowness of age when it has a tendency to smoothness and respectability. Respectability is a sort of secular saint to be considered in the matter of baptisms, and “Ladies” is a very respectable word. Besides our dear parents, as is often the case with parents, conceived us quite otherwise, than as we turned out to be. They had an idea of forming a sort of machine wherethrough the working force of the woman of the Friendship League could be brought to bear upon the Liberal Hall Association plan; in other words we were to be a Ladies Aid, after the model of the church, and make money after the manner of women, by fairs, sociables, picnics, excursions, et cetera. We were to smile men into ticket-buying, and shame them into candy purchase, and wheedle them into ice-cream. I presume that bedquilts done up gorgeously with silks and raffled at ten cents a ticket may have been distantly in view. I could not say authoritatively; I did not join the society until after the girls had decided they were born for other purposes. How came it about? Well, the trouble lay right here: our parents assumed that the child was wise enough to earn the money, the best way it could, but not wise enough to control it after it was earned; the child thought otherwise. In that difference of opinion rebellion began, and continued till a complete separation took place, and the L.L.L. set up in business for itself.

It’s a long way off now, but some of us still remember with pleasure the quiet Monday evening gatherings at the home of our secretary, where we used to meet and pass a cosy, nestled up time, getting to understand ourselves. Time has weeded us out a little: three of us, one young, one old, one middle-aged, have gone to shadow. Two of them had secular funerals, a matter which might not have been easy to manage but for the friendships formed and prolonged through and by the L.L.L. (So we hold it out to you as an inducement, if any of you are thinking of dying. Come into the fold in order that you may go out of it as a true rebel.) You may take that as a joke, but it is really a very serious matter. And no one knows till he gets to be a freethinker and starts to die, or some of his free thought friends do, what a difficult thing it is for a piece of cold human clay to escape the clutch of the church. “Are you there, my friend,” says she adjusting her spectacles to take a good survey of you: “Aha! Now I have you at last! Your obstreperous mouth is closed, and I shall damn you at ease—with the fairest set of lies my agent can set forth. Oh, you all come to me in the end.” And don’t we though! Are we not made mock of in the very clods? Our whole lives belied? Our works gainsaid?

Well, as I said, some have gone to the shadow; some concluding that the trend of the more active spirits was too radical, have withdrawn. Blessings go with them! We were sorry to part with them, we wish they could have gone with us; but we couldn’t halt. We remember them as comrades; and when the evening firelight throws its gleams on the wall, and the pictures of the old quiet days before we dabbled in public-mixing matters flash in the illuminated rosy shadow, their faces are still there. Some are dead, some left behind, and some gone, not of their will but of the bitter Will of-God or the Devil or whatever other cursed tyrant it is who separates people who do not want to be separated, that says to a man “‘Go thou,’ and he goeth.” This is the worst of partings.

When a friend goes to death, we know that it is well,—with him at least; when he says, “I don’t like your road; I like the other way better” we may disagree with him, but we know that he is satisfying himself, doing as we would choose to do under similar conditions; but when a friend extends his hand and says, “Good-bye; I don’t know when I’ll see you again. I’ve tramped the city over for a job, but it’s no use;” or when one night he sits particularly quiet and you don’t know quite what ails him, and don’t want for fear of offending, and the next night and the next and the next, a stranger sits in his chair, and he never comes again, and you know in your unwilling heart that he is lost in the eddy of the black night, that strain eyes as you will you will never see aught of him again but a wavering fading shape melting away in the unresting mist, then, then you like taking down the Fathers of the Church and learning how to curse systematically!

Dead, and deserted, and gone; but there are many of the old faces yet, and we feel as stout-hearted as we ever did, and now and then some new ones come in to help us. Not many—we wish we were more; but “valuable articles are done up in small packages,” and I am sure the originator of that clever saying must have had his prophetic eye on the L. L. L. when he said it. These additions came about, principally, at the time we joined our fortunes in part with those of the Radical Library, an institution somewhat older in years and good works than ourselves, founded for the purpose of supplying a defect in our public libraries by furnishing radical works upon all subjects at a slight expense to readers, and being open at an hour when working men may avail themselves of it.

At this time we took upon ourselves the onerous duty of paying rent, which is, was, and ever shall be an everlasting, unmitigated curse, and assuming a slightly more public character, though still retaining the purely social form. It was in the room then occupied that the question of rising finances first became urgent. In the beginning it had been mostly income and no outgo. The rent paying altered the situation, as did likewise the panic which afflicted us in common with the poor fellows whom Ward McAllister tells us were cut down from $15,000 to $10,000 a year, and cut most of us down to below zero. Our dues were only five cents a week and most of them not paid. The outlook was dubious, sky heavily mottled and no light visible.

Just here appeared the stroke of genius in the shaping of our destiny. There were two members of the society, (out of respect to whose modesty I forbear to mention the names, but if anybody guesses I won’t say no) who proposed to wring success from despair, by doubling, nay tripling, the expenses, and opening a public lecture course. There were those of us who shrugged the shoulders as who should say, “I don’t wish to be answerable for the consequences.” I was one of them. But the daring two, who probably couldn’t have paid a demand note for $1.00 between them at the time, so deeply had the iron of the engineers of the panic been driven home, these daring two went ahead; and to the saving grace of daring must be attributed our salvation at this critical juncture. The thing went! A god intellectual treat was offered to the public, and the public partook freely and didn’t grumble about paying for it . And such has been our experience all the time; whenever we have done ourselves justice in the matter of good speakers the audience has been willing to testify to its appreciation.

Let us right here get an understanding of the principles which governed the making up of these programs, in fact our existence as a Liberal League. We know that there is forbidden fruit waiting to be gathered, the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and we propose to put up a step-ladder before every get-at-able apple and help ourselves and others to it. We do this by means of the free platform. Questions of science, usually locked within the walls of colleges and only to be approached through tuition fees and expensive books, and that with due reverence and non-questioning belief, have been here presented, by scientific men and women who were willing to break the trust and divulge the secrets of science without money or price; and afterward they have been discussed by the layman.

I don’t mean to say that these discussions have been altogether without their amusing and even objectionable features. Many will no doubt be able to recall instances of that sort, when the layman has made rather a mess of science, and spoken somewhat to the confusion of the scientist and the ladies. But what of that? When we adopted the principle of liberty we accepted all that went with it. We realized that the fool has as good a right to his opinion as the wise man, and that only through the expression of opinion can the wise man be discerned from the fool, or the one capable of receiving enlightenment receive it.

Among our scientific lectures has been Dr. M. V. Ball of the Eastern Penitentiary, who is at present becoming noted as the opponent of the scientific Presbyterianism of “that learned donkey Lombroso,” as Alexander Berkman styles the celebrated Italian expounder of criminal anthropology. Dr. Ball has spoken a word before us for the criminals, those voiceless children of the Sacrifice, whom Society first creates, then damns. Dr. Frances Emily White of the Woman’s Medical College, has spoken likewise a word for “humanity’s eternal priestess,” the prostitute, another social sufferer. Prof. E. D. Cope, the world’s great paleontologist, together with others of perhaps less distinction but not necessarily less worthy of a hearing, have addressed us.

We have given a good portion of our time to the discussion of economic questions, which together with the sex question seem to be of the greatest interest to our attendance. The advocates of Co-operation, Populism, Proportional Representation, Single Tax, Prohibition, Woman Suffrage, Free Money, Socialism, Anarchism, Anarchist-Communism, and Revolution all had a hearing. (And we are anxious to give it to them again any time a good speaker is forthcoming.) We have listened to Doctor Metzler on socialism, Messrs. Hetzel and Stevens on the Single Tax, Mr. Kitson on Free Money, all noted authors, with numerous other speakers, including the well-beloved Chas. W. Mowbray, the jolly comrade with the great head and greater heart. We had the honor indeed of introducing him to Philadelphia, though we had not the honor of his subsequent arrest under our auspices. This arrest by the way, which occurred between Christmas and New Years last year, had the effect of increasing our audience by a number of ambiguous personages, of large girth, somewhat cask like in shape, big around the middle and pointy towards top and bottom. It is unfortunate to be built that way, because there seems to be some sort of secret affiliation between these human casks and a very mal-odorous occupation. Whenever we see one particularly round and vicious and sleepy-looking, who gazes at the big gold ring on his little finger when Prof. Cope is talking about the Tertiary and Quaternary epoch as if he wished it were Aladdin’s and would transport him by wishing to a good beer saloon, we don’t exactly know, you know, but we strongly suspect what he is there for.

Of course this class of person is very unpromising; still, as St. Paul says, “Faith, hope and Charity, and the greatest of these is Charity.” These people may have somewhere down in the immense fog-bank of their understandings, a feebly fluttering thing that tries to beat its unused wings towards the light. The chances are it will be smothered;—but we’ll do our best to give this weak little subconscious ego a square show. We will do our best to make these important issues interesting and instructive to the detectives and police of Philadelphia, and we sincerely hope that they may eventually be able to learn something.

We have again not been unmindful of the fact that there are ethical and moral and educational questions pressing for consideration. We were determined to run into no rut, to become no pretty propagandist “group” with but one idea to hawk, in and out of season, to confine ourselves to no particular class of subjects; we said: “Some people haven’t settled their account with God yet—let us let them tell us why; some people feel the need of a reconstruction of the principles of religion into an ethical system, and believe that the proper understanding of these principles will give a better nucleus for the concentration of the efforts of life, than he who is cast adrift without such can command. In some this reconstruction has taken the form of theosophy, in others Unitarianism, in others spiritualism, in others Whitmanism. As to Unitarianism we have been addressed by the Rev. W. I. Nichols, a most courteous and delightful speaker, from whom we learned that Unitarianism means essentially the development of the individual, no bars being placed on his unfoldment—precisely what most of us are aiming at. And indeed the large tolerance of this Unitarian, with its sweet reverence for the individual’s right, might serve as a gentle lesson to our intolerant ones, who want to scream God out of heaven, forgetting that he is not there but in the human heart—the heart which bleeds bitterly for its idols. As to Theosophy we have been favored by speakers from England, by Dr. Charlotte Abbey, by that stern thinker and exquisite poet, Wayland Smith; while as to Whitmanism we have been instructed by that ardent exponent and disciple, Thomas Harned and right loyally has he spoken for his teacher.

Upon the strangely obscure but terribly important question of education of children we have been more than interested by that good and gentle woman, Constance McKenzie, Superintendent of the kindergarten of Philadelphia, and not less so by that equally good though not so pleasantly employed lady, Mary O’Reilly, factory inspector, under whose pitying eye the sorrows of enslaved childhood are daily revealed.

Finally the sex question, more intensely important to us than any other, because of the interdict which generally rest upon it, because of its immediate bearing upon daily life, because of the stupendous mystery of it and the awful consequences of ignorance of it. We have considered the relative positions of the sexes, biologically, ethnologically, historically, economically, politically,—if there is a way we haven’t considered them we would like to know it; it would make a good evening. Among the speakers on this all absorbing topic was the brilliant half-breed, Honore J. Jaxon, one of the leaders of the Riel uprising in 1887, for whose head the British government wants to pay $10,000. He told us how the much belied aboriginal woman lived in her aboriginal conditions, in relation to lover and husband as well as in other matters. It isn’t altogether satisfactory, but it has the advantage over the whites’ system, in that the squaw can t any time she pleases, tap the drum and say to the council, “I here give away Blacktail to whoever wants him.” We whites are expected to fee a lawyer first.

The noted woman lawyer, Mrs. Kilgore, has given us of her eloquence; the bright little journalist, Mrs. Symonds, the strong though quiet Henrietta Westbrook; the scholarly Miss Craddock, who has made deep researches into ancient symbolism, believes in the possibility of marriage between spirits and mortals, and has been denied a platform by every thin-shelled liberal society in the city, because she thinks that can happen now which every ex-Christian freethinker once devoutly believed did happen nineteen hundred years ago! Observe how little they are really changed, since they were to persecute unbelief.

And there have been others and others and others after all which others, (enough to make it modest) myself, who always go in as filling, when no one else is available, which is what I am doing at present, please your worships. I trust some well-disposed person will now say something agreeable about the filling of the goose being the best part.

Of course we have put forward all these questions because we, as a society, do stand for equality, without which there is no liberty. Like others our idea of equality is more or less misty; that is, it is a vast principle seen indistinctly in the twilight of dawning perception, whose outlines will become sharply defined bit by bit in the noon-day of experience only. Nevertheless it serves us as a guide. It goes without saying that had we been without this guide we should not have been so impartial. From the orthodox, in or out of an ism, you may expect to hear but one side; from us you have a right to expect all sides. So we begged the reactionists to come; and they came in the person of Prof. Cope and the witty litterateur, Ralph Raleigh, who hankers deeply after the woman of King Solomon’s ideal, who looked well after the household and didn’t mix into her husband’s club-house affairs, who took what he “provided for her” and made the most of it, who sat near him when he made speeches and wiped her eyes with tearful pride when the audience applauded him and took him home afterward and put him to bed with a warm toddy, and kept the children quiet so he could sleep, and brought the paper to him so he could read about himself when he woke up, and said, “Yes, my dear,” when he exclaimed “This reporter is a beast,” and “No, my dear,” when he declared that “no true woman would ever mix in public matters,” and that and that. Mr. Raleigh longs for the good old days, and the ease and restful quiet of the woman who didn’t know anything and didn’t want anything. Blessed woman! She got precisely what she wanted.

Then Prof. Cope upset our whole kettle of fish by telling us that our bones weren’t of the right sort for progress to get inside of them. That’s bad; that’s very bad. Most women can get all around a man in the matter of fixing their skins and eyes and teeth and hair; but bones—bones now are a hard matter to fix. It’s just possible though that, because that is the one thing we don’t know how to do yet, the men, who don’t know how to make one hair look like ten or put a sparkle in a dull eye, or carmine on a shriveled lip the men may have invented the superior advantages of their bones for spite. At any rate we are not convinced, which is perhaps the reason we have borne it so complacently.

Again we have been smitten in the house of our friends, when we least expected it. It’s hard to have smiled and smiled and wagged our heads in satisfaction while compliments were being showered on us, only to find in the end that we have been tricked into listening to a humiliating accusation. It has an effect so distressingly like those stories that begin so charmingly in a quaint little log-cabin in the West, picturesquely embowered in sunflowers and corn, and wind up with Warner’s Log Cabin Remedies, $1.25 a bottle! It is aggravating to a degree to hear a person suavely tell us he is the “friend of woman,” that every right he has she ought to have, that he hails the bicycle and bloomer with joy,—and then turn and bow and say, “But then, Madam Chairman, a woman always has been, is, and ever shall be two or three degrees behind—Me. There are no sudden breaks in evolution; if woman should really advance abreast of man it would overthrow our entire modernized conception of biology, in fact, our entire cosmogony, which is manifestly absurd, I am perfectly willing that woman should do whatever they wish, but they will never be able to do anything as well as men. They are hopelessly, irredeemably, everlastingly mediocre.” This, I say, is painful. But we have borne with this sort of person too. Are we not liberal?

One more item of history and I proceed to the prophecy. I refer to the recognition, by an annual commemoration, of the life and services of Mary Wollstonecraft, the great pioneer of the woman’s equality movement among English speaking people. It is to the discredit of our freethinking world that while they have set apart a day to recognize the services of Thos. Paine, the friend of Mary Wollstonecraft, they have not thought of giving to this, or any other woman, such recognition. It shows that their pretended equality belief is largely on their lips alone. In this little society we are endeavoring to right that wrong, and to place an illustrious woman’s name in the forefront, in its old companionship.

What do we intend to do in the future? Why to keep on! To give every creature with a grievance a chance to air it. If there were a poor knock-kneed, spavined, groaning old overworked dray-horse in all Philadelphia that could talk, we’d have him here to tell us about it. And right sorry I am that such cannot speak! If there is a woman or man in all this country that has a proposition to better things, and can make it intelligible, let him come! If there is a subject tabooed on every other platform as dangerous, let it walk up.

Strangers, come, give us your hands; be one of us; read our books, or rather the books of the Radical Library;—the tax is small and the gain great. You will find poets, historians, novelists, economists, back there, a glorious company. Go make their acquaintance.

To the L. L. L. you may be admitted without money or price. Give what you are able and disposed; we have no dues. We open our doors, our hands, our hearts to you, and to the future.

Strange feet are coming down the pathway of the dawn; flitting shadows cross the early streaks of light. An east wind is blowing. The weather-wise say that it brings storm. Perhaps. Heavy mutterings have for some time been heard. Let us then, who are for liberty, form here a circle of comradeship that no storm can break.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Past and Future of the Ladies’ Liberal League,” The Rebel 1, no. 2 (October 20, 1895): 18; 1, no. 3 (November 20, 1895): 31-32; 1, no. 4 (January, 1896): 43-44.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.