Voltairine De Cleyre, “The Woman’s National Liberty Union” (1890)


Mr. Editor:—Hereafter let it not be said that the women of American are behind their brothers in the work of freeing the country from superstition’s shackles. The most radical organization in the United States, so far as the Church is concerned, was born in Washington D. C., the 24th of last month. And that organization is founded by women, officered by women, and will do its principal worth through women. It is the first and only national English-speaking body in these State of American which has the courage of its convictions, and openly declared its hostility to the Church and to all forms of supernaturalism.

Unlike the American Secular Union, it does not aim to be a political organization, but a moral movement, and although, as I have written, it is essentially a woman’s movement, it aims to unite all, of both sexes, who wish to place themselves upon the roll of antagonists to priestcraft and godcraft. The history of the formation of the new Union, though not lengthy, is interesting. The two national women’s suffrage societies founded originally by Freethinkers, have been growing more conservative, and since that notable politician, Miss Frances Willard, has assumed so prominent a position in the now united body of suffragists, the movement originally designed for woman’s political emancipation has become sub-ordinated to the religious element.

Four months ago, Matilda Joslyn Gage, for twenty yeas the co-laborer of Mrs. Stanton, Miss Anthony, and other noted suffragists, having become convinced that no further progress was to be expected so long as churchocracy dominated the political association, resolved to call a convention of Freethinking women, who would openly declare themselves against the encroachments of both Catholicism and Protestantism. To her the principal credit of its success is to be ascribed, as the main portion of the hard work was done by her; not to omit the recognition due Mr. and Mrs. Aldrich of Alabama, who bore the burdens of expense, Mrs. Bones of Dakota, and our own beloved Miss Wixon, who, in the midst of many duties, and with the added weight of ill-health, found time to render much valuable assistance.

The morning of Monday, Feb. 24th, was cloudy and dismal enough. Truly, the new association was being baptized with “the wrath of God.” At least the idea that all good Christian women would say so, played fancifully through your subscriber’s head, as our train crept southward through the dark grey dawning. But this mid-winter rain seemed to fall softly, even warmly, so that the verdure of the half Southern city grew green beneath it, and in a fit of optimism I concluded to let the poetry of color prophesy; yes, we too should grow green and strong beneath our baptism, and events have justified the promise.

The formal proceedings of the Convention were opened by the usual business routine—reading of letters, telegrams, appointment of committees, etc. Mrs. Gage, as President pro tem (and a fine-looking President she makes, with her piercing eyes, and crown of grand white hair,) dispatched all this in due order, and then calling Mrs. Aldrich to the chair, delivered the salutatory of the National Liberal Union. It was an exhaustive review of the causes which had mad the new association necessary, demonstrating anew the force of the reactionary law which compels resent on one hand equal to invasion on the other. This address brought forward such an array of facts, betrayed such extensive digging and delving in the most miscellaneous nooks and corners, that one could not but wonder how this indefatigable worker had found the necessary time for investigation.

Verily she had searched Jerusalem with candles, and brought an indictment against the oppressors of mind to-day, which might serve to around the most lethargic to the need of consolidated opposition. The afternoon session opened with somewhat larger attendance, the audience being entertained with Mrs. Westbrook’s and Miss Wixon’s view of the Church in relation to women. St. Paul received the usual ventilation, the one ne nearly always gets from Freethinkers, regarding his authoritarian attitude towards women, and poor old Adam the customary drubbing for his mental cowardice. With the contrariness which is my natural inheritance, I felt a good deal like defending their ancient dust against further attack; a person who was so mean, and little, and pusillanimous as Adam, after six thousand years ought to be relieved from any worse punishment than that of carrying his microscopical soul around him for the balance of duration. And as for St. Paul, if he could have heard Mrs. Westbrook’s soft voice, and met Susan Wixon’s marvelous smile, he would have been different from all the men I ever knew if he didn’t let them talk to their heart’s content, and enjoyed it, too.

The discussion of the Blair Bill by Mrs. White, which would undoubtedly have been of much interest, had to be omitted—Mrs. White a in California. I suppose that, as a Freethinker, Mrs. White would oppose the bill, though how she could possibly do so with any logic in view of the fact that she is a Nationalist, I am at a loss to understand. Nationalism, as presented by Edward Bellamy, is Senator Blairism, to a dot, so far as Blair goes; and since we are upon that topic permit me to digress from the legitimate order of reporting to tell you about the Blair Bill as Mr. Blair tells it.

A number of us who have interested ourselves in the World’s Fair appropriation to the extent of wishing to see the loaves and fishes divided equally among the representatives of women as well as men, went over to the Capital to interview the “Honorable” servants of the American sovereigns about it. imagine, if you please, an elegant marble reception room, the like of which the majority of sovereigns never saw, sculpted and painted and furnished to match, and in one corner of it an assemblage of the “wives and daughters” of the sovereigns, anxious, painfully anxious, to see their illustrious servants. The first servant who came was Senator Blair. Now, I had made up my mind to “dislike him.” I had firmly resolved that Mr. B was a small, weazened, dried-up representative of humanity, with a body just big enough to hold a “soul” of the Calvinian pattern. Instead, behold! a tall, broad-shouldered, blonde-haired man, with fine, open eyes, and as pleasant a voice as ever feel to the lot of a Christian—or Freethinker, either. When catechized relative to his educational bill, he stated that as it now reads it simply provides for public appropriations, the object of which is to secure and maintain free schools I those parts of each State where the people are too poor to establish such; it makes not provision for any species of religious instruction. He related that the circumstances of a trip in Virginia, where, he said, the people seemed to be more anxious for educational advantages for their children than they were interested upon any of the so-called political issues. (The “so-called” is mine.)

Although it occurred to me that the best way to help said Virginians would be to leave them rent-free and tax-free, to do away with their poverty that they might help themselves instead of making them benefit-members of a general charitable society, still it was pleasant to know that Mr. Blair had actually made personal investigations into the life of the people he is trying to help, and one likes him for it. When further questioned concerning the religious feature of he bill he stated that his idea was not to prejudice the children against any form of religion, but simply to give them a general knowledge of the religion of the country in which they were living; that such knowledge would be of more service to the children that that of Buddhism, just as the geography of his own country would be more serviceable than that of India.

Miss Wixon then inquired why such knowledge could not be acquired in the Sunday schools, to which Mr. Blair replied that there were thousands of children who never saw the inside of a church or Sunday school, and were growing up without knowing about God, or the devil, or heaven, or— “Who does?” interposed the intrepid sceptic. But Senator Blair “having ears heard not;” he proceeded with his argument. Of course we couldn’t see it his way; nevertheless, I believe we all left the Capitol with a much better opinion of the man than we had on entering it.

To return to the Convention. The evening exercises were opened by a recitation from your scribe—a poem, at that time, like the majority of my verses, nameless, but which is since denominated “The Gods and the People.” Following this was the address of Prof. Elliott Coues. Apart from the long, heavy, waving beard, and the rather too squarish forehead, Mr. Coues has the appearance of the Da Vinci Christ. He is an eloquent and forcible speaker, though in accordance with the theosophical idea of giving everything a harmonic name, he detracts somewhat from his force by politely calling lies “myths,” etc. While this may be a gain in harmony, it seems to me that there is no use in mixing sweetness with discord. I have always admire the splendid adaptation of inharmonic sound to inharmonic idea contained in these lines of Milton:—

“On a sudden open fly,
With impetuous recoil, and hard rebound
Th’ infernal doors, and on their hinges grate
Harsh thunder!”

To express the idea of hell in pretty language would have been un-Miltonic and unpoetic; and I know of nothing so hellish as theological lies. Dr. Coues’ address, however, was received with the approbation it merited, and, perhaps, after all, he is right.

The Rev. Olympia Brown followed with an address on “A Free Ballot and a Free Church.” The idea of either ballot or church having to do with freedom is really quite as paradoxical as “Christian science,” or red-hot ice; and the Rev. lady, through a fine orator and not a bad lawyer in making out her case, showed clearly that she neither understood the nature of the Church nor the ballot. In defence of the Church and its attitude towards women, she said that Oberlin College, founded by Orthodox Congregationalists, was the first institution in the country which admitted women on an equality with men. (“Give the devil his due.” But first is it true?)

The closing speech by Mrs. Eliza Burns, of New York, was the funny thing of the Convention. Mrs. Burns is a one-idea woman; she wishes to reform the world by “fonetik spelling.” The English language certainly needs the reform bad enough, but what that has to do with “Woman’s Right to Reason,” her advertised subject, the audience evidently failed to perceive. They ought to have been glad, however, that at last they beheld the miracle of woman perfectly satisfied with her calling. That should have been compensation for the apparent irrelevancy of her discourse.

Tuesday’s forenoon session had a small attendance of outsiders, which was rather to be expected in view of its being principally a business meeting. The Committees on Aims and Objects, Plan of Work, and Resolutions, brought in the results of their work. The same will soon be published in convenient form for distribution, and may be obtained of Mrs. Emily Coues, 1726 N Street, N. E., Washington, (D. C.) Owing to limited time these reports were not discusses as had been intended and announced; that such was the case is much to be regretted, as it has given opportunity for criticism that would otherwise have been avoided. For my own part I had no fault to find with either the first or last reports; but consider that the plan of work and organization which includes the election of officers, is rather too centralized. I speak of this because my name was put upon that committee, but the work was done before I arrived in the city. However, it lies within the power of future conventions to change this if they are not satisfied; and if they are satisfied I shall not complain. The general board of management consists of an Executive Council of nine, who chose a president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer from among their number. This directing board will appoint general assistants in each State, termed State managers. The present official are, President, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Fayetteville, (N. Y.;) Vice-President, Josephine C. Aldrich, (Ala;) Secretary, Emily Coues, Washington; Treasurer, Wm. E. Aldrich, Aldrich, (Ala.) Membership fees, $1.00 a year, to be paid on or before July 1st of each year, but no one shall be deprived of membership on account of inability to pay his dues.

The address by Mrs. Bones on “Liberalism in So. Dakota” dealt somewhat with the legal features of the new State. She also read a lengthy paper from the pen of Lucinda Chandler of Illinois. Mrs. Bones, notwithstanding her name (obtained, I suppose by that ugly habit women have of perpetuating their husbands names, no matter how inappropriate they are,) suggests anything but Golgotha. She is as plump as Dicken’s “Apple-cheeked Polly,” and fresh as her own Western breezes.

The afternoon meeting was a really lively one. In place of the announced speech by your scribe, a discussion took place concerning the topic introduced by Mr. Aldrich, of raising a fund of $00,000 to establish in the five principal cities of the United States, “public defenders,” whose business it shall be to defend criminals, as it is that of public prosecutors to prosecute them. Now came the orators! Mrs. Foltz of California, in a blaze of eloquence, followed Mr. Aldrich, supporting the measure warmly; telling how in her experience innocent people had often been convicted and sentenced to long imprisonment, because, being moneyless, they were utterly at the mercy of a court, prejudging them guilty, and a prosecutor whose sole aim was to prosecute—to make a case any way, and build a brilliant legal reputation regardless of truth. A gentleman in the audience negativized this view, and to his questions Mrs. Foltz sharply replied. Mrs. Belva Lockwood subsequently took the platform, and with the force of a natural speaker, hurled accusations against the criminal system, stronger even than those made by Mrs. Foltz. Well, the lawyers wrangled back and forth, their opinions being pretty evenly divided as to whether the criminal didn’t have enough sympathy, or whether he had too much. So intense was the interest that even gentle, shrinking, little Mrs. Aldrich arose and earnestly told how she and her husband had followed case after case of unjust accusations, not taking the testimony of others but making personal investigations. Thought not a public speaker, her words were uttered with that direct, simply earnestness which makes a child the most effective of orators. Undoubtedly the major portion of the house, leaving the lawyers out of account, were in favor of Mr. Aldrich’s plan; but somehow the thought would force itself on the unparticipating spectator, by what peculiar science is the incorruptibility of the “public defender” to be determined? Why may he not be bought? And why argue over the treatment of criminals, without investigating the cause of crime? And by what measurement can you decide what crime is? And if a wrong be done, can you rectify it by doing the wrong-doer another wrong?

The afternoon closed with a written address fro Mrs. Lockwood, and a speech from Mrs. Charlotte Smith, the well-known labor agitator. Mrs. Smith is a Roman Catholic, and afterwards said to me that when she stated so on the platform, she expected to be hissed. No wonder, if she has judged of Liberalism by her church’s treatment of her enemies; but I trust that now she knows us better. She is perhaps the best-informed women in the United States in reference to the actual condition of our industrial women, and a talk with her is better than a book of facts, for her statistics are couple with the romance of experimental suffering. The closing session of the Convention introduced to a Washington audience one of the fairest, whitest, sweetest women that ever nursed a heartache of religious persecutions, or drank the bitterness of social condemnation because she was “an Infidel.” Eliza Archard Conner is still young, though her short, waving hair is flashed with silver, and there are lines upon her face. Her movements are like music, and her voice has that pathetic cadence born of gentleness, and much endurance. Her audience was hers from the outset; they laughed with her, they looked sad with her, and when the music stopped, they begged the dainty player to strike the chords again. I think every one must have taken home with him that graceful, dignified acknowledgment, which negatived the request. To what she said, to catch the charm of it, would take three arts, the painter, the poet, the musician. I leave it with you, only saying that it was an arraignment of the Church and Society, in its attitude towards woman, which every woman ought to read.

Mrs. Aldrich followed Mrs. Connor, speaking with her same earnest, child-like way, in protest against the wrongs inflicted by Orthodoxy upon the minds of children. From this we passed to a discussion of “The True Position of Woman in the Present Crisis,” by your correspondent, and thence to the re-reading of Miss Wixon’s poem: “When Womanhood Awakes,” which, I hope, is to be printed.

I am unable to report Mrs. Gage’s analysis of the “Scientific Basis of Morality,” (which I much regret,) being taken ill a few moments after closing my address.

Altogether the Convention was a success, and I trust it may be the inauguration of a work sadly needed, and long neglected—that of killing the idea of authority-worship from the minds of women.

For the present, au revoir,

Voltairine de Cleyre.

Voltairine De Cleyre, “The Woman’s National Liberty Union,” The Boston Investigator 59 no. 52 (April 02, 1890): 2.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.