Dora Marsden

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Dora Marsden
Marsden in 1912
Marsden in 1912
BornDora Marsden
5 March 1882
Marsden, Yorkshire
Died13 December 1960 (aged 78)
Dumfries, Scotland
Occupationeditor, essayist, suffragist, philosopher, feminist
Literary movementwomen's suffrage, feminism, anarchismModernism
Notable worksThe Freewoman The New Freewoman
The Egoist

Dora Marsden (5 March 1882 – 13 December 1960) was an English suffragette, editor of literary journals, and philosopher of language. Beginning her career as an activist in the Women's Social and Political Union, Marsden eventually broke off from the suffragist organization in order to found a journal that would provide a space for more radical voices in the movement. Her prime importance lies with her contributions to the suffrage movement, her criticism of the Pankhursts WSPU and via The Freewoman, her radical feminism. There are those who also claim she has relevance tor the emergence of literary modernism while others value her contribution to the understanding of Egoism.

Early life[edit]

Dora Marsden was born on 5 March 1882 to working-class parents, Fred and Hannah, in Marsden, Yorkshire. Economic setbacks in Fred's business forced him to emigrate to the U.S. in 1890, settling in Philadelphia with his eldest son.[1] Hannah worked as a seamstress to support her remaining children, which left the family living in poverty when Marsden was a child.[2] Among one of the first generations to benefit from the Elementary Education Act of 1870, Marsden was able to attend school as a child despite her impoverished circumstances.[3] She proved a successful student, working as a tutor at the age of thirteen before receiving a Queen's Scholarship at the age of eighteen, which enabled her to attend Owens College in Manchester (later the Victoria University of Manchester). In 1903, Marsden graduated from college and taught school for several years, eventually becoming headmistress of the Altrincham Teacher-Pupil Center in 1908.[2] During her time at Owens College, Marsden made the acquaintance of Christabel Pankhurst, Teresa Billington-Greig, and other prominent early feminists, and she became involved with the women's suffrage movement then gathering steam in Manchester. Marsden established a reputation with the militant wing of the movement for fierce devotion to the cause, leading one contemporary to call her "a brave and beautiful spirit," a phrase to which the title of Les Garner's biography of Marsden refers. This devotion extended to extra-legal acts of sabotage on more than one occasion. In October 1909, Marsden was arrested with several other members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) for dressing in full academic regalia and interrupting a speech by the chancellor of their alma mater, demanding that he speak out against the force-feeding of imprisoned suffragist alumni who were on hunger strike. A few months later, she broke into the Southport Empire Theatre and hoisted herself into the cupola, where she waited 15 hours in order to heckle Winston Churchill, who was soon to become Home Secretary, while he was speaking at an election rally.

Marsden's commitment to the cause earned her an administrative position in Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst’s WSPU, for which she left her teaching position in 1909.[4] Although she was dedicated to the early feminist movement, Marsden's strong theoretical principles and independent disposition often brought her into conflict with WSPU leadership, who found her unmanageable. In 1911, Marsden mutually agreed with the Pankhursts to resign her position with the WSPU. Disaffected by the organization, but still committed to the women's movement, she was determined to find ways to support alternative voices relevant to the cause.[2]

Work as editor[edit]

Marsden was not the only English suffragette to balk at the rigid hierarchy of the WSPU under the Pankhursts, and she decided to begin publishing a journal, The Freewoman, that would showcase a wide range of dissenting voices from the women's movement initially, and eventually from other radical movements as well.[5] This was the first of three successive journals that Marsden would start between 1911 and 1918, with the publication dates of each magazine running as follows: The Freewoman, November 1911 – October 1912; The New Freewoman, June 1913 – December 1913; The Egoist, January 1914 – December 1919. With continuous publication between the second and third, and only a short break between the first and second, critics have had difficulty deciding to what extent the journals should be considered part of the same intellectual project. Consensus seems to rest on the sense that the journals reflect Marsden's shifting political and aesthetic interests, so that the three journals are closely related, but not identical projects, with The New Freewoman closer in spirit to The Egoist than either was to the original journal.[6]

In 1911, Marsden was becoming increasingly interested in egoism and individualist anarchism, an intellectual shift whose development is plainly visible in her editorial columns, where, as the issues progress, the scope of discussion widens to include a wide range of topics pertinent to anarchist theoreticians of the time.[7][8] Many anarchist thinkers of the time were drawn to emergent avant-garde movements that would later be brought together under the term "modernism,"[9] and Marsden was no exception. While literary reviews and write-ups of cultural events occasionally occurred in The Freewoman, by 1913 Marsden's journals were actively publishing and publicizing new literary material. The later two magazines would serially publish James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Wyndham Lewis's Tarr, several early versions of episodes from Joyce's Ulysses, and an array of important early works by, among others, Ezra Pound, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Richard Aldington, Amy Lowell, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot.

The Freewoman[edit]

The Freewoman was short-lived magazine that Marsden founded in order to voice her thoughts and critiques of the WSPU under Pankhurst.[4] She argued that the organization was far too narrowly focused on middle class women. The journal also explored London's literary background and provided a medium for cultural debate among feminists and other opinionated groups.[10] This journal was famous for its overtly feminist advertisements that were scattered throughout the pages. At the beginning of publications it had advertisements that were for businesses such as patent agencies that were geared towards "Women Patentees", a bank that took care of the "Going Stock Business", and the International Suffrage Shop.[4]

The magazine dealt with controversial issues such as marriage and free love, with Marsden and other authors writing in support of the latter. Marsden held that monogamy had four corner stones: men's hypocrisy; the spinster's dumb resignation; the Prostitute's unsightly degradation; and the married woman's monopoly. Writers such as Rebecca West wrote that by giving her body to a man to be owned by him for the rest of their life, while binding the man to support her for the rest of her life, a woman strikes a disgraceful ‘bargain’.[2]

This magazine also issued a five-part series on morality written by Marsden. She explored the idea that women had been taught to restrain their passions for life, resulting in an existence only used for reproduction. This brought her back to her critique of the Suffrage Movement, and their image of purity and the middle class woman.[2] After its financial collapse, it soon emerged into the New Freewoman.[10]

The New Freewoman[edit]

The New Freewoman shifted the view of The Freewoman, which was a radical feminist view, to an idealistic anarchism and literary experimentalism. The bold advertisements were changed to text only adds, and the magazine took on a much different approach. This developed into Marsden's view on egoism as a philosophy, which was heavily influenced by Ezra Pound.[11]

These two journals became heavily influenced by Rebecca West and Mary Gawthorpes.[3] The two women set out to increase the audience of The New Freewoman, by increasing their literary content. This would result in more writers expressing interest in the journal, and resulting in more readers. Although The New Freewoman did not last very long itself, it progressed into a very popular journal The Egoist.[12]

The Egoist[edit]

The Egoist was partially inspired by the nineteenth-century philosophical egoist Max Stirner. Though many assume the magazine's new title was suggested by Ezra Pound, it was actually Marsden's invention seconded by Pound in print. Pound's early association with Marsden and The Egoist encouraged Pound's nascent interest in the relationship between poetry and politics. The term "egoist" was in circulation at the time, associated with writers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Maurice Barrès. When Stirner's book The Ego and its Own was published, Marsden never fully reviewed it. She did, however, praise Stirner's work and wrote at least two editorials following Stirner's ideas. In the September 1913 issue of The New Freewoman, Marsden proclaimed Stirner's book "the most powerful work that has ever emerged from a single human mind." Later, however, she later partly dismissed it, mostly on the ground that she disagreed with Stirner about the nature of God: Stirner saw God as a repressive idea, imposed from the outside, from society, so it could control the individual. Alternatively, Marsden claimed that god was an invention of the self in its attempt to encompass the world and rule over it, hence, a positive, freeing idea.

Ezra Pound[edit]

Ezra Pound was a poet who was born in Idaho on 30 October 1885. His focus of study in college was literature and languages. Like Marsden, Ezra fought for what he believed, and made a pro-fascist broadcast in Italy during the Second World War, which led to his arrest.[13] Pound became a very successful writer by the year 1909, and produced books such as Personae and Exultations.[10] Not only was Pound a writer but was also a critic, and critiqued various publications such as The Egoist.[3] Not only was he a critic of Marsden's journal, but he helped shape the way in which it was written. He helped persuade Marsden to change the name to The Egoist, and to change the topic from a woman's suffrage perspective to supporting Imagist poets.[13] It is evident that Pound's contributions were very helpful to the success of the journal, as once it changed from The New Freewoman to The Egoist, it initially became more popular, and lasted another four years.[3] However, by the end of those four years, the circulation dwindled from 2,000 subscribers to 500.

Marsden's philosophical legacy[edit]

In 1920 Marsden withdrew from the literary and political scene and spent fifteen years in seclusion, completing a "magnum opus" drawing from philosophy, mathematics, physics, biology and theology. It was eventually published by Harriet Shaw Weaver in two volumes as The Definition of the Godhead in 1928 and Mysteries of Christianity in 1930.

This large body of work produced by Marsden was not well received (not even by her former supporters) and she suffered a psychological breakdown in 1930, which was further deepened by the death of her mother in 1935. It is said that her moods fluctuated between very optimistic or pessimistic views of her work and that she developed delusional beliefs. In 1935 Marsden was admitted to the Crichton Royal Hospital located in Dumfries where she lived for the rest of her life. The hospital classified her as severely depressed. Marsden died of a heart attack in 1960.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Garner, Les (September 2004), "Marsden, Dora (1882–1960)", Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, retrieved 23 April 2010
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Dora Marsden". Spartacus Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 February 2013."Archived copy". Archived from the original on 3 March 2013. Retrieved 28 February 2013.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ a b c d Clarke, Bruce. "Dora Marsden and Ezra Pound: "The New Freewoman" and "The Serious Artist"." University of Wisconsin Press 33.1 (1992): 91–112. Web. 24 February 2013.
  4. ^ a b c Franklin, Cary (2002): Marketing edwardian feminism: Dora Marsden, votes for women and the freewoman, Women's History Review, 11:4, 631–642.
  5. ^ Delap, Lucy (2002). "'Philosophical vacuity and political ineptitude': The Freewoman's critique of the suffrage movement". Women's History Review. 11 (4): 615. doi:10.1080/09612020200200340. This unease over the content of suffragist politics was combined with a dislike of the autocratic organisation of the suffrage societies, in particular the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Freewoman contributors believed that militant suffrage organisations demanded an obedience from their members that amounted to ‘servility’ and was fundamentally antagonistic to the ends of feminism.
  6. ^ Scholes, Robert. "General Introduction to the Marsden Magazines". The Modernist Journals Project. Brown University and The University of Tulsa. Retrieved 6 March 2014. Given all these changes, it is not easy to sort out the relationships among these three journals. It is apparent, though, that Marsden wished the second to be clearly distinguished from the first [...] On the other hand, for the first three years of The Egoist, the masthead of the third journal carried this statement about its connection to the second: "Formerly the NEW FREEWOMAN." Thus it is clear that the editor wished to emphasize the break between the first two incarnations of the journal and the connection between the last two. Following this lead, we should be aware that these connections are real.
  7. ^ Clarke, Bruce (1996). Dora Marsden and Early Modernism. p. 3. Her Freewoman leaders already traced two doctrinal shifts—transitions from feminist to anarchist and from socialist to individualist idioms—directly connected to her support in the New Freewoman for literary innovation within a psychological practice of ‘egoistic investigation’
  8. ^ Joannou, Maroula (2002). "The Angel of Freedom: Dora Marsden and the transformation of The Freewoman into The Egoist". Women's History Review. 11 (4): 595. doi:10.1080/09612020200200675. The key stages in her personal development, from New Woman to suffragette, from feminist to anarchist, taking in philosophical individualism and literary modernism en route, can only be understood in relation to the influential intellectual currents of her day.
  9. ^ Williams, Raymond (1989). The Politics of Modernism. London: Verso. pp. 54–57. ISBN 1844675807.
  10. ^ a b c Storch, Margret. "Dora Marsden & Early Modernism." Project Muse 41.1 (1998): 91–94. Web. 23 February 2013.
  11. ^ Clarke, Bruce. Dora Marsden and Early Moderism. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1996. Web. 28 February 2013.
  12. ^ Difference in View: Women and Modernism. N.p.: Taylor & Francis, 2005. Web. 25 February 2013.
  13. ^ a b "Ezra Pound". 2013. The Biography Channel. 28 February 2013, 01:03.

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