Dora Marsden

Dora Marsden

Dora Marsden, the daughter of a woollen waste dealer, was born in Marsden, near Huddersfield, on 5th March 1882. Her father left home soon after she was born and the family suffered extreme poverty when she was a child. At the age of 13 she became a probationer and then a pupil-teacher at the local school.

In 1900 she entered Owens College on a Queen's Scholarship. While at the college she met Christabel Pankhurst, Isabella Ford, Teresa Billington and Eva Gore-Booth. Marsden graduated in 1903 with an upper second-class degree and taught in Leeds, Colchester and Manchester.

In 1908 she was appointed headmistress of the Altrincham Pupil-Teacher Centre on a salary of £130 per year. Les Garner, the author of A Brave and Beautiful Spirit (1990) has pointed out: "The Pupil-Teacher Centre had been set up in the Technical Institute's buildings in George Street, Altrincham, to serve pupils from Altrincham, Knutsford, Ashton-upon-Mersey, and Lynn. Originally it was conceived as a temporary facility until a new secondary school could be built which would also incorporate the training of teachers."

Dora Marsden joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Sylvia Pankhurst described her as "a Yorkshire lass, very tiny with a winsome face, sparkling with animation with laughing golden eyes who had a gift of ready wit and a repartee which, linked with imperturbable good humour made her irresistible to the crowd." By 1908 she was organising demonstrations and speaking at public meetings alongside Christabel Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.

Rebecca West was also impressed with Dora Marsden: "She (Dora Marsden) was one of the most marvellous personalities that the nation has ever produced. She had, to begin with, the most exquisite beauty of person. She was hardly taller than a child, but she was not just a small woman; she was a perfectly proportioned fairy. She was the only person I have ever met who could so accurately have been described as flower-like that one could have put it down on her passport. And on many other planes she was remarkable."

In March 1909 Marsden resigned as headmistress of the Altrincham Pupil-Teacher Centre to become a paid organiser of the WSPU. Later that month she was arrested with Emily Wilding Davison, Rona Robinson, Patricia Woodlock and Helen Tolson, at a demonstration outside the House of Commons. It was reported in The Times: "the exertions of the women, most of whom were quite young and of indifferent physique, had told upon them and they were showing signs of exhaustion, which made their attempt to break the police line more pitiable than ever." Marsden was sentenced to a month's imprisonment. On her release she became the organiser of the WSPU in North-West Lancashire. Soon afterwards she set up home with Grace Jardine in Southport.

On 4th September 1909 Marsden and Emily Wilding Davison were arrested for breaking windows of a hall in Old Trafford. Two days later she was sentenced to two months' imprisonment in Strangeways. Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Suffragette Movement (1999) has pointed out: "Dora Marsden refused to wear prison clothing and spent her time in prison naked, stripping off her clothes each time an attempt was made to dress her." Eventually she was placed in a strait jacket but managed to wriggle out of it, because, according to the prison governor, "she was a very small woman". After going on hunger-strike she was released.

The following month Dora Marsden, Rona Robinson and Mary Gawthorpe decided to take part in another protest. According to Les Garner, the author of A Brave and Beautiful Spirit (1990): "Dressed in University gowns they entered the meeting and just before Morley began, raised the question of the recent forced feeding of women in Winson Green. There was an uproar, and the three were quickly bundled out and arrested on the pavement." This time they were released without charge.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence wrote to her in prison: "My dear dear brave and beautiful spirit. I have not words to express what I feel about your wonderful courage and heroism. When I think of your face as I saw it in prison my head is full of reverence for the human spirit... A great force is being generated in this movement. We shall send out stronger and stronger thoughts that will change the course of the world's life... My love to you Dora Marsden, sweetest, gentlest and bravest of suffragettes."

Votes for Women reported on 8th October 1909: "No one who knows these three women graduates, or who glances at the numerous photographs which have appeared in the Press can fail to be struck with the pathos of the incident. Mary Gawthorpe, Rona Robinson and Dora Marsden are all slight, petite women who made their protest in a perfectly quiet and gentle manner... They are women moreover, who have done great credit to their respective Universities... Yet they are treated as "hooligans"; treated with such roughness that all 3 had to have medical attention, and hauled before a police magistrate and charged with disorderly behaviour."

Dora Marsden wanted to stage actions that would involve arrest and subsequently, a hunger strike. However, the WSPU wanted to keep their organisers out of prison and Marsden did not get permission for her planned militant activity. On 24th November, 1909, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence remarked: "We are all so anxious that our organisers should not overwork... I know how carried away by your utter devotion and enthusiasm, but I very earnestly beg you pay all due regard to your health, forgive these little warnings dear, they are promoted by concern and affection for yourself."

Marsden ignored this advice and on 4th December, 1909, she joined Helen Tolson and Winson Etherley in attempting to disrupt a meeting in Southport that was being addressed by Winston Churchill. According to the local newspaper "the security for the meeting was unprecedented in the history of the town". While Churchill was speaking he was interrupted by Marsden. Emmeline Pankhurst later recalled that Marsden was "peering through one of the great porthole openings in the slope of the ceiling, was seen a strange elfin form with wan, childish face, broad brow and big grey eyes, looking like nothing real or earthly but a dream waif."

Dora Marsden provided an account of what happened next in Votes for Women: "A dirty hand was was thrust over my mouth, and a struggle began. Finally I was dropped over a ledge, pushed through the broken window, and we began to roll down the steep sloping roof side. Two stewards, crawling up from the other side, shouted out to the two men who had hold of me." Despite being arrested the local magistrate dismissed all charges against them.

Like many women in the WSPU she began to question the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst. Marsden and her friends objected to the way that the Pankhursts were making decisions without consulting members. They also felt that a small group of wealthy women like Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence were having too much influence over the organization.

Dora Marsden eventually resigned on 27th January 1911. The WSPU leadership started rumours that she had left over some financial irregularity. Theresa McGrath wrote to her saying "are you aware of the rumours that are about concerning your resignation... that you left the accounts for Southport with a deficiency of £500 and that your resignation itself was owing to a request that you should meet the Treasurer for the purpose of going into the matter."

Marsden now joined the Women's Freedom League (WFL), an organisation formed by Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Margaret Nevinson and Charlotte Despard. Like the WSPU, the WFL was a militant organisation that was willing the break the law. As a result, over 100 of their members were sent to prison after being arrested on demonstrations or refusing to pay taxes. However, members of the WFL was a completely non-violent organisation and opposed the WSPU campaign of vandalism against private and commercial property. In March 1911 Marsden and her close friend, Grace Jardine, went to work for the WFL newspaper, The Vote.

Dora Marsden attempted to persuade the Women's Freedom League to finance a new feminist journal. When this proposal was refused, Marsden left The Vote. She now joined forces with Grace Jardine and Mary Gawthorpe to establish her own journal. Charles Granville, agreed to become the publisher. On 23rd November, 1911, they published the first edition of The Freewoman. The journal caused a storm when it advocated free love and encouraged women not to get married. The journal also included articles that suggested communal childcare and co-operative housekeeping.

Mary Humphrey Ward, the leader of Anti-Suffrage League argued that the journal represented "the dark and dangerous side of the Women's Movement". According to Ray Strachey, the leader of the National Union of Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), Millicent Fawcett, read the first edition and "thought it so objectionable and mischievous that she tore it up into small pieces". Whereas Maude Royden described it as a "nauseous publication". Edgar Ansell commented that it was "a disgusting publication... indecent, immoral and filthy."

Other feminists were much more supportive, Ada Nield Chew, argued that the was "meat and drink to the sincere student who is out to learn the truth, however unpalatable that truth may be." Benjamin Tucker commented that it was "the most important publication in existence". Floyd Dell, who worked for the Chicago Evening Post argued that before the arrival of The Freewoman: "I had to lie about the feminist movement. I lied loyally and hopefully, but I could not have held out much longer. Your paper proves that feminism has a future as well as a past." Guy Aldred pointed out: "I think your paper deserves to succeed. I will use my influence in the anarchist movement to this end." Others showed their support for the venture by writing without payment for the journal. This included Teresa Billington-Greig, Rebecca West, H. G. Wells, Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, Stella Browne, C. H. Norman, Edmund Haynes, Catherine Gasquoine Hartley, Huntley Carter, Lily Gair Wilkinson and Rose Witcup.

Edwin Bjorkman, writing in the American Review of Reviews, was a great fan of the writing of Dora Marsden: "The writer of The Freewoman editorials has shot into the literary and philosophical firmament as a star of the first magnitude. Although practically unknown before the advent of The Freewoman ... she speaks always with the quietly authoritative air of the writer who has arrived. Her style has beauty as well as force and clarity."

Marsden also attacked the WSPU's strategy of employing militant tactics. She argued that the autocracy of Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst prevented independent thought and encouraged followers to become "bondwomen". Marsden went on to suggest "the paramount interest of the WSPU was neither the emancipation of women, nor the vote, but the increase in power of their own organisation." On 7th March, 1912, she wrote: "The Pankhurst party have lost their forthright desire for enfranchisement in their outbalancing desire to raise their own organisation to a position of dictatorship amongst all women's organisations.... The vote was only of secondary importance to the leaders... before every other consideration, political, social or moral comes the aggrandisement of the WSPU itself and the increase of power of their own organisation."

The most controversial aspect of the The Freewoman was its support for free-love. On 23rd November, 1911 Rebecca West wrote an article where she claimed: "Marriage had certain commercial advantages. By it the man secures the exclusive right to the woman's body and by it, the woman binds the man to support her during the rest of her life... a more disgraceful bargain was never struck."

On 28th December 1911, Dora Marsden began a five-part series on morality. Dora argued that in the past women had been encouraged to restrain their senses and passion for life while "dutifully keeping alive and reproducing the species". She criticised the suffrage movement for encouraging the image of "female purity" and the "chaste ideal". Dora suggested that this had to be broken if women were to be free to lead an independent life. She made it clear that she was not demanding sexual promiscuity for "to anyone who has ever got any meaning out of sexual passion the aggravated emphasis which is bestowed upon physical sexual intercourse is more absurd than wicked."

Dora Marsden went on to attack traditional marriage: "Monogamy was always based upon the intellectual apathy and insensitiveness of married women, who fulfilled their own ideal at the expense of the spinster and the prostitute." According to Marsden monogamy's four cornerstones were "men's hypocrisy, the spinster's dumb resignation, the prostitute's unsightly degradation and the married woman's monopoly." Marsden then added "indissoluble monogamy is blunderingly stupid, and reacts immorally, producing deceit, sensuality, vice, promiscuity and an unfair monopoly." Friends assumed that Marsden was writing about her relationships with Grace Jardine and Mary Gawthorpe.

Dora argued that it would be better if women had a series of monogamous relationships. Les Garner, the author of A Brave and Beautiful Spirit (1990) has argued: "How far her views were based on her own experience it is difficult to tell. Yet the notion of a passionate but not necessarily sexual relationship would perhaps adequately describe her friendship with Mary Gawthorpe, if not others too. Certainly, her argument would appeal to single women like herself who had sexual desires and feelings but were not allowed to express them - unless, of course, in marriage. Even then, sex, for women at least, was supposed to be reserved for procreation."

Charlotte Payne-Townshend Shaw, the wife of George Bernard Shaw, wrote to Dora Marsden "though there has been much I have not agreed with in the paper", The Freewoman was nevertheless a "valuable medium of self-expression for a clever set of young men and women". However, Olive Schreiner disagreed and argued that the debates about sexuality were inappropriate and revolting in a publication of "the women's movement". Frank Watts wrote a letter to the journal that if women really wanted to discuss sex "then it must be admitted by sane observers that man in the past was exercising a sure instinct in keeping his spouse and girl children within the sheltered walls of ignorance."

Harry J. Birnstingl praised Marsden for raising the subject of homosexuality. He added: "It apparently has never occurred to them that numbers of these women find their ultimate destiny, as it were, among members of their own sex, working for the good of each other, forming romantic - nay passionate - attachments with each other? It is splendid that these women... should suddenly find their destiny in thus working together for the freedom of their own sex. It is one of the most wonderful things of the twentieth century."

The articles on sexuality created a great deal of controversy. However, they were very popular with the readers of the journal. In February 1912, Ethel Bradshaw, secretary of the Bristol branch of the Fabian Women's Group, suggested that readers formed Freewoman Discussion Circles. Soon afterwards they had their first meeting in London and other branches were set up in other towns and cities.

Some of the talks that took place in the Freewoman Discussion Circles included Edith Ellis (Some Problems of Eugenics), Rona Robinson (Abolition of Domestic Drudgery), C. H. Norman (The New Prostitution), Huntley Carter (The Dances of the Stars) and Guy Aldred (Sex Oppression and the Way Out). Other active members included Grace Jardine, Harriet Shaw Weaver, Stella Browne, Edmund Haynes, Harry J. Birnstingl, Charlotte Payne-Townshend Shaw, Rebecca West, Havelock Ellis, Lily Gair Wilkinson, Françoise Lafitte-Cyon and Rose Witcup.

By the summer of 1912 Dora Marsden had become disillusioned with the parliamentary system and no longer considered it important to demand women's suffrage: "The politics of the community are a mere superstructure, built upon the economic base... even though Mr. George Lansbury were Prime Minister and every seat in the House occupied by Socialist deputies, the capitalist system being what it is they would be powerless to effect anything more than the slow paced reform of which the sole aim is to make men and masters settle down in a comfortable but unholy alliance... the capitalists own the states. A handful of private capitalists could make England, or any other country, bankrupt within a week."

This article brought a rebuke from H. G. Wells: That you do not know what you want in economic and social organization, that the wild cry for freedom which makes me so sympathetic with your paper, and which echoes through every column of it, is unsupported by the ghost of a shadow of an idea how to secure freedom. What is the good of writing that economic arrangements will have to be adjusted to the Soul of Man if you are not prepared with anything remotely resembling a suggestion of how the adjustment is to be affected?"

Mary Gawthorpe also criticised Dora Marsden for her what she called her "philosophical anarchism". She told her that she "was not really an anarchist at all" but one who believed in rank, with herself at the top. Mary added: "Intellectually you have signed on as a member of the coming aristocracy. Free individuals you would have us be, but you would have us in our ranks... I watch you from week to week governing your paper. You have your subordinates. You say to one go and she goes, to another come, and she comes."

During this period Dora Marsden developed loving relationships with several women, including Rona Robinson, Mary Gawthorpe, Grace Jardine and Harriet Shaw Weaver. In her letters to these women she often referred to them as "sweetheart". Her biographer, Les Garner, has argued: "Whether any of her friendships with women were sexual cannot be determined - certainly they were close and certainly too, Dora's personality and fragile beauty inspired many endearing comments from her friends. She appeared to have a special and unique quality that inspired devotion, if not awe, in some women.... Whether Dora was gay in the modern sense is unknown. There is no concrete evidence to support such a claim."

Mary Gawthorpe had suffered severe internal injuries after being beaten up by stewards at a meeting. She was also imprisoned several times and hunger strikes and force-feeding badly damaged her health and in March 1912, she was unable to continue working as co-editor of The Freewoman. Marsden wrote in the journal that "we earnestly hope that the coming months will see her restored to health". Although Mary was ill, she had not resigned on health grounds, but because of what she claimed was "Dora's bullying" and her "philosophical anarchism". Gawthorpe returned all Dora's letters and asked her not to write again: "The sight of your letters I am obliged to confess turns me white with emotion and I have acute heart attacks following on from that."

In the edition published on 18th June 1912, Ada Nield Chew created further controversy with an article on the role of women in marriage. She argued that the emancipation of women depended on their gaining economic independence and rejecting the idea that their natural lifelong vocation was domestic and maternal. Ada, a working-class woman with children, added that: "A married woman dependent on her husband earns her living by her sex... Why, in the name of reason and common sense, should we condemn a mother to be a life-long parasite because she has had one or more babies to care for?"

In September 1912, The Freewoman was banned by W. H. Smith because "the nature of certain articles which have been appearing lately are such as to render the paper unsuitable to be exposed on the bookstalls for general sale." Dora Marsden argued that this was not the only reason the journal was banned: "The animosity we rouse is not roused on the subject of sex discussion. It is aroused on the question of capitalism. The opposition in the capitalist press only broke out when we began to make it clear that the way out of the sex problem was through the door of the economic problem."

Charles Grenville wrote to Dora Marsden complaining that the journal was losing about £20 a week and told her he was thinking of withdrawing as the publisher of the magazine. Marsden replied: "You have put money into the paper. I have put in the whole of my brain, power and personality. Without your money I would not have started, without my brain the paper could not have lived and shown the signs of flourishing which it undoubtedly has."

When Edward Carpenter realised the journal was being brought to an end, he wrote to Dora Marsden: "The Freewoman did so well during its short career under your editorship, it was so broad-minded and courageous that its cessation has been real loss to the cause of free and rational discussion of human problems."

The last edition of The Freewoman appeared on 10th October 1912. Dora told her readers: "The editorial work has not been easy. We have been hemmed in on every side by lack of funds. We have, moreover, been promoting a constructive creed, which had not only to be erected as we went along, we had also to deal with the controversy which this constructive creed left in its wake.... The entire campaign has been carried on indeed only at the cost of a total expenditure of energy, and we, therefore, do not hold it possible to continue the same amount of work, with diminished resources, if in addition, we have to bear the entire anxiety of securing such resources as are to be at our disposal."

Dora appealed to readers to help fund a new magazine. Teresa Billington-Greig and Charlotte Payne-Townshend Shaw both sent money. Lilian McErie also contributed: "No paper has given me keener pleasure than yours. Its fearlessness and fairness made all lovers and seekers after truth respect it and love it even while differing from many of the opinions expressed therein."

In February 1913 Dora met Harriet Shaw Weaver, who had just inherited a large sum of money from her father. As Les Garner, the author of A Brave and Beautiful Spirit, pointed out: "They were in many ways totally unsuited - on the one hand, the rebellious, radical intellectual and on the other, the quiet, modest, unassuming and orderly Weaver. Yet they took an immediate liking towards each other - Weaver impressed by Dora's intelligence and indeed, her beauty, and Dora by Harriet's keen but systematic approach to the re-launch of the paper. Dora had originally just wanted a chat but they ended up in effect having a business meeting while all the time establishing their mutual respect and admiration".

The New Freewoman was launched in June 1913. The journal, published fortnightly, was priced at 6d but readers were asked to pay £1 in advance for 18 months' copies. Dora Marsden wrote in the first edition: "The New Freewoman is not for the advancement of Women, but for the empowering of individuals - men and women.... Editorially, it will endeavour to lay bare the individual basis of all that is most significant in modern movements including feminism. It will continue The Freewoman's policy of ignoring in its discussion all existing taboos in the realms of morality and religion."

Harriet Shaw Weaver put up £200 to fund the magazine and this gave her a controlling interest in the venture. Dora Marsden was editor, Rebecca West assistant editor and Grace Jardine (sub-editor and editorial secretary). The women were all employed on a salary of £1 a week. Later, Ezra Pound, became the journal's literary editor.

H. G. Wells welcomed the new magazine: "I rejoice beyond all measure in the revival of The Freewoman. Its policy even at its worse was a wholesome weekly irritant." Benjamin Tucker said "I consider your paper the most important publication in existence." Winifred Leisenring, the secretary of the Blavatsky Institute, argued that the journal "will educate women and men to think in terms of true freedom, and show them that real individuality exists apart from all our accepted standards."

Elizabeth Crawford pointed out that "Marsden... continued her attack on the Pankhursts, using the death of Emily Wilding Davison to highlight her conviction that they were prepared to make use of dedicated individuals, who otherwise were considered as trouble-makers, only when it suited them." Marsden wrote on 15th June, 1913: "Davison's death was merely to give a crowd of degenerate orgiastics a new sensation... Causes are the diversion of the feeble - of those who have lost the power of acting strongly from their own nature."

Dora Marsden and Harriet Shaw Weaver became very close. Dora wrote to Harriet claiming that "you have been a perfect treasure to me and the paper". Harriet wrote back expressing her love for Dora. Rebecca West also enjoyed working under Dora, telling her that she was a "wonderful person, you not only write these wonderful first pagers but you inspire other people to write wonderfully."

The New Freewoman gradually moved away from its feminist origins. George Lansbury complained about Marsden's abandonment of socialism and others disliked the emphasis she placed on individualism. Her critics included Rebecca West who resigned her post in October 1913 having become disillusioned with the direction the journal was taking. Later she admitted she strongly disapproved of Dora's "aggressive individualism" and her "egotistic philosophy". Dora replaced Rebecca with the young poet, Richard Aldington.

At a director's meeting on 25th November 1913, it was decided to change the name of the The New Freewoman to The Egoist: An Individualist Review. Bessie Heyes complained to Harriet Shaw Weaver about the change of name. "Don't you yourself think that the paper is not accomplishing what we intend to do? I had such hopes of The New Freewoman and it seems utterly changed." The journal lasted for only seven months and thirteen issues. During this time it only obtained 400 or so regular readers.

In 1913 Christabel Pankhurst published The Great Scourge and How to End It. She argued that most men had venereal disease and that the prime reason for opposition to women's suffrage came from men concerned that enfranchised women would stop their promiscuity. Until they had the vote, she suggested that women should be wary of any sexual contact with men. Marsden criticised Pankhurst for upholding the values of chastity, marriage and monogamy. She also pointed out in The Egoist on 2nd February 1914 that Pankhurst's statistics on venereal disease were so exaggerated that they made nonsense of her argument. Marsden concluded the article with the claim: "If Miss Pankhurst desires to exploit human boredom and the ravages of dirt she will require to call in the aid of a more subtle intelligence than she herself appears to possess." Other contributors to the journal joined in the attack on Pankhurst. The Canadian feminist, R. B. Kerr argued that "her obvious ignorance of life is a great handicap to Miss Pankhurst" (16th March, 1914) whereas Ezra Pound suggested that she "has as much intellect as a guinea pig" (1st July, 1914).

Marsden continued to criticise the Women Social & Political Union. On 15th June, 1914, attacked Emmeline Pankhurst for being under the control of a small group of rich women: "Mrs Pankhurst required at the outset, for the sake of backing, women with money and with some capacity: when she obtained these she drew the limiting line which would keep out women with accepted followings and too much ability: that is unless they came with ashes in their hair, repentance in one hand and passivity in the other. Then on the principle of the Eastern potentate who illustrated the practice of good government by lopping off the heads of all the stalks of grain which grew higher than the rest, she by one means or another rid her group of all its members unlikely by virtue of personality, conspicuous ability, or undocile temper, to prove flexible material in the great cause. The gaps thus made she filled up with units of stock size."

Ezra Pound wanted the The Egoist to become more of a literary journal. In early 1914 he persuaded Dora Marsden to serialise A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, an experimental novel written by James Joyce.

In the summer of 1914 Dora Marsden handed over the editorship of the The Egoist to Harriet Shaw Weaver. She now assumed the role of contributing editor. This allowed her to concentrate on her philosophical research and writings. However, both women were concerned by the poor sales figures of the journal. After briefly reaching 1,000 copies it had now fallen to a circulation figure of 750.

On 4th August, 1914, England declared war on Germany. Two days later the NUWSS announced that it was suspending all political activity until the war was over. The leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort.

Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the NUWSS refused to argue against the First World War. Her biographer, Ray Strachey, argued: "She stood like a rock in their path, opposing herself with all the great weight of her personal popularity and prestige to their use of the machinery and name of the union." At a Council meeting of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies held in February 1915, Fawcett attacked the peace efforts of people like Mary Sheepshanks. Fawcett argued that until the German armies had been driven out of France and Belgium: "I believe it is akin to treason to talk of peace." After a stormy executive meeting in Buxton all the officers of the NUWSS (except the Treasurer) and ten members of the National Executive resigned over the decision not to support the Women's Peace Congress at the Hague. This included Chrystal Macmillan, Kathleen Courtney, Margaret Ashton, Catherine Marshall, Eleanor Rathbone and Maude Royden, the editor of the The Common Cause.

Marsden refused to support these peace activists. She argued in a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver: "The suffragist women of America and of such as Mrs. Swanwick, Margaret Ashton, Mrs. Philip Snowden here have: i.e. that conventions, treaties, words and documents are the bases of a community's existence rather than tempers, ambition, will and power. They don't realise that the conventions are only a superstructure erected on a stability which follows upon an apprehension of the relative powers represented by conflicting powers and wills: the apprehension itself being arrived at only after actual conflict has rendered it unmistakable."

In fact, Marsden gradually took the position of the WSPU. In the The Egoist: An Individualist Review on the 1st June, 1915, she argued the "delayers of peace are those who would temper down the ferocity which would wage war only at its deadliest". Marsden also supported conscription. In the journal she claimed that "everything which militates against the British Empire becoming a military camp until victory is assured is treason". Marsden believed that arming the male population would lead to revolution. She suggested that "men who have prepared themselves to defend their country will find themselves better equipped to defend themselves".

Her biographer, Les Garner, has pointed out: "Revolutionary Socialists might have sympathized with this but had a far more rigorous attitude to the war. Like Lenin, they saw the war largely as a battle between German and British capitalism for trade, markets and profit. The only benefit they envisaged was that by increasing economic and social crisis within the warring countries, class consciousness and thus the revolution would be hastened. Arming the workers as soldiers would help to this end. But this position envisaged the arming of a class not a hotch-potch of disparate individuals. It saw the war in economic terms and not merely as a clash of national interests, a sort of Egoism writ large. Dora's analysis clearly did not fit this position - or indeed any other. She was alienated from the liberal suffragist pacifist view and also from the jingos. Once again, she was on her own."

In January 1916, Harriet Shaw Weaver argued that despite poor sales she was determined to continue supporting the journal. "It has skirted all movements and caught on to none.... The Egoist is wedded to no belief from which it is willing to be divorced. To probe to the depths of human nature, to keep its curiosity in it fresh and alert, to regard nothing in human nature as foreign to it, but to hold itself ready to bring to the surface what may be found, without any pre-determination to fling back all but unwelcome facts - such are the high and uncommon pretensions upon which it bases its claims to provenance."

James Joyce failed to find a publisher for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Weaver agreed to establish the Egotist Press and the book was published in February 1917. The book was praised by critics such as H. G. Wells but was attacked by the mainstream press. The editor of The Sunday Express described it as "the most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature."

In January 1919 The Egoist began the serialisation of Joyce's Ulysses. However, sales of the journal had fallen from 1,000 in May 1915 to 400 and Harriet Shaw Weaver, decided to bring the journal to an end. Dora Marsden now moved to the Lake District and established a home in Glenridding. At first she was very happy with her new life. She wrote to Harriet: "The really magic thing about the place is the atmosphere which makes everything indescribably seductively lovely. These last two weeks in October and the first ten days of November have been the most beautiful I have ever experienced. I shall never forget it. One has seemed to be living and working through a crystal globe flushed with every kind of soft but penetrating light. Spring was crude compared with it.... Will you join? Do think seriously about it. It is quite an addition to one's experience. I have never before experienced anything like it." According to Les Garner: "Apart from the frequent and crucial visits of Harriet Shaw Weaver, Dora's life was indeed isolated." Marsden, funded by Weaver, spent her time writing a proposed seven volume series on philosophy.

In 1928 Marsden sent the manuscript for The Definition of the Godhead to Harriet Shaw Weaver, the novelist, Margaret Storm Jameson and the philosopher, Samuel Alexander. Weaver was critical but Jameson believed it to be a very important work. Alexander replied that he was "astonished by the mass of knowledge you have acquired... yet I do not think you should try to publish it in its present form.

Marsden was unwilling to change the manuscript and Weaver agreed to resurrect the Egoist Press and it was finally published on 1st December 1928. Marsden wrote in the introduction: "This work is the first volume of a philosophy which claims to affect the intellectual rehabilitation of the dogmas of Christian theology in terms of the characters of the first principles of physics, i.e. Space and Time... (It is an attempt ) to solve the riddle of the first principles solutions are required to those age old problems of philosophy and theology which impart into human culture its heavily tangled undergrowth. This opening work, therefore, presents these solutions, unifying by means of them the whole body of human knowledge and re-interpreting all the great issues of mankind's cultural history.

Copies were sent to George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and a large number of university professors. The book was also sent to journals and newspapers but it received only negative reviews. The Definition of the Godhead sold only six copies, one of these was to her friend, Rona Robinson. Weaver's accounts show an income of £4 9s. against total expenditure of £549 18s.

Her biographer, Les Garner, pointed out that her book was unpopular with those who had been involved in The Freewoman and The New Freewoman: "Dora's views on sex and the need for abstinence for those seeking the truth of the universe were, yet again, a thinly disguised justification of her own life since at least 1921." Harriet Shaw Weaver commented that: "It was a pity to make so much of sex. My view, for what it is worth, is the best way to treat sex is to forget it as far as possible."

The Mysteries of Christianity was published by the Egoist Press in 1930. After the poor sales of The Definition of the Godhead, Harriet only printed 500 copies and of these, only 100 were bound. Most of these were sent out to review but only one appeared, in The Times Literary Supplement. "Miss Marsden has ranged the whole world of folklore and myth to prove the familiar mysteries of the Christian faith are natural growths in the process of human evaluation. Her conclusions are at variance with most students of religion and anthropology, and very often she appears to accommodate her facts to her theories but those who are interested in myth and legend should find something to interest them if they are not bewildered too much by the constant use of curiously hyphenated words and phrases."

Soon after the book was published, Dora Marsden suffered a mental breakdown. Les Garner pointed out that by 1931 "Dora's physical and mental health was poor. Her moods fluctuated between delusive optimism about further volumes and a rational acceptance that her work was over." In 1932 Dora told Harriet that she planned to begin work on a third volume. "Harriet, who had abandoned any plans to back and publish Dora again, knew her friend's hopes were delusory."

On 26th November 1935 Marsden became a patient at the Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries. The hospital commented that she "was not able to communicate rationally, was severely depressed and was diagnosed as suffering from deep melancholia." The hospital later reported: "For the last twelve years she has lived the life of a recluse alone with her books and her studies. She felt she has found something of great importance in the world of thought - a criticism of philosophy from the earliest days onwards - this work did not create the impression she wanted and she became depressed. In summer 1934 the patient denied herself sufficient food, cut herself off from others and pulled down her blinds to prevent anyone seeing her.... Since the end of June 1935 she has become more and more depressed."

Dora Marsden remained in Crichton Royal Hospital for the rest of her life. Occasionally she talked about returning to her planned seven volume series of books on philosophy, but most of the time she "settled into her routine of sewing, reading and silence". The hospital fees were paid by Harriet Shaw Weaver. In 1955 she even arranged for some of her early unpublished writings to appear under the title of The Philosophy of Time. After its publication, Dora's brother-in-law, James Dyson wrote to Harriet stating that "nobody has had a better or more considerable friend and colleague than you have proved to be."

Dora Marsden died of a heart attack in the hospital on 13th December 1960.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Rebecca West, Time and Tide (16th July, 1926)

Dora Marsden was one of the most marvellous personalities that the nation has ever produced. She had, to begin with, the most exquisite beauty of person. She was hardly taller than a child, but she was not just a small woman; she was a perfectly proportioned fairy. She was the only person I have ever met who could so accurately have been described as flower-like that one could have put it down on her passport. And on many other planes she was remarkable.

(2) Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, letter to Dora Marsden (6th October 1909)

My dear dear brave and beautiful spirit. I have not words to express what I feel about your wonderful courage and heroism. When I think of your face as I saw it in prison my head is full of reverence for the human spirit... A great force is being generated in this movement. We shall send out stronger and stronger thoughts that will change the course of the world's life... My love to you Dora Marsden, sweetest, gentlest and bravest of suffragettes.

(3) Votes for Women (8th October 1909)

No one who knows these three women graduates, or who glances at the numerous photographs which have appeared in the Press can fail to be struck with the pathos of the incident. Mary Gawthorpe, Rona Robinson and Dora Marsden are all slight, petite women who made their protest in a perfectly quiet and gentle manner... They are women moreover, who have done great credit to their respective Universities... Yet they are treated as "hooligans"; treated with such roughness that all 3 had to have medical attention, and hauled before a police magistrate and charged with disorderly behaviour.

(4) Dora Marsden, Votes for Women (10th December 1909)

A dirty hand was was thrust over my mouth, and a struggle began. Finally I was dropped over a ledge, pushed through the broken window, and we began to roll down the steep sloping roof side. Two stewards, crawling up from the other side, shouted out to the two men who had hold of me, "Stop that you fools: you will all fall over the edge". The man who was pulling my right arm screamed hysterically, "I don't care what happens; we'll manage them". They managed so well that we balanced ourselves skilfully on the water trough. At the police station an inspector said to me, "You ought to be grateful to me. If I hadn't caught your foot you would have gone to your glory."

(5) Les Garner, A Brave and Beautiful Spirit (1990)

Dora's life in the WSPU reveals a great deal about herself and the organization she served, even though the ending of this relationship was so bitter and the recriminations so long. Her work in the Union reflected the commitment, bravery, ingenuity and reckless courage needed to become an active suffragette but it also exposed the limitation of working in such an autocratic body. Essentially, the leadership had little time for independent thought and action by its members, especially its organizers, and the results were inevitable; the history of the WSPU is littered with almost annual splits leading to the WFL in 1907 to the Suffragettes of the WSPU during the war. In the WSPU's defence, it could be claimed that Dora was particularly headstrong and that in any case, as an employee, the Union's leaders had every right to expect her to carry out their instructions. Whether blindly obeying these fitted into a call for freedom and independence for women was overlooked and subsumed in the military talk of war, generals and battles. Soldiers have little say, they carry out their orders without question. Finally, Dora's resignation from the WSPU did not signify a rejection of feminism, rather the opposite. Her experience in the Union may have led to fundamental differences with its leadership but it also served to increase her feminist consciousness. Indeed, Dora subsequently argued that she resigned partly because she wanted a freer and more open discussion of feminist issues other than that of women's suffrage. What was needed was a platform for this debate.

Dora's feminism was not solely expressed through her public activity as a suffragette but was reflected too in her personal life which was so clearly woman-centred. With her mother providing a permanent base, Dora developed close and loving relationships with women in this period, primarily Rona Robinson, Grace Jardine and Mary Gawthorpe...

All her close relationships were with women, none with a man. Indeed, how could she have the independence and freedom she so desperately yearned for if she had become involved in an orthodox relationship with a man? Whether any of her friendships with women were sexual cannot be determined - certainly they were close and certainly too, Dora's personality and fragile beauty inspired many endearing comments from her friends. She appeared to have a special and unique quality that inspired devotion, if not awe, in some women.... Whether Dora was gay in the modern sense is unknown. There is no concrete evidence to support such a claim.

(6) Dora Marsden, The Freewoman (23rd November 1911)

The chief event of the week is our own appearance. The publication of The Freewoman marks an epoch. It marks the point at which feminism in England ceases to be impulsive and unaware of its own features and becomes definitely self-conscious and introspective. For the first time, feminists themselves make the attempt to reflect the feminist movement in the mirror of thought.

(7) Dora Marsden, The Freewoman (7th March 1912)

The Pankhurst party have lost their forthright desire for enfranchisement in their outbalancing desire to raise their own organisation to a position of dictatorship amongst all women's organisations.... The vote was only of secondary importance to the leaders... before every other consideration, political, social or moral comes the aggrandisement of the WSPU itself and the increase of power of their own organisation.

(8) Dora Marsden, The Freewoman (23rd November 1911)

The chief event of the week is our own appearance. The publication of The Freewoman marks an epoch. It marks the point at which feminism in England ceases to be impulsive and unaware of its own features and becomes definitely self-conscious and introspective. For the first time, feminists themselves make the attempt to reflect the feminist movement in the mirror of thought.

(9) Harry J. Birnstingl, The Freewoman (1st February 1912)

It apparently has never occurred to them that numbers of these women find their ultimate destiny, as it were, among members of their own sex, working for the good of each other, forming romantic - nay passionate - attachments with each other? It is splendid that these women... should suddenly find their destiny in thus working together for the freedom of their own sex. It is one of the most wonderful things of the twentieth century.

(10) Frank Watts, letter to The Freewoman (1st February 1912)

Surely the woman readers of The Freewoman do not want to read articles every week upon such subjects as Uranus, syphilis and prostitution. If these are subjects that attract Freewomen then it must be admitted by sane observers that man in the past was exercising a sure instinct in keeping his spouse and girl children within the sheltered walls of ignorance.

(11) Dora Marsden, The Freewoman (20th June 1912)

The politics of the community are a mere superstructure, built upon the economic base... even though Mr. George Lansbury were Prime Minister and every seat in the House occupied by Socialist deputies, the capitalist system being what it is they would be powerless to effect anything more than the slow paced "reform" of which the sole aim is to make "men and masters" settle down in a comfortable but unholy alliance... the capitalists own the states. A handful of private capitalists could make England, or any other country, bankrupt within a week.

(12) H. G. Wells, letter to The Freewoman (5th September 1912)

That you do not know what you want in economic and social organization, that the wild cry for freedom which makes me so sympathetic with your paper, and which echoes through every column of it, is unsupported by the ghost of a shadow of an idea how to secure freedom. What is the good of writing that "economic arrangements will have to be adjusted to the Soul of Man" if you are not prepared with anything remotely resembling a suggestion of how the adjustment is to be affected?"

(13) Dora Marsden, The Freewoman (10th October 1912)

The editorial work has not been easy. We have been hemmed in on every side by lack of funds. We have, moreover, been promoting a constructive creed, which had not only to be erected as we went along, we had also to deal with the controversy which this constructive creed left in its wake.... The entire campaign has been carried on indeed only at the cost of a total expenditure of energy, and we, therefore, do not hold it possible to continue the same amount of work, with diminished resources, if in addition, we have to bear the entire anxiety of securing such resources as are to be at our disposal.

(14) Floyd Dell, Women as World Builders: Studies in Modern Feminism (1913)

Freedom! That is the first and last with Dora Marsden. She makes women understand for the first time what freedom means. She makes them want to be free. She nerves them to the effort of emancipation. She sows in a fertile soil the dragons' teeth which shall spring up as a band of capable females, knowing what they want and taking it, asking no leave from anybody, doing things and enjoying life. Freewoman!

(15) Les Garner, A Brave and Beautiful Spirit (1990)

At last, in February 1913, Harriet Shaw Weaver and Dora Marsden met. They were in many ways totally unsuited - on the one hand, the rebellious, radical intellectual and on the other, the quiet, modest, unassuming and orderly Weaver. Yet they took an immediate liking towards each other - Weaver impressed by Dora's intelligence and indeed, her beauty, and Dora by Harriet's keen but systematic approach to the re-launch of the paper.

Dora had originally just wanted a chat but they ended up in effect having a business meeting while all the time establishing their mutual respect and admiration. For Dora this friendship was to become as important as her relationship with Mary Gawthorpe, in some ways filling the vacuum left by their parting in 1912. Dora had found another woman who, impressed by her talents, seemed willing to help her in her project. Yet it was no cynical abuse of a simple and blind devotee - Harriet was too intelligent for that - and Dora wrote warmly and sincerely to Harriet after their meeting, thanking her for her help.

(16) Dora Marsden to Harriet Shaw Weaver (14th February, 1913)

I must thank you for the great personal kindness you have shown me while I have been in London. Quite apart from what you have done and are preparing to do to help the paper, your kindness in running about with me in my pursuit of hopes, has been a most valuable thing to me, and I must confess that I entertain feelings of very lively gratitude on that account. Please accept my very warm thanks.

(17) Dora Marsden, The New Freewoman (15th June 1913)

Emily Wilding Davison gave a crowd of degenerate orgiastics a new sensation.... Causes are the diversion of the feeble - of those who have lost the power of acting strongly from their own nature. They are for the titillation of the senses of the herd... Davison did not understand that the presence of the tiny handful of people like herself in a spectacular affair was a very considerable embarrassment to the situation, which accounted for the suspicion and semi-disgrace in which they were constantly held; that their presence was just tolerated because occasionally the organisation might need to dump them down, one here and one there to act as living beings for an occasion and then to return them to the role of automaton.

(18) Dora Marsden, The Egoist (15th June 1914)

Mrs Pankhurst required at the outset, for the sake of backing, women with money and with some capacity: when she obtained these she drew the limiting line which would keep out women with accepted followings and too much ability: that is unless they came with ashes in their hair, repentance in one hand and passivity in the other. Then on the principle of the Eastern potentate who illustrated the practice of good government by lopping off the heads of all the stalks of grain which grew higher than the rest, she by one means or another rid her group of all its members unlikely by virtue of personality, conspicuous ability, or undocile temper, to prove flexible material in the great cause. The gaps thus made she filled up with units of stock size.

(19) Dora Marsden, The Egoist (1st October 1918)

It is certain that Rebecca West possesses brilliant gifts: the world has acknowledged them; and we think it probable that she possesses others of an even more solid worth. There exists, therefore, every hope that when she emerges from the groping twilight of the process offending herself and her true form, she will be able to combine indisputable high gifts with the high, but necessary, moral forces, of courage, independence and unashamed truth.

(20) Dora Marsden, letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver (12th November 1920)

The really magic thing about the place is the atmosphere which makes everything indescribably seductively lovely. These last two weeks in October and the first ten days of November have been the most beautiful I have ever experienced. I shall never forget it. One has seemed to be living and working through a crystal globe flushed with every kind of soft but penetrating light. Spring was crude compared with it.... Will you join? Do think seriously about it. It is quite an addition to one's experience. I have never before experienced anything like it.

(21) Rebecca West, Time and Tide (16th July, 1926)

Dora Marsden conceived the idea of starting The Freewoman because she was discontented with the limited scope of the suffragist movement. She felt that it was restricting itself too much to the one point of political enfranchisement and was not bothering about the wider issues of Feminism. I think she was wrong in formulating this feeling as an accusation against the Pankhursts and suffragettes in general, because they were simply doing their job, and it was certainly a whole time job. But there was equally certainly a need for someone to stand aside and ponder on the profounder aspects of Feminism....

By its candour did an immense service to the world by shattering, as nothing else would, as not the mere cries of intention towards independence had ever done, the romantic conception of women. It pointed out that there were lots of women who were unmated and childless who resented their condition. It pointed out that there were lots of women who were mated and who had children who found elements of dissatisfaction in their position. It even mentioned the existence of abnormalities of instinct. In fact it smashed the romantic pretence that woman had as a birth-right the gift of perfect adaptation, that they were in a bland state of desireless contentment which, when they were beautiful, reminded the onlooker of goddesses and when they were plain were more apt to remind them of a cabbage. If this romantic conception had been true, there would have been no reason for the emancipation of women, since if they could be happy anywhere and anyhow, there was no need to alter their environment. It had to be admitted that women were vexed human beings who suffered intensely from male adaptation to life, and that they were tortured and dangerous if they were not allowed to adapt themselves to life. That admission is the keystone of the modern Feminist movement.

(22) Dora Marsden, The Definition of the Godhead (1928)

This work is the first volume of a philosophy which claims to affect the intellectual rehabilitation of the dogmas of Christian theology in terms of the characters of the first principles of physics, i.e. Space and Time... (It is an attempt ) to solve the riddle of the first principles solutions are required to those age old problems of philosophy and theology which impart into human culture its heavily tangled undergrowth. This opening work, therefore, presents these solutions, unifying by means of them the whole body of human knowledge and re-interpreting all the great issues of mankind's cultural history.

(23) The Times Literary Supplement (8th May 1930)

Miss Marsden has ranged the whole world of folklore and myth to prove the familiar "mysteries" of the Christian faith are natural growths in the process of human evaluation. Her conclusions are at variance with most students of religion and anthropology, and very often she appears to accommodate her facts to her theories but those who are interested in myth and legend should find something to interest them if they are not bewildered too much by the constant use of curiously hyphenated words and phrases.

(24) Report on Dora Marsden by Crichton Royal Hospital (26th November, 1935)

For the last twelve years she has lived the life of a recluse alone with her books and her studies. She felt she has found something of great importance in the world of thought - a criticism of philosophy from the earliest days onwards - this work did not create the impression she wanted and she became depressed. In summer 1934 the patient denied herself sufficient food, cut herself off from others and pulled down her blinds to prevent anyone seeing her.... Since the end of June 1935 she has become more and more depressed.