Harriet Shaw Weaver, the sixth of eight children of Frederic Poynton Weaver, a doctor, and his wife, Mary Wright, was born in Frodsham, Cheshire, on 1st September 1876. The family was extremely wealthy as her mother having inherited a fortune from her father, made in the cotton industry.
Harriet was educated at home by a governess, Marion Spooner. According to the authors of Dear Miss Weaver (1970): "Her education owed much also to the governess who came when she was ten and remained until she was eighteen and her formal schooling was brought to an end. Miss Marion Spooner was a young gentlewoman of decided powers. She was a good linguist and very musical, though these were qualities to which Harriet and the others, who all had no ear, could not respond. She had a vivid interest in history and in current affairs and pronounced Liberal views. To these Harriet warmed. Under Miss Spooner's tutelage she probably received as broad an education as any single-handed teacher could have given her." Les Garner, the author of A Brave and Beautiful Spirit (1990) added: "Her early influences came from her liberal governess, Marion Spooner, and her own, often secretive, reading." This included The Subjection of Women, a book written by John Stuart Mill and Helen Taylor.
In 1891 the family moved to Hampstead. Three years later, Marion Spooner left, though she was to remain a lifelong friend. Harriet wanted to go to university but her father rejected the idea. "What would be the use of such a course?" He pointed out that she would never need to earn a living and that he was unhappy with the pursuit of a profession for its own sake. Harriet continued to read left-wing books and she became a socialist and a supporter of women's suffrage.
Harriet also did charity work in Bermondsey. In 1902 she became honorary secretary of the East End branch of the Children's Country Holiday Fund. A fellow committee member was Robert Ensor, the author of Modern Socialism (1904) and E. J. Urwick, an economist and political philosopher.
In 1905 Harriet Shaw Weaver began attending lectures at the London School of Sociology and Social Economics that had been founded two years previously by the Charity Organization Society. She also attended a course of lectures on "The Economic Basis of Social Relations" at the London School of Economics. Harriet Weaver also worked with William Beveridge at Toynbee Hall when she was running the East End Branch of the Invalid Children's Aid Association.
Harriet was described during this period by the authors of Dear Miss Weaver: "She was a little above middle height, slim and straight. Her eyes were small, round and a clear blue. Her brown hair, taken back into a bun." One of her contemporaries described her as being "very neat, very austere, like a beautiful nun". Another friend said she was "more reserved than shy" whereas another pointed out that Harriet rarely spoke as she her "urge was to listen". Her sister, Maude Weaver claimed that she had no interest in the other sex, except as human beings, "there was never a flicker of a flirtation with anyone."
Harriet's brother, Harold, died in 1909 after accidentally taking an overdose of sleeping tablets. She later wrote: "What comforted me most when he died... was the thought that it was better to have had him as a dear brother for his short life than not to have had him." Her biographer has pointed out that she "felt his loss acutely" and was "exhausted and unwell for long afterwards". A friend, Edith Munro, wrote to her suggesting that they spend time together: "I know that the light seems to have gone out of your life and nothing seems worth doing or thinking of any more.... Couldn't we go out for a long long walk. I needn't speak at all if you would rather not. If you knew how I longed to be with you. I have loved you so much for so many years and now that you are in trouble I seem quite useless."
Weaver became interested in the subject of women's suffrage and joined the Women Social & Political Union (WSPU). She sold Votes for Women and distributed pamphlets but never took part in any demonstrations and resigned after the start of the arson campaign. She continued to be interested in the struggle for the vote and she began subscribing to The Freewoman. The most controversial aspect of the journal 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, the editor, 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.
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, Stella Browne, Edmund Haynes, Harry J. Birnstingl, Charlotte Payne-Townshend Shaw, Rebecca West, Havelock Ellis, Lily Gair Wilkinson, Françoise Lafitte-Cyon and Rose Witcup.
Harriet Shaw Weaver was one of those who joined the Freewoman Discussion Circle in London. The authors of Dear Miss Weaver(1970) pointed out: "It was a successful group, inaugurated at a meeting of more than eighty people. The numbers increased so fast that at its first meeting-room, at the Suffragette shop, was too small. So was its second, at the Eustace Miles vegetarian restaurant; and its final home was at the Chandos Hall. The programme for the session July to October 1912 included talks on Eugenics by Mrs Havelock Ellis and on Divorce Reform by E.S.P. Haynes. Other subjects were Sex Oppression and the Way Out, Celibacy, Prostitution, and the Abolition of Domestic Drudgery." Rebecca West recalled that at the meetings: "Everyone behaved beautifully - it's like being in Church, except Rona Robinson and myself. Barbara Low has spoken very seriously to me about it."
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."
The last edition of The Freewoman appeared on 10th October 1912. Dora Marsden 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 Harriet Shaw Weaver met Dora Marsden, 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. Weaver's biographer, Rachel Cottam, has argued: "Over the following years she gave regular donations of money, usually anonymously, and became involved in all the details of its organization and finance, finally taking on the role of editor. Though lacking confidence in her own writing, she contributed a number of reviews (signing herself Josephine Wright) and, as editor, wrote the occasional leader article."
Harriet and Dora Marsden 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.
Ezra Pound wanted the The Egoist to become more of a literary journal. In early 1914 he persuaded Dora Marsden to serialize 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 journal to Harriet Shaw Weaver. Marsden 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.
In January 1916, Harriet Shaw Weaver argued that despite poor sales she was determined to continue supporting the The Egoist. "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. Harriet Shaw 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."
According to Rachel Cottam: "From 1916 Joyce and Weaver corresponded almost daily: she commented on his manuscripts, corrected his proofs, discussed his frustrations and aspirations, and gradually became involved in every aspect of his own and his family's well-being. Though she was aware that he spent money recklessly and sometimes drank to excess, she endeavoured to provide him with an assured family income by transferring him substantial sums of her capital." Rebecca West argued that without Weaver's dedication, it is "doubtful whether Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom would have found their way into the world's mind".
In January 1919 The Egoist: An Individualist Review began the serialization 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.
In 1931, Weaver joined the Labour Party. However, she became a fierce critic of Ramsay MacDonald and his National Government. In 1938 she switched her alliance to the Communist Party of Great Britain. She became a committed member and sold copies of The Daily Worker in the street.