Introduction to The Freewoman

By Barbara Green

Introduction to The Freewoman

“The chief event of this week is our own first 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.” —The Editors of The Freewoman, issue 1.1 (3)

On November 23, 1911, The Freewoman was born—and with it, a new category for modern female identity. Co-edited by former suffrage activists Dora Marsden and Mary Gawthorpe, The Freewoman entered the public sphere to “ponder on the profounder aspects of Feminism” and invigorate feminist debate through its frank, unconventional and unblushing approaches to issues of interest to “advanced” or avant-garde feminist men and women—issues of female subjectivity, female sexuality, and more (West 64). The Freewoman took a wide-ranging approach to gender issues by introducing its readers to a variety of modern types—Spinsters, Uranians, Working Women, Masculinists, Housewives, College Women, Anarchists, Syndicalists, Socialists, advocates of Free Love, Sex Radicals, Parasites, Drudges, Bondwomen and, most emphatically, Feminists and Freewomen. Marsden and her contributors also addressed key issues of the period, many of which were considered too shocking or risqué to be covered by the suffrage press, such as the plight of unmarried mothers, the necessity of divorce, and the need for open discussion of a wide variety of issues having to do with sexuality—including desire, homosexuality, abstinence, autoeroticism, prostitution and “white slavery,” polygamy, birth control (“artificial restriction” or “Neo-Malthusianism”), and sexually-transmitted diseases (“the unspeakable”). These were featured alongside, and often in deliberate conversation with, topics of discussion more frequently seen in the women’s and suffrage papers as well as the daily press—topics such as domestic service, the “new housekeeping” and domestic science, co-operative housekeeping, the problem of female self-sacrifice, women’s labor, home culture, art, the role of women in history, and commentary on the proposed National Insurance Act, the Conciliation Bill, the White Slave Traffic Bill, and Trade Union activism. One contributor called The Freewoman a “technical trade journal on Womanhood” (1.2: 27), and while most would agree that discussing the pragmatic aspects of her vision was not Marsden’s strong suit, the phrase ably captures the range and depth of Marsden’s ambitions for the paper. Few areas of modern life were left untouched by The Freewoman’s investigations. Marsden insisted that the proper aim of feminism should be the development of a new “philosophy” which would be “worked out in terms of everyday life” (qtd. in Garner, Brave 55). Rather than emphasize the vote, The Freewoman called for an examination of “the Freewoman herself, her psychology, philosophy, morality, and achievements” (1.1: 3). The development of freewomen as individuals would be no “small thing” but would, instead, necessitate a total restructuring of the cultural sphere, including the “sphere of industrial labour,” and would require “opposition to the moral code” (1.4: 61-62).

In its early days, The Freewoman’s frank approach to issues of sexuality and rigorous critique of the suffrage movement, particularly the structure and strategies of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), elicited intense and deeply felt responses on both ends of the spectrum. Many readers embraced the invigorating approach of the new journal: socialist-feminist Ada Nield Chew, for example, wrote that “never have I so much appreciated, so hungrily and thirstily eaten and drunk of any mental food as that provided by The Freewoman” (1.22: 434). Rebecca West, looking back on the paper’s influence in an article written much later for Time and Tide, wrote with admiration that The Freewoman had an “immense effect on its time” and called Dora Marsden “one of the most marvelous personalities that the nation has ever produced” (63). And The Freewoman’s correspondence page consistently displayed letters from women who took on the appellation “Freewoman” as their own. Others rejected the publication thoroughly: Agnes Maude Royden, a suffragist attached to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), called it a “nauseous publication” in the pages of the Times, objecting to a letter Mrs. Humphry Ward had written which lumped The Freewoman together with other suffrage papers, such as the NUWSS’s Common Cause and the WSPU’s Votes for Women. Marsden did not shy away from these critiques, but folded them into the pages of her publication, taking them as proof of the importance of her approach to suffrage and sexuality, and using them to foster debate; Royden’s letter, with its phrase “nauseous publication” intact, was quoted in The Freewoman with a detailed response by Marsden (2.34: 142). In the second number of The Freewoman, Marsden used her “Notes of the Week” column to respond in detail to letters critiquing her approach, published three letters announcing cancelled subscriptions, and included a letter of withdrawal from Edith Ayrton Zangwill, a prominent suffragist and contributor to the first issue, who severed all ties to the publication: “I feel obliged to state (although I do so with great regret) that, had I realized more clearly the tone of your new review, The Freewoman, I should not have acceded to your request to contribute to its pages” (1.2: 30). Marsden continued the policy of using the correspondence page to air criticisms of her paper alongside interrogations of modern culture, and The Freewoman’s devotion to rigorous self-examination continues to fascinate readers today.

Convinced of print’s ability to impact the public sphere, Marsden entered with great energy into what Helen McNeil has called the “wars of the magazines” (143). After an unsuccessful plea to The New Age editor A. R. Orage to help them launch an alternative feminist journal, Marsden and Gawthorpe found support from Charles Grenville, the owner of Stephen Swift, a publisher already committed to the circulation of advanced material.1 Full-page advertisements for Swift’s publications ran on the last page of The Freewoman, linking Marsden and Gawthorpe’s new venture with Reginald Wright Kauffman’s Daughters of Ishmael (a book about white slavery that was discussed in detail in the paper) and Katherine Mansfield’s fiction. An initial advertising campaign, with promotional material placed in suffrage papers such as Votes for Women and Common Cause, established The Freewoman’s links to radical ideas and to on-going suffrage debates (such an ad also appears in the socialist New Age [10.4: 95]). However, the suffrage papers soon dropped any visible signs of support for the new journal.

In its early issues, The Freewoman sat at the intersection of feminist discussion and socialist and anarchist debate. Lucy Delap has traced its broad network of periodical influences and exchanges that included The New Age, the Daily Herald, and suffrage papers as well as figures drawn from feminist and anti-capitalist circles in England and the U.S.2 The Freewoman brought together the key thinkers of its era: socialists, syndicalists, and anarchists such as H. G. Wells, Selwyn Weston, Upton Sinclair, Guy Aldred; writers devoted to promoting open discussions of female sexuality, homosexuality, and birth control such as Charles Whitby and Harry Birnstingl; and feminist thinkers and activists such as Teresa Billington-Greig, Stella Browne, Rebecca West, and Ada Nield Chew.

From the onset, however, readers also contributed to the intellectual life of the paper through The Freewoman’s correspondence column. Readers’ letters were thoughtful, though sometimes critical, and they were given a great deal of space in the paper as well as full titles in the table of contents. The issue for September 12, 1912, for example, lists twenty letters by title; these fill eleven of the paper’s twenty pages. In the previous issue, Marsden drew attention to the way the letters published in the paper presented an “unbroken challenge of The Freewoman’s policy”; Marsden’s response: “That is as it should be. It remains for us to reply to this challenge” (2.42: 301). Indeed, readers’ letters helped to shape the content of the paper, since topics that originated in the correspondence pages were often taken up later in Marsden’s “Notes of the Week” column or in features. Contributors such as Ada Nield Chew sometimes opened a discussion in the correspondence column only to expand it in a lengthy article in a following issue, or, conversely, authors would expand upon a published piece in the correspondence column as they answered readers’ criticisms or queries. In addition to their contributions to the correspondence pages, readers participated in the intellectual life of The Freewoman Discussion Circle, which emerged from reader demand for a forum that would promote discussion and debate. The Freewoman Discussion Circle had its first meeting on April 25, 1912 with an audience of over 100 people in attendance. The subscription-based Circle met twice monthly and was attended by both men and women. Talks were given by contributors and followed by spirited debate which often spilled into the paper’s correspondence pages. Secretary Barbara Low reported on the meetings in The Freewoman the following week, thus stitching the Discussion Circle even more firmly to the paper proper.3

The world of The Freewoman, then, like the world of advanced feminism, was populated by men and women committed to discussing avant-garde ideas concerning the state, sexuality, labor, marriage, and free love. Despite this vibrant community of activist writers and readers, The Freewoman shared with other little magazines of the period their ephemeral quality—“doomed to flare and fade” as Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker have recently put it (1, 2). Challenged by limited finances, uncertain support by its publisher, and a boycott by W. H. Smith and Son’s, the paper’s distributor, The Freewoman collapsed within eleven short months after its launch, though it would be revived, in 1913, as The New Freewoman, and then again, in 1914, as The Egoist. This introduction to The Freewoman will focus solely on the paper’s first “sequence” (to borrow McNeil’s term for categorizing its multiple incarnations [43]; for the longer history of the journal’s three iterations, see Robert Scholes’s “General Introduction to the Marsden Magazines” and Susan Solomon’s “Introduction to The New Freewoman and The Egoist). In what follows, I will concentrate primarily on the bold contributions that The Freewoman made, between November 1911 and October 1912, to feminist politics and early twentieth-century discussions of gender. I’ll first place the paper in the context of the suffrage movement and feminist print culture in the modern period. Then I’ll discuss the paper’s commitment to individualism and its open engagement of sexuality. And finally I’ll consider how The Freewoman relates to both feminist criticism and modernist literary culture.


Suffrage and Feminist Print Culture

Dora Marsden and Mary Gawthorpe were both active in Britain’s most militant suffrage organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), during a period when the organization was a constant presence in the daily press due to its sensational acts of resistance and public spectacle, such as the interruption of political meetings, dramatic and eye-catching street pageants and marches, frequent open-air meetings, and various acts of defiance that had suffragettes in and out of prison.4 After 1906, Gawthorpe, who had been active in the Leeds Arts Club and the Labour movement, became an active participant in the WSPU and a constant speaker for the organization, whirled about by “two regular winds. . . . No doubt about the strength with which they blew, those Labour and Women’s Suffrage winds” (qtd. in Liddington 45). Gawthorpe was imprisoned in Holloway for taking part in a demonstration outside of Parliament in 1906, and she suffered much ill-health afterward partly due to intense overwork. She took on a role as a WSPU chief organizer in Manchester from 1908 until 1910, when she was forced to retire due to sickness; in September 1911, she resigned from the WSPU.

Gawthorpe’s ill-health, combined with her disapproval of Marsden’s stance toward the WSPU, made her reluctant to take on a large role at The Freewoman: for the most part, she was co-editor in name only. She left the paper altogether in March 1912, though she continued to contribute to the publication through the correspondence page, largely on the topic of the hunger strike and forcible feeding. She remains for us, however, an interesting figure. In her autobiography, Up Hill to Holloway, Gawthorpe reveals, for instance, the cross-pollination of oppositional cultures during the Edwardian period—the mesh of activities, meetings, and friendship networks that linked labor activists, suffrage activists, socialist aesthetes, and sex radicals. While on a speaking tour for the WSPU, Gawthorpe recalls how she stopped to visit sex radical Edward Carpenter, author of Love’s Coming of Age and Toward Democracy, and acquired from him her first pair of handmade sandals (231). Socialism, feminism, homosexuality (Carpenter was a key author on the topic), and the fashion choices of an alternative socialist lifestyle all come together in this short anecdote.5

Like Gawthorpe, Marsden was active in the WSPU as both an organizer and a participant in militant activity from 1908 to 1910. And Marsden similarly embraced at first the militant politics of the WSPU: she was frequently arrested for her activities, and when she was imprisoned in 1909 for window breaking, she went on a hunger strike and violently resisted wearing the prison dress assigned to her. In October 1909, Marsden and Gawthorpe interrupted a meeting held by the Chancellor of Manchester University in order to protest the forcible feeding of suffragettes. The photo of Marsden being escorted out of the meeting—a tiny woman surrounded by hulking policemen—appeared in many papers and underscored the vulnerability of women agitating in the streets in demonstrations or deputations. Marsden, already a popular figure in the movement, gained fame when, with two other suffragettes, she secluded herself overnight under the roof of the Southport Empire Theater in December 1909 in order to interrupt Winston Churchill’s speech the next day by shouting down to him from the rafters. Increasingly, like other suffrage activists, Marsden clashed with suffrage leaders Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst, and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence over their refusal to grant her the degree of independence she required. The autocratic suffrage leadership was wary of losing important organizers to prison—but also of losing control over their organization when suffragettes acted independently. Marsden resigned from the WSPU in January 1911.

The fact that Marsden wanted to see beyond the issue of the vote does not mean that she ignored the workings of the WSPU in the pages of The Freewoman, and the period between 1911 and 1912 gave her a great deal to consider. The Conciliation Bill came up for debate again in May 1911 but was torpedoed in November when Asquith proposed a Manhood Suffrage Bill. First introduced in 1910, the Conciliation Bill was based on the household franchise and would have given voting rights to single women householders and a number of married women occupiers. It was controversial from the start, alienating many socialists and labor activists from the WSPU and other suffrage organizations. But Marsden’s objections to the Conciliation Bill also included the waxing and waning of militancy that accompanied the readings of it as the WSPU entered into a number of “truces” with the government—the WSPU would suspend militant activity, only to suspend the suspension when the government shelved or otherwise buried the bill. In addition, the debates concerning the forcible feeding of imprisoned hunger-striking suffragettes continued during the spring and early summer of 1912, which prompted Marsden to comment in the paper on the need for a theory to support this use of the body for militant activism. Arguing that the hunger-strike should be seen as an act of individualist resistance against the state, she writes: “What, then, is the significance of the hunger-strike? It is the putting up of the sum total of the forces of the individual to resist the pressure of the combined forces of the community. It is the last weapon of the one against the many” (1.23: 443). Finally, Marsden rejected wholeheartedly the undemocratic organizational structure and strategies of the WSPU (she claims that the WSPU raised “their own organisation to a position of dictatorship amongst all other women’s organisations”), a near obsession that caused friction between Marsden and Gawthorpe as well as alienating suffragist readers (1.16: 304). Marsden saw the militant culture of the WSPU working against independent thought or debate: she condemned its defenders’ “simultaneous use of emotional appeal and of virulent scolding” against critics like herself, and she charged that the organization, in the absence of serious criticism, had become a “happy meeting-ground of the sentimental and the unthinking” (1.2: 23).

Marsden was not the first to reject the autocratic structure of the WSPU—in 1907, prominent socialist-feminist activists Charlotte Despard, Teresa Billington-Greig, and Edith How-Martyn left the WSPU to form the more democratically structured Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The League’s “break” from militant suffrage culture opened a space for a thorough critique of the workings of femininity in modern culture. In January 1911, Billington-Greig published a series of articles in The New Age critiquing the WSPU; these were published as the book The Militant Suffrage Movement in March of that year. Billington-Greig argued against the “double shuffle” of rebellion and martyrdom that underwrote the WSPU’s strategy of manipulating conventional representations of femininity by casting women as both militant rebels and innocent victims:

The feeling within the Union against this double shuffle, this game of quick change from the garments of the rebel to those of the innocent martyr, was swamped by the public approval and extenuation of our protests. We were too speedily rehabilitated; we were exonerated before we had declared ourselves. We were accepted into respectable circles not as rebels but as innocent victims, and as innocent victims we were led to pose. (165)

This objection to the WSPU’s strategies was linked to a larger belief, shared by Marsden and others, that the vote alone could not emancipate women. Throughout the first issues of the paper, Marsden sought to distinguish the feminism of freewomen from suffragism: “If it is the work of the Suffragist women to guard the rear, it is that of the Freewomen to cheer the van” (1.2: 21).6

Yet the Freewoman‘s periodical network included the publications of an extensive and vibrant feminist periodical community, especially those very suffrage papers Marsden wished to reject—the WSPU’s Votes for Women, the NUWSS’s Common Cause, the WFL’s paper The Vote. This robust periodical culture was constructed through, and supported by, suffrage organizations, discussion groups, women’s bookstores, and publishing houses that together composed a feminist (or counter) public sphere within English society. Since “’feminism’ was closely bound up with its representation in print,” Delap has argued, “to be a feminist was very centrally a reading experience” (Feminist 4). Contemporary scholarship on The Freewoman rightly concentrates on the difference the journal made to the marketplace of ideas on gender. It is certainly the case that Marsden’s paper made a unique contribution to the field of feminist literature by exploring a wide range of ideas and issues generally ignored by movement papers, which concentrated instead on the day-to-day workings of their organization. “Advanced” feminists like Rebecca West found the suffrage papers largely dull and repetitive, with their announcements of meetings, plans for activities such as demonstrations or marches, and fund-raising efforts (Delap, Feminist 45). Yet we should note the similarities as well as the differences between The Freewoman and the suffrage papers. Marsden’s paper borrowed liberally from the promotional strategies of the militant suffrage movement; it shared a rhetoric with both the literary avant-garde and the polemical strand of suffrage speech found in manifestoes and stump speeches; and it shared a common readership with the suffrage papers, since many “Freewomen” held multiple affiliations and argued that their interest in fighting for the vote was compatible with placing feminism in a larger frame of reference (Delap, “Avant-garde Women” 239).7 These shared commitments show how the suffrage papers were neither monovocal nor monotonous, though they did tend to avoid the sensational topics and radical perspective that distinguished The Freewoman.

Votes for Women, for instance, combined organization news (like information about meetings and fund-raising) with coverage of news related to the struggle, including articles on women’s working conditions in various fields, responses to key pieces from the daily press, human interest stories, profiles of prominent women, short fiction, theater and book reviews, a fashion page, and first-person narratives by suffrage activists about their experiences. Feminist periodicals also offered a rich assortment of advertisements that catered to the independent woman. In Votes for Women, readers found advertisements for cigarettes, furs, soaps, dresses, furniture, in addition to ads for feminist presses and periodicals. The Freewoman borrowed many of these promotional strategies, featuring in its pages advertising not only for its progressive publisher Stephen Swift and Company but also for department stores such as Debenham & Freebody.

Unlike the suffrage papers, however, The Freewoman had no extensive volunteer army to insure its circulation. The editors of Votes for Women worked to involve readers and members in efforts to increase circulation—from campaigns to get copies of the paper on newsstands and in stores, to efforts to increase subscriptions by asking each reader to reach out to friends and neighbors. Michelle Tusan has shown how suffrage papers also mixed some of the strategies of new journalism with innovative structures that preserved the autonomy of the alternative press: with women’s presses, the papers were able to control production, and with the Suffrage Shop and the female street seller (or “newsy”), they could also control distribution (148-49). The figure of a female “newsy” on the streets of London was both a new subject position for women and an innovative circulation technique.8 Though The Freewoman imitated some of these strategies, it lacked the infrastructure to expand its circulation, which remained much smaller than the 40,000 readers that Votes for Women generally achieved.9 In addition, Marsden shared a minoritizing vision with some of the emerging little magazines, and she wanted her advanced ideas and the paper’s price to speak to an elite readership: “if women’s penny papers are wanted, these already exist in great numbers, and . . . we are not proposing writing for women whose highest journalistic needs are realised at a penny. The quality of each article we consider good enough to publish is far above anything that can honestly be expected in a penny journal” (1.1: 3). Freewomen were extraordinary individuals, Marsden wrote, and “we are convinced that, at the present time, our interpretation of the [feminist] doctrine has merely to be stated clearly to be frankly rejected by, at least, three women in every four” (1.2: 22).


Individualism and Subjectivity

Looking at The Freewoman in the context of early twentieth-century feminist print culture reveals how radical shifts in thinking about gender were coupled with the idea of the “modern.” One contributor to the paper argued that contemporary society betrayed a “desperate nervousness” about life that would be apparent to future generations gazing back in “wonder” at “freedom’s early fashions” (1.11: 208). This sense of being at the cusp of a great cultural shift—a sense shared by many socialists, anarchists, and suffragists—was often tied explicitly to new freedoms enjoyed by women: “We live in an age of women” wrote another contributor (1.16: 309). The Freewoman reflected this enthusiasm by offering its readers a whole host of new subjectivities they might consider, identify with, or reject: Freewomen, Bondwomen, Spinsters, Freethinkers, Freelovers, “advanced” feminists, “Uranians,” and others. The most crucial of these, of course, were Marsden’s Bondwomen and Freewomen, who were defined against one another:

Bondwomen are distinguished from Freewomen by a spiritual distinction. Bondwomen are women who are not separate spiritual entities—who are not individuals. They are complements merely. By habit of thought, by form of activity, and largely by preference, they round off the personality of some other individual, rather than create or cultivate their own. Most women, as far back as we have any record, have fitted into this conception, and it has borne itself out in instinctive working practice. (1.1: 1)

Freewomen, by contrast, were to be self-conscious and to contemplate deeply questions of identity and individuality. Marsden called for a theory of feminism, which she complained was noticeably absent from the “Idealess” practice of the WSPU (2.33: 123), and her goal in the early issues of The Freewoman was to produce such a theory. Her devotion to a theory of femininity, and insistence that feminism have a theory, anticipates the efforts of experimental modern women writers to investigate the workings of subjectivity itself. We can hear echoes of her thinking, for example, in Virginia Woolf’s interrogation of what “I” means for women in A Room of One’s Own, as well as in Simone de Beauvoir’s later analysis of the ways woman function as “other,” rather than as “self,” in The Second Sex.10

The feminist theory that appeared in the pages of The Freewoman moreover centered on the individuality and interiority of the freewoman: “Our interest is in the Freewoman herself, her psychology, philosophy, morality, and achievements, and only in a secondary degree with her politics and economics” (1.1: 3). The freewoman’s individualism underwrote Marsden’s critique of marriage, along with her sex radicalism, anti-capitalism, and anarchist positions:

The individual has his own inner voice, and if he is wise he follows it, though it seem a siren voice to others. The individual has no final guide, save the inner voice, and if he is deaf to that, he travels without chart or compass. That is the reason why freedom is demanded so constantly—that we may follow the voice. It is why we believe in free institutions, and why in the last resort we recognise there is no law save the law of our own being, why we are anarchists, in short. (2.27: 1)

Marsden spelled out in the paper her interest in Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own, which informed her notion of individualism, but just as important to her were the forces arrayed against individualism that she diagnosed in the lived experiences of women around her: the unthinking loyalty demanded by suffragism, the loss of individuality that accompanied conventional marriage, and the mechanism of modern capitalism.11 The suffrage movement, even in its most militant forms, failed to be revolutionary enough for Marsden, since, as Guy Aldred put it, suffrage is at bottom a humble plea to a male master rather than a defiant assertion of female independence. By contrast, a woman can only earn her freedom “by her individuality, by her defiance. . . . By calmness and insistence she can emancipate herself; and no Act of Parliament, no law of man, can say to her nay!” (1.9: 179). The ideal of the individual appeared on nearly every page of The Freewoman, and was thought through nearly every issue that the paper took up: the dock workers’ strike, the idea of co-operative housekeeping, the competing claims of maternity and women’s labor outside the home, and even modern aesthetics. For example, in an essay titled “Anarchy in Art,” Selwyn Weston argued that “the keynote of art is individuality; and the essence of individuality is revolt” (1.10: 194). In the leader to that issue, Marsden called for a new form of writing based on the full “knowledge of self”: “the story of the emotional life of a healthy, virile, vitalised woman still belongs to those books which remain to be written. . . . We believe that in this sphere the novel is going to rediscover itself—the novel and the autobiography” (1.10: 182). In an era in which suffrage rhetoric mostly emphasized the force of a collective “we”—through literary forms such as the manifesto, the visual spectacle of the street pageant, or the representation of shared allegiance to “the Cause” in suffrage literature—Marsden’s insistence on the complexity and force of the “I” was a refreshing change to many feminists.

Freewomen were given the responsibility to consider deeply the claims of their own individuality, and “freedom” became a bold reconsideration of all aspects of modern life:

And in the midst of all this there comes a cry that woman is an individual, and that because she is an individual she must be set free. It would be nearer the truth to say that if she is an individual she is free, and will act like those who are free. The doubtful aspect in the situation is as to whether women are or can be individuals—that is, free—and whether there is not a danger, under the circumstances, in labeling them free, thus giving them the liberty of action which is allowed to the free. (1.1: 1)

The circular nature of some of Marsden’s claims—“freedom is born in the individual soul, and . . . no outer force can either give it or take it away . . . only Freewomen can be free, or lead the way to freedom” (1.1: 2)—did not escape Marsden’s readers, who sometimes seemed confused about the path to freedom and would point out the remoteness of that ideal. The correspondence page was in fact populated by doubtful “would-be” Freewomen, as well as enthusiasts. One such skeptic, journalist Helen Hamilton, in a letter published under the title “The Devastating Freewoman,” wrote this: “For your paper I have, if you will allow me to say so, so keen a veneration that, metaphorically speaking, I bow myself seven times before it every Thursday of the week. Nevertheless, it is rapidly making life not worth living. Indeed, I cannot decide whether to shoot myself or cease taking it in. . . . I cannot be free because I have none of the qualities which go to the making of a Freewoman” (1.18: 352).



Marsden’s vision made room for frank discussions on a variety of topics having to do with sexuality: homosexuality, female desire, free love, celibacy, and more. This set The Freewoman apart from the suffrage press, which was mainly quiet on the question of sexual life. While contributors to The Freewoman were debating the meaning of sexual desire and advocating free love, WSPU leader Christabel Pankhurst was writing The Great Scourge and How to End It, which advocated “votes for women and chastity for men” to remedy the problem of prostitution and venereal disease. The Freewoman’s open and sympathetic discussion of sexuality also contrasts with the socialist press’s conservatism on the topic; The New Age, for instance, was full of “vapid nonsense” on the “subject of sex, concerning its degradation, its woman’s purpose, its pairing,” according to Marsden (2.27: 2).

Marsden’s lead articles on “A New Morality” and her efforts to theorize passion also allowed her to stitch the topic of desire to a host of larger commitments. In “The Over-and-Above in Life,” she defends joy—and the “instinctive seeking toward vibration”—as the “Elixir of Life,” the “single possession which makes life worth living” (1.11: 201-02). Proposing a new “sex-morality,” she denounces “Indissoluble-Monogamy” as an “unjustifiable tyranny . . . psychologically monstrous and morally dangerous” (1.7: 122). And to escape married bondage, all women, including mothers, need to become self-supporting:

If the Freewoman is not going to be the protected woman, but is to carve out an independence for herself, she must produce within herself strength sufficient to provide for herself and for those of whom Nature has made her the natural guardian, her children. To this end she must open up resources of wealth for herself. She must work, earn money. (1.2: 22)

Marsden’s insistence that women must work to be free provoked discussions of the state endowment of motherhood (supported by H. G. Wells, and rejected wholeheartedly by Marsden), the proposed development of a crèche system to nurture children when mothers are working (which Marsden did support), and the development of co-operative housekeeping (proposed by Alice Melvin and others). Upton Sinclair’s piece on divorce similarly critiques marriage conventions and insists that “moral codes” evolve to adapt to a changing environment, which included birth control: “into the modern world there has recently come a new factor, completely modifying the old conditions: this is the discovery of what Bernard Shaw calls ‘the artificial sterilisation of marriage, the most revolutionary invention of the nineteenth century’” (1.9: 165). These pieces played a central role in ongoing discussions in The Freewoman about the endowment of motherhood, the meaning of marriage, women’s labor, and the significance of sexuality.

What becomes clear, almost immediately, to any reader of The Freewoman is how intimately these discussions informed one another and how rigorous both contributors and readers were in their efforts to get at the fundamentals of a theory of feminism: what constitutes a freewoman, and what conditions enable her to flourish? One “Would-Be Freewoman” wrote to praise “the real spirit of independence, of freedom, that a woman with a large and open mind really aspires after. It is what we all want, I am sure—not to be dependent on anyone but ourselves. Oh, for such glorious freedom!” (1.18: 353). Another reader, responding to a thread on domestic drudgery, wrote that “this question of housework and housekeeping is the very bottom of the whole question. . . . To get the Vote is to win a flag in a pitched battle, to organise domestic work is to gain the strategic base of the whole position” since “to be free is to have leisure” (1.16: 312). Despite their differences, both of these readers were devoted to defining women’s struggle for freedom in its most elemental terms.

These frank discussions on issues of sexuality were what brought many readers to the pages of The Freewoman. Ellen Gaskell, meditating on the topic of sexually transmitted diseases (or “the unspeakable”), wrote that “now that women are educated equally and work publicly side by side with men, no subject that is made publicly known can be held to be unsuited for discussion by men and women together” (1.9: 176). Discussions of sexuality made the freewoman a fully embodied subject defined through desires as well as her consciousness of self. The opening issue’s article on the sexual identity of unmarried women (“The Spinster,” by One) launched an extended conversation in the paper regarding celibacy, free love, and female sexuality that swept readers Kathlyn Oliver (who wrote on the virtues of chastity) and Stella Browne (who, as “A New Subscriber,” replied to Oliver by claiming sexual experience “is necessary to the complete life”) into its vortex (1.17: 332; 1.18: 354). In January and February 1912, Harry Birnstingl and Charles Whitby began a discussion of homosexuality in the paper. Although, as Deborah Cohler has argued, the topic of homosexuality in the pre-war era was generally limited to discussions of male sexuality, and the discussion women’s sexuality was mainly limited to heterosexual considerations, including maternity, birth control and marriage, this exchange briefly imagined the possibility of a lesbian feminist identity for women (73-74). Birnstingl wrote that some suffrage activists, rather than being the “sexless” creatures of the anti-feminist imagination, were instead “find[ing] their ultimate destiny, as it were, amongst members of their own sex, working for the good of each other, forming romantic—nay, sometimes passionate—attachments with each other” (1.7: 128).

Not all readers embraced The Freewoman’s radical approach, but Marsden swallowed their critiques by printing them in the paper; one such letter from an appalled reader unwittingly made for her the case for openness: “Surely, the women readers of The Freewoman do not want to read articles every week upon such subjects as Uranians, syphilis, and prostitution. If these are the 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” (1.11: 211). It was Marsden’s insistence on treating issues of sexuality seriously, however, that finally led to the crippling decision by the paper’s distributor, W. H. Smith, to ban The Freewoman from its shops. As the paper lost the support of its distributor and then its publisher, Marsden insisted that it was The Freewoman’s anarchism and anti-capitalism, rather than its attitude toward sexuality, that was its greatest challenge to contemporary culture: “The animosity which we rouse is not roused on the subject of sex-discussion. It is aroused on the question of capitalism” (2.42: 311). Marsden’s anti-capitalist critique had, indeed, intensified in the final issues of the paper, and her insistence on an agrarian refusal of a mechanistic modernity was answered with vehement criticism, even by supporters such as Rebecca West. Yet a close reading of the journal doesn’t support Marsden’s view that she had tempered her radical take on sexuality, and it is largely for her advanced ideas on subjectivity and sexuality that The Freewoman is remembered.


Literary Culture and Feminist Criticism

While scholars of women’s history and the suffrage movement have long been interested in the Freewoman’s early years, literature scholars have typically been most interested in the paper’s last incarnation, The Egoist, because of the many modernists published in its pages: Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot, among them. These attitudes toward the paper’s different incarnations make a good deal of sense. Though The Freewoman did publish a bit of fiction and poetry, and like the suffrage papers, occasionally published humorous treatments of topical issues dealing with the “sex wars,” it would be difficult to categorize it as a “literary” publication.

Recently, however, scholars have begun to explore the intimate relationship between the “feminist” and “literary” incarnations of the journal by pointing out the shared attitudes and strategies of the feminist and avant-garde cultures of modernity. Lucy Delap, for example, argues persuasively that “advanced” feminism was heavily influenced by a modernist Anglo-American avant-garde: “for a brief period amongst Edwardian women, roughly 1911 to 1915, what it was to be a ‘feminist’ was intimately connected with being ‘avant-garde’—and in a different way closely bound up with suffragism” (“Avant-garde Women” 234 ).12 Bruce Clarke sees Marsden as a “fugitive midwife” of modernism, and argues that The Freewoman “illuminates the conceptual interiors of early Anglo-American Modernism” (11). Mark Morrisson finds a shared optimism in feminist and avant-garde attitudes toward using commercial advertising techniques to transform the public sphere (91). In fact, The Freewoman brought together a wide range of issues that are linked to modernist culture: the avant-garde, the workings of “bohemian London,” sex radicals, and the theories underpinning the arguments of socialists, anarchists, syndicalists, and various anti-capitalist groups.13 If the broad scope of The Freewoman suggests how firmly modern literary culture was entwined with the various cultural shifts of the period, it also shows how crucial debates about gender, femininity, and women’s rights were to the making of modernity.

Another way we might draw feminist and literary cultures together in The Freewoman is to highlight the central role played by feminist criticism in creating the aesthetics of the journal. Here, one critic in particular commands our attention: a very young Rebecca West honed her talents as a book reviewer for The Freewoman, and in its pages she developed a powerful and witty brand of feminist literary criticism. Attending to West’s earliest writings is especially rewarding since she would play a shaping role in the publication’s more rigorous engagement with the literary after it was revived as The New Freewoman. Not only did West often engage in the sorting and categorizing of “high” and “low” that we’ve often associated with literary modernism; she also brought a feminist vocabulary to the workings of gender in the texts she reviewed. Though her early journalism has been available in Jane Marcus’s excellent edited collection The Young Rebecca, reading her reviews in the context of their original place of publication makes them fresh and new, revealing contextual nuances that would otherwise be hidden. For example, in her review of D. H. Lawrence’s The Trespasser (“Spinsters and Art”), West uses the figure of the spinster to express her sense of the divide between the literary and the merely popular: “This spinster conception of man has had its ill effect on literature. Consider how many books are written by spinsters, how many more for spinsters. In all these men are drawn as strong gods. Even in Charlotte Brontë this is apparent. Her men are marred by a perpetual dignity” (2.34: 148). Calling for a new fiction—“novels written by women about men”—West bemoaned the waste that is necessitated by a culture that deprives women, if unmarried, of sexual and intellectual experience: “To-day there are hundreds and thousands of spinsters all over the country, produced for the most part by educational systems. Hence you have a large population deprived of the possibility of wifehood and motherhood. The only people to whom such a deprivation could be of any value are artists. But, then, again, a spinster is usually a sentimentalist, and therefore incapable of art” (149). West’s focus on the Spinster as a modern type echoes an ongoing discussion in The Freewoman about women and sexual freedom that was launched in the first issue by the article “The Spinster” (written “by One”) and continued in the paper’s correspondence pages and features.

The last issues of The Freewoman present a history of the challenges to the paper, as well as a narrative regarding the paper’s unique relationship with its readers. When W. H. Smith and Sons dropped the paper from its stalls, Marsden appealed directly to her readers, asking them to subscribe from the publisher: “the existence of the paper is dependent upon the action of the readers, and prompt action at that” (2.42: 311). However, the paper succumbed to the Smith boycott when Marsden’s publisher, Stephen Swift and Co., refused to back the paper any longer. The last issue appeared on October 10, 1912, though Marsden presented it as a pause rather than a final act: “In view of the sudden cessation of the paper it may be believed that its prospects have grown more dim. This is not so: they have never been so bright. The appeal for subscribers has been responded to in a very encouraging way, and the response has as yet shown no sign of flagging” (2.47: 402). Marsden was correct to highlight the central role that the paper’s readership would play in its future. When the first issue of The New Freewoman was published eight months later, the journal’s revival hinged on the ingenuity and persistent interest of freewomen themselves.14

—Barbara Green, University of Notre Dame (2012)



  1. For more on the publication history of The Freewoman, see Garner’s A Brave and Beautiful Spirit. For the general history of The Freewoman, also see Clarke’s Dora Marsden and Delap’s The Feminist Avant-Garde.
  2. See The Feminist Avant-Garde. Also see Joannou for The Freewoman’s engagement with suffrage and the discourse on the New Woman.
  3. On the Discussion Circle, see Garner’s Brave (73-75); on the importance of collectivites like the Discussion Circle for fostering a feminist avant-garde in Britain and the U.S., see Delap’s Feminist Avant-Garde (52-54).
  4. On the WSPU and militant suffrage, see Tickner, Garner’s Stepping Stones, Purvis.
  5. For Gawthorpe, see Crawford, Holton, Liddington.
  6. See Delap, The Feminist Avant-Garde, on the use of the term “feminism” (5).
  7. For the first of these points, see Morrisson and Franklin. For the second, see Lyon.
  8. For more on the suffrage paper seller, see DiCenzo.
  9. Les Garner points out that one surviving subscription list holds over 300 names, but clearly the readership was larger than this (Stepping Stones 61).
  10. See Delap’s The Feminist Avant-Garde for a nuanced reading of how contemporary feminist theory views “individualism” (103).
  11. For more about Marsden’s interest in Stirner, see Scholes’s “General Introduction to the Marsden Magazines” and Solomon’s “Introduction to The New Freewoman and The Egoist on the MJP website.
  12. Also see Delap’s Feminist Avant-Garde.
  13. For more on these intersections, see Rabaté, Brooker, Cohler, and Morrisson.
  14. For more, see Solomon’s “Introduction to The New Freewoman and The Egoist.”

Works Cited

  • Billington-Greig, Teresa. The Militant Suffrage Movement: Emancipation in a Hurry. In The Non-Violent Militant: Selected Writings of Teresa Billington-Greig. Eds. Carol McPhee and Ann Fitzgerald. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987. 135-222.
  • Brooker, Peter. Bohemia in London: The Social Scene of Early Modernism. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • — and Andrew Thacker. “General Introduction.” In The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines. Volume I, Britain and Ireland, 1880-1955. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. 1-26.
  • Clarke, Bruce. Dora Marsden and Early Modernism: Gender, Individualism, Science. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1996.
  • Cohler, Deborah. Citizen, Invert, Queer: Lesbianism and War in Early Twentieth-Century Britain. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000.
  • Crawford, Elizabeth. The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866-1928. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.
  • Delap, Lucy. “Avant-garde Women and Women’s Suffrage.” In Suffrage Outside Suffragism: Women’s Vote in Britain, 1880-1914. Ed. Myriam Boussahba-Bravard. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 231-255.
  • —. The Feminist Avant-Garde: Transatlantic Encounters of the Early Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.
  • —. “Individualism and Introspection: The Framing of Feminism in the Freewoman.” In Feminist Media History: Suffrage, Periodicals and the Public Sphere. Ed. Maria DiCenzo with Lucy Delap and Leila Ryan. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 159-193.
  • DiCenzo, Mary. “Gutter Politics: Women Newsies and the Suffrage Press.”Women’s History Review 12.1 (2003): 15-34.
  • Franklin, Cary. “Marketing Edwardian Feminism: Dora Marsden, Votes for Women and The Freewoman.” Women’s History Review 11.4 (2002): 631-642.
  • Garner, Les. A Brave and Beautiful Spirit: Dora Marsden, 1882-1960. Aldershot: Avebury P, 1990.
  • —. Stepping Stones to Women’s Liberty: Feminist Ideas in the Women’s Suffrage Movement 1900-1918. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1984.
  • Gawthorpe, Mary. Up Hill to Holloway. Penobscot: Traversity P, 1962.
  • Holton, Sandra Stanley. Suffrage Days: Stories from the Women’s Suffrage Movement. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Joannou, Maroula. “The Angel of Freedom: Dora Marsden and the Transformation of The Freewoman into The Egoist.” Women’s History Review 11.4 (2002): 595-611.
  • Liddington, Jill. Rebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote. London: Virago Press/Time Warner, 2006.
  • Lyon, Janet. Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999.
  • McNeil, Helen. “Vortex Marsden: A Little Magazine and the Making of Modernity.” In Journalism, Literature and Modernity: From Hazlitt to Modernism. Ed. Kate Campbell. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2000.
  • Morrisson, Mark. The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception 1905-1920. Madison: U Wisconsin P, 2001.
  • Purvis, June and Sandra Stanley Holton. Votes for Women. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
  • Rabaté, Jean-Michel. 1913: The Cradle of Modernism. Malden, Mass. and Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
  • Tickner, Lisa. The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907-14. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
  • Tusan, Michelle. Women Making News: Gender and Journalism in Britain. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 2005.
  • West, Rebecca. “The Freewoman.” Time and Tide. 16 July 1926. Reprinted in Dale Spender, ed., Time and Tide Wait for No Man. London: Pandora P, 1984. 63-68.
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