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May 8, 2015

Dora Marsden, Free Woman

A radical individualist, Dora Marsden edited the political journals The Freewoman, The New Freewoman, and The Egoist.

The quintessential iconoclast, Dora Marsden spent a lifetime committed to attacking accepted ways of thinking, repelled by every dogma and fixed set of beliefs. Marsden’s life of activism and intellectual rebellion began in 1882, in the village of Marsden, England, a mill town where her father dealt in waste wool. When Marsden was still a child, her family fell on hard times, her father abandoning the family for the United States in 1890 and leaving the family to fend for itself. At just thirteen years old, Dora Marsden went to work as a probationer and a pupil-teacher, experiences that helped her earn a Queen’s Scholarship to Victoria University of Manchester (then Owens College). In fulfillment of the conditions of her scholarship, Marsden taught for a full five years after earning her baccalaureate, subsequently returning to Manchester where she became politically active for the first time. Following her mettlesome formative years in the world of militant activism, she would go on to edit and publish the radical journals The Freewoman, The New Freewoman, and The Egoist. As the Modernist Journals Project notes, “it is not easy to sort out the relationships among these three journals.” What is rather clearer is Marsden’s philosophical transformation during the period in which she edited them. She begins as a confrontational feminist agitator for women’s suffrage, proceeds on to embrace a form of individualist anarchism, and ultimately renounces all ideological programs in favor of egoism.

In her first effort, the fleeting run that was The Freewoman, Marsden’s intellectual efforts are distinctly oriented to feminism and associated ideas, from free love and sex radicalism to prostitution and birth control. The appearance of The Freewoman, its publishers wrote, “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.” Prior to undertaking to publish The Freewoman, Marsden had been a vital force in the Women’s Social and Political Union, the most radical organization in the women’s suffrage movement of its time. Arrested on several occasions during the handful of years she spent with the WSPU, Marsden proved too militant even for this most militant of feminist groups, resigning in early 1911, the year she would start her first periodical. During The Freewoman’s short life, Marsden’s inimitable feminist prose featured recognizably libertarian arguments. She frequently distinguished “Freewomen” from “Bondwomen,” whom she described as “women who are not separate spiritual entities,” mere compliments to another individual. Marsden confidently looked forward to a time when all women would be “Freewomen.” Perhaps ironically, given her later anti-ideological stance, Marsden was concerned at this early juncture in her publishing career with developing a comprehensive theory of feminism, upon which all activism ought to be based.1 Anchored in a philosophy of unqualified individuality and a vision of libertarian social institutions, Marsden’s theory of feminism hoped to avoid what she saw as the aimless and “idealess” practice of the WSPU.

Even shorter-lived was Marsden’s next effort, The New Freewoman, which emerged after The Freewoman lost the assistance of an important benefactor. Decidedly more anarchistic and more literary in tone and substance, The New Freewoman saw a host of new contributors that included the iconic American publisher of Liberty, Benjamin Tucker. By the time of The New Freewoman’s first issue in the summer of 1913, Tucker had already concluded his almost three decade project of Liberty and repaired to France in semi-retirement. Tucker had earlier called Marsden’s periodical “the most important publication in existence” and gladly lent his pen to the first number. Tucker would contribute to several issues of The New Freewoman in the years of 1913 and 1914 before his debates with Marsden on the political meaning of their shared egoist philosophy motivated him to withdraw from the collaboration. As it developed in her mind, Marsden’s explicit egoism would feature increasingly prominently in her work during The Freewoman and The Egoist years.2 Marsden’s career in publishing exposed her readers to the radical egoist philosophy of Max Stirner, laid out in his seminal work The Ego and His Own. Marsden was, by all accounts, completely transfixed and transformed by the book, much as Tucker had been in Liberty’s early years. Stirner’s underappreciated masterwork, first published in 1844, celebrated the individual not as a philosophical abstraction, propelled through life by high religious ideals and ghostly ideological systems, but as a complicated being of flesh and blood, often self-contradictory and fundamentally inscrutable. Stirner’s philosophy consciously refrains from attempts to get behind observable reality in order to access higher truths. For Stirner, such attempts diminish the importance of the individual, her feelings and experiences, rendered her subordinate to mere projections, creations of the mind held up as totems.

Marsden followed Stirner in this wholesale rejection of complex philosophical systems; she wanted to be free at all times to think, speak, and react freely, unrestrained by prior limitations staked out by religion, philosophy, or any other assemblage of “spooks.” In her work, Marsden saw the “necessity of cleansing current language of padding as a preliminary of egoistic investigation.” As an example of such “padding,” Marsden pointed to the prose of the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whom she saw as evangelizing for a rigid and particular system of reform. Because they developed their anarchism from philosophical absolutes, Marsden condemned anarchists such as Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, and William Godwin, deriding their ideas as “clerico-libertarian.”3 For example, in taking on Proudhon’s notion of the social contract, Marsden argued that it requires a complete refashioning of human nature itself, that its implementation demands pure and noble people of a kind that has “never walked on earth.” In contrast, further provoking her anarchist sparring partner Tucker, Marsden willingly accepted the “Archist” label that he applied to her political philosophy. She added that “the sooner the poor become ‘Archists,’ … the better.” Like Stirner, she did not believe that the oppressed should resign themselves to victimhood, to meekly respecting the political and economic systems established by ruling classes. Rather she advocated for insurrection, not as a political ideal or as a step in the direction of a broader revolution, but as an expression of unconstrained individuality. Endorsing Marsden’s anti-ideological critique of Tucker’s anarchism, the egoist writer Sidney E. Parker agrees that anarchism is fundamentally a secularization of the idea of human redemption and perfection, an Arcadian condition to arise when “all archistic acts are forbidden.”4 For the egoist, in contrast, nothing is forbidden. Unbounded freedom, freedom without any moral, political, or philosophical character, is implied in Stirner’s egoism. It is not, however, endorsed or exalted as a goal in itself. Egoism does not offer public policy recommendations or prognosticate utopias to be erected on the foundation of inflexible fundamental principles. Marsden saw such ideological substructures themselves as the great enemy of the development of the whole individual. An arch-individualist, Marsden’s political ideas were inseparable from her general refusal to defer to any authority that threatened to limit the sphere of her independent thought or action. “An Archist,” she wrote, “is one who seeks to establish, maintain, and protect by the strongest weapons at his disposal, the law of his own interests.”

Still, notwithstanding her mordant challenges to all political doctrines and static ideas — including libertarianism — Dora Marsden’s work offers important libertarian insights, and she should be considered a libertarian in a general sense if not a specific one. Marsden’s individualism is ultimately a heartfelt struggle for personal liberty in an era of industrial powerhouses and increasingly centralized and bureaucratic government. She saw creeping control and false consciousness all around her and wanted to transcend the abstract language and concocted categories that held people captive. This project, with its fight against eighteenth and nineteenth century libertarian conceptions of individual rights, liberty, and justice, closely tracks the more general modernist rejection of incumbent cultural mores and ideas on literature and art. Marsden thought that reality was essentially and specifically individual and therefore contingent; she wanted to explore the inherent mental tension between an individual’s firsthand experience of what is true and “the generalizing nature of a common language.”5 Despite the apparent antagonism between Marsden’s ideas and what we might think of as conventional libertarianism, her uncompromising egoism is a forceful apology for the individual against the collective. One may be reminded of Ayn Rand, another controversial egoist of a very different kind, who also claimed to despise libertarianism, yet became one of the most important intellectual inspirations of the modern libertarian movement. We should take care to give more weight to the substance of ideas than to their sources’ statements as to which movements they fit into (or don’t fit into, as the case may be).

During Marsden’s tenure as editor, The Egoist became one of the leading organs of what we now consider modernism, acting as a forum for some of the most radical ideas of its time and publishing great works of literature such as James Joyce’s groundbreaking first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Indeed, no less a literary giant than T.S. Eliot appeared on the masthead of the journal as an editor, and his work often graced its pages. In all their many incarnations, Marsden’s ideas were groundbreaking and deeply libertarian, interested always in freeing the individual from the repressive authority of politics and intolerant social customs. Marsden believed that “‘freeing’ is the individual’s affair and must be done first-hand.” For that reason, she saw the potential rebirth of authoritarianism in every political movement or creed, and, instead of joining, set about opening the way to critical thinking and questioning. She wanted to narrow the space for abstract systems of thought — whatever their sources — and expand the space for the individual’s mind. Even where their ideas are challenged, today’s libertarians should find much to appreciate in The Freewoman, The New Freewoman, and The Egoist.


  1. Barbara Green, “Introduction to The Freewoman.” The Modernist Journals Project (Brown University and the University of Tulsa 2012). http://www.modjourn.org/render.php?id=mjp.2005.00.116&view=mjp_object.
  2. Comparative literature expert Susan Solomon argues that we ought to regard these two journals “as a single entity with two names,” given their literary qualities and general tenor.
  3. John F. Welsh, Max Stirner’s Dialectical Egoism: A New Interpretation (Lexington Books 2010), p. 212.
  4. Sidney E. Parker. “Archists, Anarchist and Egoists” in Enemies of Society: An Anthology of Individualist & Egoist Thought (Ardent Press 2011).
  5. A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet, A Portrait of the Man & His Work (Oxford University Press 2007), p. 220.