Dora Marsden : Radical English Suffragette, Editor, and Philosopher

March 5, 1882 — December 13, 1960

Entry 12566


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About Dora Marsden

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


Dora Marsden, the daughter of a woolen 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 Center on a salary of £130 per year. Les Garner, the author of A Brave and Beautiful Spirit (1990) has pointed out: "The Pupil-Teacher Center 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 humor made her irresistible to the crowd." By 1908 she was organizing 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 marvelous 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."


Born in Marsden in 1882. In 1900 began teaching at Owens College, where she met Christabel Pankhurst and other suffragists. Dora joined and became a leader in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU) by 1908. The following year she resigned as a teacher and became a full time agitator for the WSPU, graduating from suffragist to suffragette. She was sentenced to two months in prison for vandalism in 1909: she refused to wear prison clothes and served her time in the nude, even wriggling out of a straitjacket that had been forced on her. After a hunger strike she was released and continued to agitate. She disrupted political meetings (including a speech by a young Winston Churchill). The WSPU ‘promoted’ her to a clerical position to temper her agitation. Dora, meanwhile, had grown tired of the ‘skirt movement’ and sought a liberty beyond feminism.

In 1911, Dora founded The Freewoman (1911 – 1912), a periodical described by one forgotten nobody as “a disgusting publication… indecent, immoral and filthy.” Financial troubles led to a re-launch as The New Freewoman (1914). And an ever more keen search for liberty led to a re-launch as The Egoist (1914 – 1919).

In the 1920s – 1930s Dora wrote three books: The Definition of the Godhead (1928), The Mysteries of Christianity (1930) and The Philosophy of Time (published only in 1955). During the writing of these books she went from a self-imposed isolation to confinement in a mental hospital, where she spent the remainder of her life.


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March 5, 1882
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December 13, 1960
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