'A Feminist Disciple of Nietzsche': The Case of Dora Marsden's Unstable Anarchism.

Author:Miething, Dominique


In late 1911, the radicalism of a new journal called The Freewoman caused a stir inside the feminist movement. Its editor was the young activist Dora Marsden (1882-1960). Disappointed by what she perceived as the limitations of the British suffragists' campaign for the vote, Marsden set out to infuse her journal with an emancipatory identity by choosing a title with implicitly Nietzschean qualities. Thus, in January 1913, an anonymous author aptly labelled Marsden 'A Feminist Disciple of Nietzsche'. (1) Furthering this characterisation, I will argue that The Freewoman's mindset drew on the idea of master morality, enabling anyone interested in emancipation to reach a definition of the self without relying on a binary logic; the idea of who women are, or who they may become, should not depend on the existence of a predefined model created by men. In other words, striving for the vote simply because men have it merely oriented women's emancipation towards male standards.

Rather, Marsden equipped the 'Freewoman' figure with the rare heroic qualities of the genius, urging her to renounce social asceticism in favour of a free unfolding of individual desires. Finding inspiration in Nietzsche's critique of language, the Freewoman also refused to base her identity on the essentialist notion of 'Woman as such'. (2) Marsden's careless immersion in popular Nietzschean themes came at a price, however. The German philosopher not only provided the conceptual tools for the construction of the Freewoman figure but the imitation of his anti-egalitarian posture destabilised Marsden's anarchism.

This paper primarily aims to analyse the Nietzschean influence on Marsden. It thus provides an account of her ideological development prior to her endorsement of the Young Hegelian Max Stirner (1806-1856) and his radical individualism from August 1912 onward. A secondary aim is to gain a better understanding of why she turned away from anarchism altogether. Her move has usually been attributed either to Stirnerism alone or, if Nietzsche's influence is mentioned, only by casually crediting him with 'opening the egoist pathway' (3) to Stirner after 1890. Indeed, the ideas of Stirner, whose Egoism Marsden explicitly praises, and those of Nietzsche, whose philosophical motifs she had drawn upon before--albeit silently--merge to such an extent that it seems as if she moved from anarcha-feminism straight to extreme individualism by reading Stirner alone.

Proposing a more gradual process, I will argue that her tacit use of Nietzschean elitism eventually allowed for an authoritarian reading of Stirner's ideas to emerge in her thinking. To make Marsden's political trajectory comprehensible, the first part of the paper outlines her suffragist activism and her early anarchist sympathies, the latter of which served as a corrective to the deficiencies she deplored in bourgeois feminism. The second part then situates Marsden within the early Nietzschean cicles in the anarchist movement. Finally, the third and main part fleshes out the theoretical elements and feminist opportunities of her unacknowledged discipleship to the German philosopher in detail, including the related collapse of her anarchist affiliations.


In 1903, Marsden left Manchester University with a degree in philosophy. She had committed herself to the advocacy for women's rights in previous years and had established contacts with some protagonists of the movement, among them Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958), Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), and Teresa Billington-Greig (1877-1964). In 1908, Marsden joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). When the WSPU offered her a paid position a year later, she quit her teaching job to devote her energy to her political work. Around 1909, after experiencing state repression first hand through censorship, arrest and internment--for a while even in a straightjacket--she began sympathising with anti-authoritarian ideas.

Most noticeably between 1909 and the end of 1912, Marsden's feminism became more radical, temporarily permeated by anarchism. From the start of her political journey as an activist to its end as a lonesome editor, the prime force driving her political work was the freedom of the individual. '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'. (4) Serving as a remedy to her dissatisfaction with mainstream suffragism, she exhibited her sympathies for some core tenets of this ideology: the practice of direct action, a distrust in hierarchical governance and in the state, and an anti-capitalist interest in syndicalism.

Marsden did not restrict herself to the classic modes of political participation --not in the least because one of the most important avenues in a representative democracy, voting, was not open to her as a woman. She confronted the bastion of male politics by drawing on the direct action repertoire of the anarchists. To arouse attention for women's enfranchisement, Marsden once hurled a ball through the front window of a political meeting venue; the inscription on the ball read 'bomb'. She was incarcerated several times for her protest against the structurally unjust treatment of women. On another occasion, the police had to carry her down from the rooftop of the Empire Hall in Southport after she vociferously interrupted Winston Churchill's speech while dangling from a vent hole in the ceiling. (5)

Such direct actions played an integral part of Marsden's activism, which she tried to substantiate theoretically. For instance, she characterised the hunger strike as an effective method for defending the voluntaristic individual. 'It is the intensive force of the will of the individual pitted against the extensive force of the will of the community [...] It is a final retort of a minority to the majority that would govern it without its consent', (6) she wrote.

The WSPU leadership finally grew tired of Marsden's unauthorised actions. After numerous disputes in 1910, she resigned from the organisation and left her job in January 1911. (7) Despite that the WSPU itself belonged to the militant wing of the women's movement, the leadership's continuous row with Marsden and others over strategic questions and their hierarchical mode of organising made clear that the frontiers of feminist discourse were still under exploration. 'We say that feminism is the whole issue, political enfranchisement a branch issue, and that methods, militant or otherwise, are merely accidentals', (8) Marsden explicated in the first issue of her journal. Her understanding of feminism as an intermediary for the eventual dissolution of patriarchy into a humanist gender equilibrium became the starting point of her radical identity politics. (9) Although Marsden stayed true to the main goals of the women's movement--gender equality and the vote--she also moved further into the intellectual avant-garde as the editor of three successive journals, The Freewoman (1911-12), The New Freewoman (1912-14) and The Egoist (1914-15). (10)

Thinking about how to deal with the state, Marsden adopted a contradictory position. While she came to consider the attainment of the vote as futile for women's emancipation and wanted to see all Freewomen work for the 'destruction' (11) of government itself, she did not shy away from accepting limited state intervention. As Lucy Delap has shown, Marsden cultivated the idea that the state should retain a military apparatus, yet should abstain from interfering with its internal structure. Similarly, she advocated the nationalisation of the educational system, as well as placing mail delivery and public transportation under state control. Marsden even went so far as equipping the state with the power to administer the distribution of land and to punish those who barred access to it. (12) She stood equidistant between the socialist credo of abolishing private property and wage slavery after seizing control of the state, and the Liberal defence of private property. (13)

In terms of economics, Marsden advocated a notion of property that conforms with a highly individualistic outlook. She was convinced that the appropriation and possession of property directly depends upon the individual's intellectual and physical strength. Regarding economic hierarchies in society, women should escape their dependency from men: 'To this end she must open up resources of wealth for herself. She must work, earn money. She must seize upon the incentives which have spurred on men to strenuous effort--wealth, power, titles, and public honour'. (14) Such an affirmative stance towards capitalist wage labour seems to have been an expression of her desire to offer women an immediate way out of their precarious situation.

That Marsden gave priority to economic power over political participation also reflects her moderate interest in syndicalist uprisings. She particularly valued the 'insurrectionary part' (15) of this direct-democratic union model, encouraging women to found their own syndicalist chapters. (16) Despite these occasional displays of sympathy for workers' strikes, nothing connected her to the socialist strand of anarchism; she valued workplace struggles only insofar as they were a mild form of will power--Nietzsche's voluntarism already looming in the background--and not primarily as a means in the conflict between labour and capital. (17) Ultimately, Marsden's ignorance of a clear sociological understanding of economic exploitation paved the way for a vulgar anticapitalism. Both factors help explain why she also succumbed to the antisemitic delusion of a Jewish world conspiracy. (18)

This account of Marsden's anarchism comes in broad strokes. Still, it should suffice to make clear the shaky foundations of her thought, which were composed of an...

To continue reading