Report by Joshua Worden
The Freewoman wasn’t really a literary journal in the traditional sense. Indeed, its chief literary significance is as a footnote to the later Freewoman incarnation, The Egoist, which would go on to publish the likes of Pound, Joyce, and Eliot. Rather than a literary journal, The Freewoman was a sort of editorial newsletter of the feminist and British suffragist cause, which published essays, opinion columns, and many letters to the editors. It was among the first journals to frankly discuss all aspects of womanhood, including the unique benefits, and especially problems, faced by women in all walks of life. Because The Freewoman was written at a time when feminism was closely aligned with the avant-garde, the paper attracted all sorts of radical voices: anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, and many other fringe groups that were finding their footing near the turn of the twentieth century. Issues of sexuality and sexual ethics also had pride of place in The Freewoman. It was among the first periodicals to frankly discuss homosexuality, and essays addressing prostitution and free-love appear often in the few issues published in the journal’s 47-week run.
The journal was started in 1911 by Dora Marsden and Mary Gawthorpe, two civic organizers in the WSPU, the Women’s Social and Political Union. Gawthorpe was a leading suffragist, speaker, and chief organizer until 1910, when her poor health caused her to resign the position. Marsden, meanwhile, though also a WSPU organizer until 1910, became an outspoken critic of the group. Marsden was frustrated with the refusal of the WSPU leadership to allow her the freedom to operate as she wished. Marsden had become a popular and important organizer and the WPSU’s leadership were not keen to lose her to a jail sentence. In addition to her frustration with the organization’s leadership, Marsden felt that the WPSU failed to take criticism effectively, and had become “a happy meeting-ground of the sentimental and the unthinking.”
The Freewoman would become the opposite. Literary significance notwithstanding, perhaps the greatest impact of The Freewoman was as a public forum for the feminist/suffragist movement. In addition to public debates organized by the editors called “The Freewoman Discussion Circle,” open debate also took place in the letters to the editors found in the pages of each issue. Sometimes as much as half of the journal's length was dedicated to these letters. This focus on intense discussion and debate was even borne out in the nature of the relationships between its editors. Gawthorpe disapproved of Marsden’s stance against the WSPU, maintaining her ideological connections to the organization even after being forced to cease active engagement due to her worsening health. Gawthorpe was reticent to take on the editorship, and would resign it in 1912, roughly halfway through the journal’s life.
Given the diverse and radical ideas the paper courted, as well as its pugilistic focus on debate and disagreements internal to the suffragist and feminist movements, it is perhaps little wonder that The Freewoman only lasted eleven short months, though the weekly nature of the publication has blessed modern-day readers with 47 issues. Among the reasons for its closure were challenges in finding a reliable publisher. This problem was exacerbated by a boycott of the journal by then news-vendor W.H. Smith and Sons. Pressure applied from this company to The Freewoman’s publisher, Steven Swift and Co., eventually caused Swift to cease support for the journal, dooming the publication, at least for a while. However, less than a year later, The New Freewoman, later called The Egoist, would open its doors and its pages to a new host of readers and writers, as well as to new intersections between feminism and the literary arts.