“There is only one person concerned in the freeing of individuals: and that is the person who wears and feels and resents the shackles.” – Dora Marsden (1882-1960)
Individualist feminism, which gained special popularity in the new women’s movement that started in the West in the late 1960s, emphasizes individual human rights and personal autonomy. It advocates women’s rights on the basis of the human right to independence, dismissing the relevance of any “natural” differences between the sexes and culturally and socially constructed gender roles as insignificant for the matter of gender equality. For them equal women’s rights were simply a matter of equal human rights. Individual feminism was certainly the more radical form of feminism in its early stages as it downplayed typically “womanly” responsibilities in the home and the family. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, individual feminism was at best a fringe ideology. Early women’s organizations argued for women’s rights and suffrage on the basis of the the “natural differences between the sexes”, which in turn led for them to different social and cultural roles of men and women. They believed in special “womanly qualities,” characterized by “spiritual maternalism.” However, as society changed throughout the twentieth century, so did the prominence of individualist feminism.
Individual feminism is often discussed in opposition to relational feminism. Contrary to the individualist feminist thinking, which constructs women first and foremost as human beings, relational feminism argued for women’s rights on the basis of their womanliness in relation to men. Relational feminists believed that their femininity, motherhood, and domesticity represented their value in society and should therefore grant them certain social and political rights. While relational feminism dominated public discourse throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe, some women employed both ideologies. English writer and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), for example, spoke often about the inherent rationality of women as human beings, but also often emphasized the virtuous qualities associated with women.
Up until the latter half of the twentieth century, individual feminists were often seen as extreme radicals, because supposedly biologically based gender roles remained a widely accepted believe. One of these exceptions was the early twentieth century British suffragist Dora Marsden (1882-1962), editor of literary journals, and philosopher of language, who started as an activist of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded 1904, under the leadership Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928). 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. She started the journal The Freewoman in 1911 and later The Egoist in 1914. In her journals, she criticized the WSPU for being too focused on the middle-class. Instead, she advocated a more individualist approach, arguing that all women should be included in this suffrage movement as it was matter of human rights. Marsden, like many other individualist feminists during the period, was met with much criticism. Her ideas and those of other individualist feminist were often seen as too radical due to their rejection of differences based in biological sex.
Today, individual feminism is often what comes to mind for people when thinking of feminism. Precisely because it has become so mainstream, it is important to remember that for those like Dora Marsden in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and even the first half of the twentieth century, these ideas were radical. It is particularly relevant in today’s society to be aware of how much effort and time was put in to changing the ideas surrounding gender and women’s rights. If we are not conscious of what it took to get the rights we consider so basic today, we will be unprepared to fight to keep those rights that may easily be taken away.
Jessica Thompson, Chemistry, Class of 2020
Literature and Websites
- “Dora Marsden.” Wikipedia, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dora_Marsden (Accessed 20 April 2018).
- Offen, Karen. European Feminisms 1700-1950: A Political History, 1-26. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.