Dora Marsden and the Malthusian League

1845-1945, Dora Marsden, Freewoman, Historical Work, Journals, Trevor Blake / Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

The thought that one’s specific interests are only shared by those who share all of one’s interests leads without exception to disappointment. We find our friends where we find them, and sometimes we don’t get to decide who their friends are or would be. We know that Dora Marsden never had any children, but why she never had children will forever remain speculation. What Dora might have thought of the support of the Malthusian League is also speculation. We can only know that she had their support.

The Malthusian League existed from 1877 to 1927. They attributed poverty not to class conflict but to overpopulation, and therefore advocated not socialism but birth control. “Overpopulation is the most fruitful source of pauperism, ignorance, crime and disease … the full and open discussion of the population question in all its necessary aspects is a matter of vital moment in society.” They encouraged “the elimination of unfitness […] not by restriction of marriage, segregation, or by sterilisation (which should be resorted to only in the case of those obviously incapable of self-control, such as lunatics and criminals), but by the inculcation of the great responsibility of parenthood and of the effects of such hereditary transmission, combined with a general knowledge of the most hygenic means of limiting families.” The reader will have to make an individual choice as to this being “family planning” or “eugenics.” What subject would you see banned were you an ecclesiastical adviser?

The leader of The Malthusian League in 1912 was Dr. Alice Vickery. Dr. Vickery was an advocate of birth control at a time when even public discussion of birth control was illegal. She also advocated a reduction in the stigma associated with illegitimacy, and in that she shared a symbolic stage with Leighton Pagan, author of For Love and Money.

The following appeared in The Thirty-Fourth Annual Report of the Malthusian League (London: William Bell 1912).

– Trevor Blake

An event of considerable importance during the year has been the advent of the new feminist newspaper: The Freewoman, under the leadership of Miss Dora Marsden and Miss Mary Gawthorpe, ably seconded by Miss Grace Jardine. This paper made its first appearance on November 23rd, 1911, and it has throughout been characterized by the most remarkable openness of mind and expression, no subject whatever seeming to have been banned. A series of articles on the population question from the feminist and economic standpoints were contributed by Dr. Drysdale [Vol. 1, No. 2 November 30, 1911], and produced the most animated discussion, in which a fair measure of agreement was shown with neo-Malthusian doctrines. Among the opponents it was interesting to note that some granted the laws of Malthus but objected to preventive means, while others advocated prevention for individual reasons and strongly challenged the population doctrine. It is greatly to be regretted that many Socialists still seem determined to heap ridicule and abuse upon the Malthusian doctrine, and their controversial methods make it impossible for any self-respecting person to argue with them. It is their refusal to recognize this doctrine which has hampered their own efforts, and the new Syndicalist movement appears to show that State Socialism is breaking down just as it appeared to be winning.

Mr. Fliigel [?] contributed two interesting letters to the discussion, upholding the neo-Malthusian side; and an interesting feature was the declaration by Mr. Upton Sinclair [Vol. 1, No. 9 January 18. 1912], in the issue of January 18, in which he warmly advocated family limitation and said, inter alia: “This new discovery of science gives us the means of putting an end to the horrible social disease of prostitution. The meaning of it is that the man can marry young, the woman can remain self-supporting, and they can have their children later on in life when they are in a position to support them. This is the way, and the only way conceivable, where prostitution can be ended. And yet, to think that our ecclesiastical advisers have caused the passing of laws against the spread of information about it!”

It is to be hoped that The Freewoman will long continue to do its remarkable work in introducing people, and especially women, to express themselves openly on vital questions.

As a result of the above discussion, several new members that join the league, and many inquiries for advice have been received.

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