#100PENMembers No.1: Catharine Amy Dawson Scott, Founder of PEN

Catharine Amy Dawson Scott, 1865-1934

Poet Catharine Amy Dawson Scott set up the PEN Club in London 5thOctober, 1921. She recruited a number of feminist and women founding members, including Rebecca West, May Sinclair, Radclyffe Hall, Vera Brittain, and Violet Hunt, but also John Galsworthy, who agreed to become President, and Bertrand Russell, W. B. Yeats, Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells. It saw itself as unique because it was a London centre where well-known writers of ‘both sexes’ could meet – no such centre existed at the time.[1]

From the start, Dawson Scott wanted the PEN club to be an international organisation in which writers from around the world could meet and discuss, and she encouraged the creation of PEN Centres. By 1923, PEN centres had been established in most Western and Eastern European capitals, as well as New York and Mexico City. By 1925, there were centres in Santiago, Milan and Toronto. By 1934 there were centres in Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Beijing, Baghdad, Bombay and Cairo. 

Dawson Scott always defended women’s centrality to the PEN organisation. At the 1928 Oslo PEN Congress, she spoke out strongly to protest that some PEN centres were refusing to admit women. She ‘emphasized the importance of women in the international work for development and peace’ work that meant that in a ‘league of nations like the PEN’, as she put it, ‘the participation of women ought to be assured. She presented a motion, under the title ‘Women in PEN’: 

It had come to her notice that one of the PEN centres did not admit women to membership. As this was contrary to the spirit – and indeed to the rules – of the PEN she wished the principle to be expressed at this congress that membership was open to writers of standing, irrespective of her sex.’ She thereby moved, ‘that women shall be considered eligible for membership of the PEN, if writers’. It was carried unanimously.’ 

Dawson Scott also continued to argue for the internationalism of PEN. On the Tenth Anniversary of PEN’s founding, she delivered a speech where she spoke of ‘scattering’ seeds of friendliness. She said there was more to do. ‘We must have PEN’s’, she declared, from Palestine East to Nagasaki; from Peru and Ecuador to New York; in Australasia from Perth Even to Napier’ [PEN News, November 1931, p. 3] 

When she died in 1934, her expansionist ambitions had born fruit. Tokyo PEN was created 2 years later, and there were centres in many areas of the world, with clusters of activity in Europe, Northern America, the middle East, South America, South East Asia and Australasia.

[1]‘P.E.N. Club’, Vertical Files, Box 628. 

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