Agnes Johnston Dollan (nee Moir), born on 16 August 1887 at Springburn Road, Glasgow, was one of the eleven children of Henry Moir, a Blacksmith, and his wife, Annie Wilkinson.
She was educated at her local elementary school, but was forced by family poverty to leave at the age of eleven, working briefly in a factory before becoming a telephone operator. The discrimination suffered by her fellow employees inspired her to campaign for feminist and trade union rights. As a teenager she became involved with the Women's Labour League, which sought to improve female working conditions and wages, and she fought alongside Mary Reid Macarthur, a prominent trade unionist, to organize female post-office employees into a single trade union.
During the 1900s Agnes Moir's political and ideological commitments grew. She joined the Women's Social and Political Union, formed in 1903 to secure the vote for women over the age of twenty-one, and strongly favoured the Pankhursts' controversial militant campaigning tactics. Her work with the Glasgow Socialist Sunday School demonstrated both a belief in socialism and a rejection of her staunch protestant upbringing as exemplified in her father's membership of the Orange Lodge. Consequently she came into contact with members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which she joined about 1905.
On 20 September 1912 Agnes married Patrick Joseph Dollan, whom she had met a year earlier through meetings of the Clarion Scouts. Son of James Dollan, an Irish miner, Dollan was at that time working as a journalist and ILP propagandist on Tom Johnston's socialist weekly paper, Forward. Their relationship was to serve for years as a model partnership founded on a mutual commitment to socialism and to the Scottish labour movement. Their only child, James, born in 1913, was the first pupil in his school to be exempted from religious instruction and by the age of twelve regularly attended socialist Sunday school meetings. He was to become a successful journalist.
During the First World War the Dollans channelled their beliefs into intense, and confrontational, political activity. Strident pacifists, they formed part of a small group of anti-war protesters in Glasgow. Agnes Dollan campaigned in particular to galvanize women's natural hostility to a conflict in which, as she later put it, ‘their sons are consumed as common fodder’. With her suffragette friend, Helen Crawfurd, she organized anti-war demonstrations at Glasgow Green in 1914 and established a Glasgow branch of the Women's International League in 1915. Both women travelled widely throughout Scotland to disseminate the league's principles, capitalizing on their highly tuned oratory. In mid-1916 they helped to form the Women's Peace Crusade, which by the following year had grown into a national movement. Dollan also played a significant role in the Glasgow rent strikes during 1915. As treasurer of the Glasgow Women's Housing Association she headed the campaign, backed largely by housewives, against the council's rent increases; its stubborn resistance prompted the Government's intervention and the Rent Restriction Act in late 1915. Despite this Dollan continued to protest against high rents and was gaoled briefly in 1917, at the same time that her husband was ensconced in Wormwood Scrubs in London as a conscientious objector.