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Dora Russell

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Dora Russell.

Dora Russell, Countess Russell (née Black; 3 April 1894 – 31 May 1986) was a British author, a feminist and socialist campaigner, and the second wife of the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Early life

Dora Black was born into an English upper-middle-class family, the second of four children. Her father, Sir Frederick Black, worked his way up in the Civil Service and laid great store by his children's education, regardless of their sex. She went to a private co-educational primary school near her parents' home, won a junior scholarship to Sutton High School. In 1911 she spent nearly a year at a private boarding school for girls in Germany, in preparation for the 'Little Go' at Cambridge. There she won a modern languages scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge. Soon she joined the Heretics Society, co-founded by C. K. Ogden in 1909. It questioned traditional authorities in general and religious dogma in particular. The society helped her to discard traditional values and develop her own feminist mode of thought. In June 1915 she received a First Class Honours degree in modern languages at Girton with a special distinction in Orals.

Relationship with Russell

By autumn of that year she had moved to London and begun postgraduate studies in eighteenth century French thought at University College London. She first met Bertrand Russell in 1916 when joining him on a weekend walking tour. However, the pair did not embark on a relationship before 1919, when Russell invited her to join him during his summer holidays. Before that, Black had supported Russell in his campaign against military conscription in World War I.

Black and Russell visited Soviet Russia in 1920, soon after the Bolshevik revolution. Russell was unimpressed by Vladimir Lenin, but Black, like many English socialists at the time, saw a vision of a future ideal civilisation. The couple also visited China.


On their return to England, Black and Russell married. Their son John was born in 1921 and daughter Kate in 1923.

She had at first rejected Russell's offer of marriage. In common with other radical women of her generation she had realised the extent to which the laws regulating marriage contributed to women's subjugation. In her view, only parents should be bound by a social contract, and only insofar as their co-operation was required for raising their children. Implicit was her conviction that both men and women were polygamous by nature and should therefore be free, whether married or not, to engage in sexual relationships that were based on mutual love. In this she was as much an early sexual pioneer as in her fight for women's right to information about, and free access to, birth control methods. She regarded these as essential for women to gain control over their own lives, and eventually become fully emancipated.

In 1924, Russell campaigned passionately for birth control, joining with H. G. Wells and John Maynard Keynes in founding the Workers' Birth Control Group. She also campaigned in the Labour Party for birth control clinics, with only limited success.

The couple founded a progressive school in 1927 called Beacon Hill School in which they tried to teach children to leave behind superstition and the irrational views of previous generations as they viewed them. Russell expressed her views on education in a book called In Defence of Children.

With the Australian-born birth control campaigner Norman Haire she organised the World League for Sexual Reform's highly successful 1929 Congress in London which was held for five days in the Wigmore Hall and was attended by leading intellectuals from many countries.

Later life

She became Countess Russell in 1931, when Bertrand Russell's elder brother Frank died and her husband became the 3rd Earl Russell. Bertrand Russell left her for their children's governess, Patricia Spence, after Dora had had two children with journalist Griffin Barry. She ran the school on her own until World War II.

After the war, Lady Russell became an advocate of the peace movement and was one of the founder members of the CND, in which she joined with other prominent leftists (Bertrand Russell, J. B. Priestley, Michael Foot, Victor Gollancz among others) in campaigning for worldwide nuclear disarmament.

It has taken us centuries of thought and mockery to shake the medieval system. – With this in view I have taken as impulses, instincts, or needs certain driving forces in the human species as we know it at present, and argued for such social and economic changes as will give them new, free, and varied expression. To take even this first step towards a happy society is a herculean task. After it has been accomplished, generations to come will see what the creature [us] will do next. We none of us know; and we should be thoroughly on our guard against all those who pretend that they do." --Dora Russell, Author's Preface, The Right to Be Happy, Harper & Brothers,(1927)

She was still speaking on peace issues on 2 April 1981, when she addressed a Merseyside Peace Week.

Her three-volume autobiography, The Tamarisk Tree, was published in 1977, 1981 and 1985. (Vol 1 – "My Quest for Liberty and Love", Vol 2 – "My School and the Years of War" and Vol 3 – "Challenge of the Cold War").