Russell, Dora (1894–1986)

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Russell, Dora (1894–1986)

English feminist, educator, writer and peace activist whose accomplishments have often overshadowed by the fact of her marriage to Bertrand Russell. Name variations: Dora Black; Countess Russell; Mrs. Bertrand Russell. Born Dora Winifred Black in London, England, on April 3, 1894; died in Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, on May 31, 1986; daughter of Frederick William Black (later Sir Frederick Black, a civil servant) and Sarah Isabella Davisson; won a graduate fellowship from Girton College, Cambridge, 1918; studied French Enlightenment in London and Paris; married Bertrand Arthur William Russell, later 3rd earl Russell, on September 27, 1921 (divorced 1935); married Patrick Grace, in 1940 (died 1948); children: (first marriage) John (b. 1921) and Kate (b. 1923); (with Griffin Barry) Harriet (b. 1930) and Roderick (1932–1983).

Won a scholarship to Cambridge University (1912); traveled with father to U.S. (1917) and was awarded the MBE for her contribution to the war effort; traveled alone to Russia at height of the post-revolutionary civil war and accompanied Bertrand Russell to China (1920); published three important books, Hypatia, The Right to be Happy and In Defense of Children (1925–32); founded and ran a primary school based on advanced educational concepts (1927–43); worked for women's rights, nuclear disarmament and international understanding as an active member of the Six Points Group, the Married Women's Association, the Women's International Democratic Federation and other groups; organized andled the Women's Caravan of Peace (1958); published The Religion of the Machine Age, a summation of her views on industrialization, first drafted in the 1920s (1983); completed the third volume of her autobiography, The Tamarisk Tree, at age 91 (1985).

Selected writings:

Hypatia or Woman and Knowledge (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1925); The Tamarisk Tree: My Quest For Liberty and Love (London: Virago, 1977); The Tamarisk Tree 2: My School and the Years of the War (London: Virago, 1980); The Dora Russell Reader: 57 Years of Writing and Journalism, 1925–1982 (foreword by Dale Spender, London: Pandora Press, 1983); The Tamarisk Tree 3: Challenge to the Cold War (London: Virago, 1985).

Dora Black Russell, the former Countess Russell, was 64 when she loaded ten like-minded souls into her weathered, old bus on May 26, 1958, and set out from London on the three-month odyssey which she had named the Women's Caravan of Peace. With tents, cooking facilities, food and little money, Russell's fiery zeal and her unquenchable spirit of adventure propelled the group through Western and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, spreading the message of international peace and disarmament. During the entire journey, she later wrote in her autobiography, "there had not been one day when we were not speaking, meeting people or travelling; we were never more than three nights in one place, at times driving all night to keep appointments."

Dora Black was born into a middle-class English family in 1894 and grew up during a turbulent period which saw "women's emancipation, changing sex relations, the expansion of industrialism, revolution and the rising of the working class." In all these developments, Russell later recorded, "my personal life and thought were involved." One of four children, she had a happy childhood, and she describes her parents as devoted and faithful, although she remembers her mother's embarrassment when she felt she might have been overspending her housekeeping budget and had to account to her father. In that unequal power relationship were, perhaps, the roots of Dora's later espousal of feminism. Fortunately, Frederick Black believed that his daughters should be as well educated as his son.

By age 16, Dora had passed most of the examinations necessary for admission to university. Hoping to obtain a scholarship in modern languages at Girton College, Cambridge, she was sent to Germany for a year to study the language intensively. Russell was clearly an able student; she recalled that after her time away, "I could speak German well enough to be taken for a native, and I spoke English for a time with a German accent." Upon her return, Dora's father tutored her in Latin and Greek, essential for university admission at that time, and she found herself inspired by the Greek tale of Medea, the woman driven mad enough to kill her own children by the contempt and ingratitude of her lover. This drama about an ancient "sex war" was to provide inspiration for Russell's first book, Hypatia, written some 13 years later. It was also to lure her towards the theater; she was sure that she wanted to write for the stage and longed to become an actress.

Russell won her scholarship easily and in 1912 began her studies in modern history and literature as well as languages at Cambridge. One of the first university colleges for women, Girton College was "like a large girls' boarding school." Separation of the sexes was enforced with almost military rigor; chaperons had to accompany the young ladies whenever they met with young men. "Looking back," Russell wrote in her autobiography, "I have wondered how women ever managed to free themselves from their corsets, frills and furbelows and the iron straightjacket imposed on them by religion, morality and social sanctions."

The first volume of Russell's three-volume autobiography, collectively titled The Tamarisk Tree, is subtitled "My Quest for Liberty and Love." That quest was to begin with two discoveries she made at Cambridge: the Heretics Society and Bertrand Russell. While some of the young women at Girton became extremely religious and spent their free time on retreats and in the chapel, Dora and a few other independent-minded women obtained permission to leave the college and went off to the Heretics, a society which called upon its members "to reject authority in matters of religion and belief, and to accept only conviction by reasonable argument." The chief organizer of the society was C.K. Ogden, a multitalented and mercurial eccentric who was to become a close friend and to have a significant influence in Dora's life.

Bertrand Russell, one of the greatest intellects of the 20th century, was in his mid-40s and already a well-known philosopher and mathematician in 1916 when Dora was invited to join her friend, mathematician Dorothy Wrinch , on a walking tour with Bertrand and another mathematician. Now 22, Dora had obtained a first-class degree and was studying French literature in London while pondering her future. She admired Bertrand's outspoken condemnation of the

war and was appalled to find that the group was not allowed to walk near the coast since the authorities feared that he might signal to the enemy.

In 1917, Dora accompanied her father on a voyage to the United States. Frederick Black had been instructed by the Admiralty to obtain American oil for the British war effort, and, given the danger of submarine attack, he could not ask his regular staff to assist him. For her contribution to the war effort, Dora was subsequently awarded the MBE. On her return to London, she was among the spectators who attended the court session at which Bertrand was sentenced to six months' imprisonment for his antiwar writings. Dora also learned that Girton had awarded her a three-year research fellowship. The fellowship came with a room at the college and an income of £3 per week, enough to establish her long-sought financial independence. To augment her cherished "sense of liberty," she also purchased a season train ticket to London, so that she could travel there to continue her research and visit her friends whenever she wished.

On her return to Cambridge, Russell wrote for Ogden's Cambridge Magazine, became secretary of the Heretics Society, and delivered her own paper on 18th-century Christianity to the group. Looking back in old age, she marveled at her "scholarship of those days." She delighted in the intellectual atmosphere and seemed to have found her life's vocation as a university teacher, although still not without casting longing glances towards the world of the theater. But Russell's plans for her future were soon to be completely transformed.

Knowing that she traveled frequently between Cambridge and London, in June 1919 Wrinch asked Dora to bring a small folding table from the university which Bertrand needed for his London flat. To thank her, he invited her to tea, and, in what was probably her first conversation alone with him, she expressed her strong disapproval of conventional marriage, her belief in free love, and her conviction that children were entirely the concern of their mother. "Well, whoever I have children with it won't be you," remarked Bertrand. "I felt tempted to answer, 'Nobody asked you, Sir,'" said Dora, "but refrained." Bertrand was still married to his first wife, Alys Smith Russell , although the two had been separated for some years.

After this inauspicious beginning, Dora was somewhat surprised to receive Bertrand's invitation to join him and a group of friends on a reading holiday the following month. Making it clear that he had more than a holiday in mind, Bertrand asked if she would marry him if he obtained a divorce. Dora assured him that she had no wish to marry him or anyone else; indeed, she had convinced Girton College that some time in France was essential for the furtherance of her research, and she was planning to leave England at the end of the summer.

The idyllic holiday convinced Dora that her approach to life and her values were in tune with those of Bertrand and also made it evident "that he did not know how to look after himself and … needed some woman sturdy enough to take care of him." Bertrand's reassurance that he would not expect her, as his wife, to "grace the head of his table" was her first inkling that he might, one day, succeed his childless brother Frank to an earldom. But while titles meant nothing to Dora, she was, despite herself, falling in love and, in an era where most women still had to make the painful choice between marriage and a career, her vision of independence was fading. In her autobiography, Russell graphically described her dilemma:

I doubt if he ever realized just what he was asking of the person I then was. He was twenty years ahead of me in age and achievement…. I was a young woman of deeply-cherished modern views, just arrived at independence and now desirous of spreading her wings; afraid of the entanglements, suspicious of the wiles of men who were forever scheming to drag women back into the legal, domestic and sexual bondage from which feminist pioneers were attempting to escape and deliver their sisters.

She knew that Bertrand had only just ended one affair and there were rumors that he had had another but "knowing what I might be capable of feeling for him, I could never love lightly. Thus I might become absorbed, swallowed up entirely in his life and never able to become what I aspired to in my own person." She left for Paris in October 1919, but her letters to Ogden, the only person in whom she confided, clearly indicate that the struggle with herself was far from over: "I AM young, and the kind of slavery he wants me to accept is what he, at my age, would have emphatically denounced…. I do want to try and do what is best for his work and him without destroying myself."

Bertrand joined Dora in Paris in the spring of 1920, and the two traveled together to Spain for a holiday. Knowing that he wanted a child, she made no attempt to prevent conception, yet she was still unwilling to relinquish either her university fellowship or her dreams of an acting career. In a letter to Ogden, she confessed: "I am afraid of the consequences if I cut myself free of him, both to him and to me, and yet he won't take less than everything from me." Independent woman that she was, and fervently wished to continue to be, Russell loved children and felt that, if she had a child, she could "bear country life and a domestic tyrant."

However, it was not tranquil country life which lay in Dora's immediate future; Bertrand invited her to accompany him to Russia. The Russian Revolution had broken out in 1917, and the country was still in turmoil, with the White and Red armies engaged in a bitter Civil War. At the last moment Bertrand was offered a place with a visiting delegation of Labour politicians; Dora, sympathetic to the Bolsheviks and now eager to see the revolution for herself, decided to go alone. She undertook a difficult and tortuous journey to get into the country. Living conditions, even for foreigners, were harsh, and she was frequently in some danger during her visit, but she relished the experience. Her time in Russia culminated in hearing Lenin speak at the Third International Congress in Moscow on the day before her departure; she left reluctantly and only because of Bertrand's urgent summons. Returning to England on August 4, 1920, she learned that Bertrand had been invited to China, was leaving almost immediately, and wanted her to go with him.

Russia had made a deep and lasting impact upon Dora: "I had had the good fortune to be one person, uncommitted, not bound to any political allegiance, who had been able to get into Russia at this moment in history." She had seen "a vision of the making of a future civilization" and she saw herself, "with my unpolitical fresh eyes and the background of my studies," as "the only person in England who could interpret the true essence of what was happening in the Soviet Union." She therefore saw it as her mission to "contribute something to the making of peace between East and West."

Dora's main contribution to spreading the word about Russia emerged as a chapter in Bertrand's own book, written while they were in Paris that August, on the way to China. The two were treated as celebrities by the Chinese; Bertrand had been invited to teach, but Dora was also given the opportunity to speak to large, appreciative audiences and to write. She wrote to Ogden that they lived in "disgraceful luxury"; the ready availability of servants made it possible for the couple to work and to explore one another's personalities. Looking back, Dora described the time in China as "the happiest months of my whole life."

In March 1921, while they were still in China, Bertrand became seriously ill with pneumonia, and Dora nursed him back from the brink of death. By then, she was fully aware of the depth of her affection: "I loved Bertie with adoration and almost worship. He was lover, father-figure, teacher, a companion never at a loss for a witty rejoinder." She also became aware, once the crisis was over, that she was pregnant. As Bertie was still weak, they decided to return to England, where the news that Bertrand's divorce was now final reached them. He pressed Dora to marry him. She insisted that she would live with him and have his children without the despised legal sanction, but was finally persuaded that she could be denying her unborn child the possibility of an earldom if she resisted. The marriage took place that summer, and John, their first child, was born on November 16, 1921.

The family spent the next six years in London, a time "packed so full of social and political life that I now wonder how we had time and energy for it all," she said. Bertrand had decided to support his family by writing, and Dora started work on a book to be called The Religion of the Machine Age. She was bitterly disappointed to find that neither her husband nor Ogden, now an influential book editor, understood its basic thesis on the evils of mechanization in modern society. Daunted, she put the book aside, and it was not to be published for more than 60 years. In 1922, the pair were back at Cambridge, reading papers for the Heretics Society; the following year, Dora worked with Bertrand on their shared book, The Prospects of Industrial Civilization. By this time, she had become deeply involved in the fight to give women access to reliable birth control.

Though at no time a professional politician, I have never been able to escape its clutches…. Many times I have tried to get myself free … to pursue other less demanding and harrowing occupations, but there was always some human problem, need, injustice, from which in conscience, one could not turn aside.

—Dora Russell

The repressive attitude towards birth control which existed in England during the 1920s was clearly demonstrated in the fight to distribute a pamphlet by Marie Stopes . In 1923, Stopes, having established Britain's first birth-control clinic and written the pioneering work Married Love, prepared a cheap and simple pamphlet on contraception, containing essential explanatory diagrams. When the pamphlets were seized by the police and condemned as obscene, Dora led the court appeal against the police action. She did not win the case, nor had she expected to, but the following year, with a Labour government in power, the pamphlet was published once again. This time, however, it appeared without the controversial diagrams. While Dora found her political home within the Labour Party for most of her life, it sometimes failed to act as boldly in the defense of principle as she would have wished.

Russell campaigned actively for the Labour Party in the December 1923 election, with her second child, Kate , delaying her arrival obligingly until December 29. In the summer of 1924, Dora ran for Parliament as a Labour Party candidate. "I knew," she wrote, "that there was no chance of winning, but I could carry on my crusade for social justice and the rights of women." She helped establish the Workers' Birth Control Group to function within the Labour Party for reform of the law regarding contraception: Dora had come to realize that women would never be "truly free and equal with men until we had liberated mothers."

Having abandoned, for the time being, her work on industrialism, partly because her arguments had not been understood but also because she feared that her ideas would be attributed to her husband, Dora had turned once again, in the hectic year before Kate's birth, "to my old and chief ambition, the theater, in which no question of rivalry between us could arise." During the winter of 1922–23, she worked as an understudy in various London theaters. Learning she was pregnant at the end of the theater season, in the spring of 1923, Dora regretfully realized that she was facing the end of her theatrical ambitions. Ogden had been trying to persuade Dora to sign a book contract and stop dissipating her energies, and she now began to consider the offer seriously; "all my life," she later wrote, "I have tried to do too many different things. I wonder if this is not a perpetual dilemma for women."

Russell took up the cause of women in general and mothers in particular in her first book, Hypatia or Woman and Knowledge, published in 1925 and dedicated to her daughter. Its bold, combative tone is immediately established in the book's preface:

Hypatia was a University lecturer denounced by Church dignitaries and torn to pieces by Christians. Such will be the fate of this book: therefore it bears her name. What I have written here I will not change for similar episcopal denunciations.

In part a history of feminism and wholly a polemic, Hypatia proclaims that the "sex war" for women's equality still rages and that women must be made equal members of society, unhampered by marriage or maternity. Marriage, the author asserts, is:

a barrier for most of us to free public activity; a life-long contract only to be broken in disgrace and public disgust; aunts, uncles, social duties that exasperate and are totally unnecessary; the common view that henceforth husband and wife are one and indivisible, and the wife for ever to be burdened with her husband's duties and affairs.

For mothers, overcoming the stigma associated with sex and access to birth control was essential; sex, she argued, was as much an instinctive need for women as it was for men and "the prevention of conception brings them no loss of poise, health or happiness." Working women in particular must be able to control their fertility: "We want better reasons for having children than not knowing how to prevent them." Nor should women with children be shut out of public life; once her children are in suitable schools, she should be free to do the work for which she is best fitted. "In this way her opinion would count, and her attitude to life help to permeate the community, which is otherwise left to be guided by the outlook of the single woman and the male."

More broadly, Hypatia was a plea for toleration and equality; "Grant each man and woman the right to seek his or her own solution without fear of public censure…. The wrong lies in rules that are barriers between human beings who would otherwise reach a fuller and more intense understanding of one another." The book's appeal was so strong and so universal that a representative of the Spanish periodical El Sol went to England in 1926 to meet the author and offer her a contract to write a regular column for the newspaper. Russell wrote the column for five years, examining such topics as morality, rationalism, education, marriage and motherhood from a feminist perspective.

Hypatia ended with a call for reform of men's education which trained them to accept a dualist philosophy, elevating the mind and diminishing or despising the importance of the body. "If we are to make peace between man and woman … it is essential that men should make a more determined attempt to understand what feminists are seeking." It was to education that Dora now turned her attention. In 1927, she published The Right to be Happy, her book on the proper nurturing of the human spirit, and in the autumn of that year she put her ideas into practice with the opening of Beacon Hill School. With their older child now five, it seemed to Dora and Bertie that their ideas about child-rearing might be of benefit to others, and they established the school for children up to the age of 12 in a house they had purchased from Bertie's brother.

For the next 15 years, Dora's main task was the running of the school. She put into practice ideas which were then considered radical, developing an environment where there was no competitiveness, no physical punishment, where the children were included in the decision-making process and where Western ideas about conventional religion, the duality of mind and body, and the value of industrialism were steadfastly avoided. For the first four years, Bertrand advised and supported her, but, from the beginning, the bulk of the responsibility was hers. Even so, Dora continued to pursue a variety of other interests. In 1928, she gave a series of lectures in the United States based on her recent book and it was there that she met Griffin Barry, a freelance journalist with Communist sympathies. They began an affair and, with Bertrand's approval, visited Russia together in 1929. Later that year, Dora found herself pregnant with Barry's child.

Having assured one another that theirs was not a conventional marriage and that it had been undertaken only to legitimize their children, Dora and Bertrand had both had affairs after their marriage. Bertrand knew that she wanted more children and dissuaded her from any consideration of abortion once he learned the news. "You won't find me tiresome about it," he assured her. However, by the time Dora and the new baby joined Bertrand at their summer house in Cornwall in July, he told her that he had fallen in love with Margery Spence ( Russell ), the woman who was later to become his third wife.

In 1931, Dora became a countess when Bertrand inherited the earldom on his brother's death. The following year, when she was away giving birth to her second child by Griffin Barry, Bertrand left the school and effectively ended the 11-year marriage. Dora, still very much in love with her husband, felt hurt and abandoned:

I had married him at his urgent request to legitimize our son, on the understanding that this marriage was not to be regarded in the orthodox legal sense. I did not lay claim to object to his infidelities, nor to forgive him for them; I did not hold that they required forgiveness. The possessive tone of "my wife," "my husband," did not exist in my vocabulary.

The next three years were consumed by the tortuous and difficult process of obtaining a divorce; Bertie wished to marry Spence and legitimize any children they might have. The end result was that "Bertie got everything he wanted and I nothing except a modest allowance which would come to an end on his death." There were acrimonious disputes about the future of the children. Predictably, Dora's next book, In Defense of Children, which appeared in 1932, concerned itself with issues of the rights of children, for "children, like women and the proletariat, are an oppressed class."

Griffin Barry returned to the U.S., and Dora struggled on alone at the school. In 1933, she hired Paul Gillard as a secretary and gradually fell in love with him. In November 1933, he was found dead in mysterious circumstances. Pat Grace, a friend of Paul's, took his place at the school which Dora had been forced to move from Beacon Hill after the divorce became final. Grace, whom Dora was to marry in 1940, was a working-class fascist, very unlike her aristocratic first husband, and yet, Dora observed, he shared with Bertrand "a certain impishness, contempt for pomp, a lack of respect for authority, a sense of purpose in life allied with delight in its adventure—these were all qualities that I admired."

The steady, reliable Pat labored with Dora at the school, which experienced its most successful period in the two years before the Second World War broke out in 1939. In 1940, the school building was requisitioned by the War Office, and it was forced to move once more, this time to Dora's house in Cornwall. Because of staff shortages, she was now "teacher, matron and cook." On the brink of complete exhaustion, Dora finally closed the school in 1943 and began working for the Ministry of Information in London. She found her work congenial; since the Soviet Union was now an important ally in the war against Hitler, Russell was assigned to work on The British Ally, a newspaper which the British government was publishing in Moscow. The paper, and Dora's job, lasted until 1950.

Living in London allowed Russell to reestablish her links with feminist groups, including the Six Points Group and the Married Women's Association. Also, once her government work ended and she felt able to speak and act freely once again, she resumed her work for birth control, nuclear disarmament, and international peace through such groups as the Women's International Democratic Federation and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Residing in London also allowed Dora to provide a home for whichever of her children happened to be there but she blamed its polluted air, at least in part, for the early death of Pat, her "comrade in arms," in 1948.

The early 1950s saw Dora once again in the Soviet Union, at the Vienna Peace Congress, and at the Commission on the Status of Women in the United States. In 1958, inspired by the Alder-maston Peace March, she planned and led the Women's Caravan of Peace. However, her work for humanity continued against a backdrop of family troubles and tragedies. Her eldest son John began to experience bouts of severe depression following the failure of his marriage. Dora vigorously opposed Bertrand's efforts to have him confined to a mental hospital, and she gradually assumed the full burden of caring for him for the rest of his life. Her younger son Roddy, who resisted military service in the Korean War and opted instead to work in a coal mine, was involved in an accident which shattered his spine and left him in a wheelchair until he died at the age of 50. But neither Roddy's death nor the suicide of her granddaughter Lucy Russell , who burned herself to death to protest the Vietnam War, diminished in any way Dora's unshakable faith in humanity. Indeed, she saw in their sacrifices "the only hope of human survival."

Retirement to her beloved house in Cornwall, "a source of renewal and a refuge from despair," saw Dora Russell continuing to write and continuing to care passionately about humanity until her death at the age of 92. Her devotion to feminism and world peace continued undiminished, as did her opposition to the corrupting influence of industrialization. Her study of The Religion of the Machine Age, which she had been discouraged from completing in the 1920s, was finally published in 1983. She completed the third volume of her autobiography in 1985, the year before her death, and it reveals a voice that was as distinctive and fearless in her ninth decade as it had been 60 years earlier in her first book. The final volume ends with a plea for a new philosophy of life which would reconcile the peoples of the earth with one another and allow us to respect the world in which we live. Wrote Russell:

We do not want our world to perish. But in our quest for knowledge, century by century, we have placed all our trust in a cold, impartial intellect which only brings us nearer to destruction. We have heeded no wisdom offering guidance. Only by learning to love one another can our world be saved. Only love can conquer all.


Russell, Dora. The Dora Russell Reader: 57 Years of Writing and Journalism, 1925–1982. Foreword by Dale Spender. London: Pandora, 1983.

——. Hypatia or Woman and Knowledge. NY: Dutton, 1925.

——. The Tamarisk Tree: My Quest For Liberty and Love. London: Virago, 1977.

——. The Tamarisk Tree 2: My School and the Years of the War. London: Virago, 1980.

——. The Tamarisk Tree 3: Challenge to the Cold War. London: Virago, 1985.

Spender, Dale. There's Always Been a Women's Movement This Century. London: Pandora, 1983.

(Dr.) Kathleen Garay , Assistant Professor of History and Women's Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

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Russell, Dora (1894–1986)

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