Dora Russell

Dora, 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 philosopher Bertrand Russell. She was a campaigner for contraception and peace. She worked for the UK-government-funded Moscow newspaper British Ally and in 1958 led the "Women's Peace Caravan" across Europe during the Cold War.

Dora, Countess Russell
Dora Russell
by Lady Ottoline Morrell in 1922 (cropped)
Dora Black

(1894-04-03)3 April 1894
Died31 May 1986(1986-05-31) (aged 92)
Porthcurno, Cornwall, England,
United Kingdom
OccupationAuthor and social activist

Early lifeEdit

Dora Black was born at 1 Mount Villas, Luna Road, Thornton Heath, Croydon, in Surrey, into an English upper-middle-class family, the second of four children.[1] 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 gender. She went to a private co-educational primary school near her parents' home and 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.[2]


In 1920 Russell had travelled in support of workers' movements to Russia, to attended the Second World Congress of the Comintern with Marjory Newbold and others.[3]

Birth controlEdit

Russell supported Rose Witcop and Guy Aldred and who were prosecuted for publishing Margaret Sanger's Family Limitation which was a guide to contraception. Their action was denounced by a magistrate as "indiscriminate" publication[4] and the contraception guides were to be destroyed.[5] Russell,[6] her husband and John Maynard Keynes, paid the legal costs of the unsuccessful appeal.[7] The next year Russell campaigned for birth control, joining with H.G. Wells and John Maynard Keynes to found the Workers' Birth Control Group. She also campaigned in the Labour Party for birth control clinics, but the party was afraid of losing the support of Catholics.[6] She said that she hated the Labour Party after the leadership overuled her lobbied support.[8] She had been a Labour candidate in Chelsea but H.G.Wells refused to support her campaign which he believed was only of appeal to women.[8]

General election 1924: Chelsea
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Unionist Samuel Hoare 13,816 65.7 +8.7
Labour Dora Russell 5,661 26.0 -1.5
Liberal Iolo Aneurin Williams 1,557 7.4 -8.1
Majority 8,155 38.8 +9.3
Turnout 29,582 71.1 +7.3
Unionist hold Swing +5.1
Bertrand, Dora and the feminist headteacher Lucy Mary Silcox in 1922

Russell founded a progressive school in 1927 called Beacon Hill School, with Bertrand Russell, 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. Russell ran the school on her own until World War II.[9] After the war, she became an advocate of the peace movement and was one of the founding 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."[10]

In 1929, Russell organised the World League for Sexual Reform's highly successful Congress in London with the Australian-born birth control campaigner Norman Haire. Held over the course of five days in Wigmore Hall it was attended by leading intellectuals including George Bernard Shaw, Margaret Sanger and Sigmund Freud who debated topics that included psychoanalysis, prostitution, censorship, and contraception.[11][12]

She was still speaking on peace issues on 2 April 1981, when she addressed a Merseyside Peace Week.[13]

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").[9]

Relationship with Bertrand RussellEdit

By autumn of 1915 Dora Black 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.[12] 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.

Marriage to Bertrand RussellEdit

Dora and Russell were married on 25 September 1921 at Battersea Town Hall with Eileen Power and Frank Russell acting as witnesses. Dora, who was seven months pregnant with the couple's first child, John, wore black during the ceremony. Their second child Kate was born in 1923.[2]

She had at first rejected Russell's offer of marriage. In common with some radical women of her generation, she felt the laws regulating marriage contributed to women's subjugation.[12] 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. She regarded these as essential for women to gain control over their own lives, and eventually become fully emancipated. Her husband was a supporter of radical views but she said that she was expected to do the "bottle-washing".[8]

She published her book on the inadequate education of women and inequality with the title Hypatia or Woman and Knowledge in 1925.[14] The prologue explains why she chose the title:[14] "Hypatia was a university lecturer denounced by Church dignitaries and torn to pieces by Christians. Such will probably be the fate of this book."[14]

Russell became Countess Russell on 3 March 1931, when Bertrand Russell's elder brother Frank died and her husband became the 3rd Earl Russell. Bertrand left her for their children's governess, Patricia Spence. She noted that during the divorce her husband used all of his privilege to gain advantage.[8]

Bertrand married Patricia Spence in January 1936. Dora had two children with journalist Griffin Barry.[15][failed verification]


During the war she moved to London where she worked for the Ministry of Information in their Reference Division which was located in a London University building near the British Museum. There she wrote reports to order on various subjects. From there she joined the group employed by the British Government to create the newspaper British Ally: Britansky Soyuznik which for six years was published in Moscow via the British Embassy.[9] The newspaper mirrored a Soviet newspaper published in London and both had started due to a 1942 treaty. The newspaper was intended to give details of the British war effort and it was well illustrated and well received in Russia.[16]

Women's Peace CaravanEdit

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was formed in 1957. On 20 May 1958 Russell set out from Edinburgh with fifteen other women on what became known as the "Women's Peace Caravan". The motorised caravan set out for Moscow and to make links with other women across Europe.[17]


She died at Porthcurno, Cornwall on 31 May 1986, aged 92.[15]


  • (with Bertrand Russell) The Prospects of Industrial Civilization. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1923.
  • Hypatia or Woman and Knowledge. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1925.[14]
  • The Right to Be Happy. New York and London: Harper & Bros. 1927. OCLC 1091095.
  • In Defence of Children. London: H. Hamilton. 1932. OCLC 6749463.
  • The Tamarisk Tree: My Quest for Liberty and Love. London: Virago. 1975.
  • The Religion of the Machine Age. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1983.


  1. ^ "Russell [née Black], Dora Winifred (1894–1986), writer and campaigner for women's rights". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/40676. ISBN 978-0-19-861412-8. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b Gorham, Deborah (2011). "Liberty and love? Dora Black Russell and marriage". Canadian Periodicals Index Quarterly. 46 (2): 247. Retrieved 23 February 2016.
  3. ^ "Newbold [née Neilson], Marjory (1883–1926), socialist and communist". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/55682. Retrieved 2 October 2020. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ The Times, 11 January 1923, p.7
  5. ^ The Times, 12 February 1923, p.5
  6. ^ a b "Dora Russell". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 17 May 2021.
  7. ^ Russell, Dora, (1975) The Tamarisk Tree
  8. ^ a b c d Levine, Judith (29 April 2014). "Women and Children First". Boston Review. Retrieved 18 May 2021.
  9. ^ a b c Russell, Dora (1977). The Tamarisk Tree. London: Virago. ISBN 0-86068-194-7. OCLC 9315183.
  10. ^ The Right to Be Happy. New York and London: Harper & Bros. 1927. OCLC 1091095.
  11. ^ Diana Wyndham. (2012) "Norman Haire and the Study of Sex". Foreword by the Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG. (Sydney: "Sydney University Press)".
  12. ^ a b c Levine, Judith (30 April 2014). "Women and Children First: Dora Russell and the Evolution of Feminism". Boston Review. Retrieved 23 February 2016.
  13. ^ LSE archive at "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 8 November 2011. Retrieved 2011-07-26.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) (accessed 26 July 2011)
  14. ^ a b c d Booth, Charlotte (2017), Hypatia: Mathematician, Philosopher, Myth, London: Fonthill Media, p. 26-27, ISBN 978-1-78155-546-0
  15. ^ a b AP (2 June 1986). "Dora Russell, Social Activist And Wife of the Philosopher". Retrieved 2 March 2016.
  16. ^ Pechatnov, Vladimir O. (1998). "The Rise and Fall of Britansky Soyuznik: A Case Study in Soviet Response to British Propaganda of the Mid-1940s". The Historical Journal. 41 (1): 293–301. doi:10.1017/S0018246X97007577. ISSN 0018-246X. JSTOR 2640154.
  17. ^ Bruley, Sue (6 September 1999). Women in Britain since 1900. Macmillan International Higher Education. p. 143. ISBN 978-1-349-27743-8.

External linksEdit