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Diana Russell, who studied violence against women, dies at 81

Diana E.H. Russell, a feminist activist and scholar who popularized the term “femicide” to refer to the misogynist killing of women, and to distinguish these killings from other forms of homicide, died July 28 at a medical facility in Oakland, Calif. She was 81.

The cause was respiratory failure, said Esther D. Rothblum, a longtime friend and feminist scholar.

Dr. Russell studied and explored all manner of violence against women, including rape, incest, child abuse, battering, pornography, and sexual harassment, and she was among the first to illuminate the connections between and among these acts.

As a daughter of white privilege growing up in South Africa, her rebellious instincts found an outlet in the anti-apartheid movement. Later, as a graduate student in the United States in the 1960s, she gravitated to the feminist movement and was one of the earliest researchers to focus on sexual violence against women.


Gloria Steinem said in an e-mail that Dr. Russell had “a giant influence” on the women’s movement worldwide and that her writings had particular resonance now, “when we see the intertwining of racism and sexism that she wrote about so well and organized against.”

In a 1995 essay, “Politicizing Sexual Violence: A Voice in the Wilderness,” Dr. Russell described the seeds of her work.

“My own experiences of sexual abuse as a child and an adolescent have undoubtedly been vital motivators for my enduring commitment to the study of sexual violence against women,” she wrote.

“My research and activism,” she added, “exemplify how personal trauma can inform and inspire creative work.”

In “The Politics of Rape” (1975), she argued that rape is an act of conformity to ideals of masculinity. Rolling Stone magazine called the book “probably the best introduction to rape now in print.”

In 1977, Dr. Russell surveyed 930 women in depth in San Francisco and found that more than 40 percent had been the victims of rape or incest — a much higher rate than other studies suggested. Those interviews led to a series of books: “Rape in Marriage” (1982); “Sexual Exploitation: Rape, Child Sexual Abuse and Workplace Harassment” (1984), and “The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women” (1986).


Dr. Russell first heard the word “femicide” in 1974, when a friend told her that someone was writing a book with that title. “I immediately became very excited by this new word, seeing it as a substitute for the gender-neutral word ‘homicide,’ ” she said in a 2011 speech.

She later found out that Carol Orlock was the author who had intended to write the “Femicide” book but had not done so. Dr. Russell said Orlock was delighted to hear that Dr. Russell was popularizing the term.

Dr. Russell changed her definition of “femicide” over the years, but in the end she described it as “the killing of females by males because they are female.” This covered a range of acts, including killing a wife or girlfriend for having an affair or being rebellious, setting a wife on fire for having too small a dowry, death as a result of genital mutilation, and the murder of sex slaves and prostitutes.

Her definition also covered indirect forms of killing, such as when women are barred from using contraception or obtaining an abortion, often leading them to seek unsafe abortions that can result in death. Similarly, it covered women who died of AIDS after men had unprotected sex with them.


Dr. Russell first used the term publicly when addressing the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women, a global event held in Brussels in 1976 and attended by 2,000 women from 40 countries.

Dr. Russell had conceived of and helped organize the tribunal. Among the speakers was Simone de Beauvoir, who hailed the gathering as “the beginning of the radical decolonization of women.”

Diana Elizabeth Hamilton Russell was born Nov. 6, 1938, in Cape Town. Her father, James Hamilton Russell, was a member of the South African Parliament. He bought the South African branch of the ad agency J. Walter Thompson, and was its managing director before and during his political career. Her mother, Kathleen Mary (Gibson) Russell, who was British, had traveled to South Africa to teach education and drama; when she married she became a homemaker and had six children but found time to join the anti-apartheid Black Sash movement.

Diana was the fourth child and was born half an hour before her twin brother, David. She attended an elite, Anglican boarding school for girls, where the motto was “Manners maketh man.”

“I was raised to be a useless appendage to some rich white man and to carry on the exploitive tradition of my family,” Dr. Russell wrote in the 1995 essay.

Her mother wanted her to take classes in cooking and sewing, but she signed up instead for classes at the University of Cape Town. She graduated in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology when she was 19.


She studied social science and administration at the London School of Economics and later went to Harvard University, where she earned a master’s degree in 1967 and a doctorate in 1970, both in social psychology. She then became a research associate at Princeton, where she wrote her dissertation on revolutionary activity. She has said that the “extreme misogyny at Princeton started me on my feminist path.”

In her book “Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm” (1994), Dr. Russell argued that pornography led to “pro-rape attitudes and behavior” and she became a founding member of Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media.

In her later writings, Dr. Russell said that her “radical feminism” had cost her job offers, grants, and fellowships. Still, she said, she did not regret her failure to “serve the patriarchy” because her work had helped many women lift the veil of secrecy surrounding traumatic experiences.