Activist, scholar studied violence against women
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. She was 81.
The cause was respiratory failure, said Esther D. Rothblum, a longtime friend and feminist scholar.
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 antiapartheid 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 email that 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 1977, Russell surveyed 930 women in depth in San Francisco and found that more than 40% 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).
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 genderneutral 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. Russell said that Orlock was later delighted to hear that Russell was popularizing the term.
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.
Diana Elizabeth Hamilton Russell was born Nov. 6, 1938, in Cape Town, South Africa. Her father, James Hamilton Russell, was a member of the South African Parliament. Her mother, Kathleen Mary (Gibson) Russell, was British.
“I was raised to be a useless appendage to some rich white man and to carry on the exploitive tradition of my family,” she wrote in a 1995 essay.
But she earned a master’s degree in 1967 and a doctorate in 1970 at Harvard.
She married Paul Ekman, an American psychologist known for his work on facial expressions, in 1968. He was teaching in San Francisco, and she took a teaching position at Mills College in Oakland to be near him. They divorced after three years.
Diana Russell (left), Carol Dewitt and other women picket outside The Chronicle against Arnold Schwarzenegger’s admitted “misbehavior” toward women in 2003.