Bertrand Russell, Prophet

Tom Shipka

In 1929 Bertrand Russell published a book entitled Marriage and Morals (1) which brought an outcry from traditional moralists. What did he say which infuriated so many? Here are nine of his key points.

  1. Russell points out that early in civilization, it was believed that spirits, not men, impregnated women. When this myth prevailed, women had a relatively benign status. Once fatherhood was understood, this changed. Men forced women to withdraw from society as virtual prisoners "to make sure of the legitimacy of their children." (p. 27) Moreover, as time passed, men practiced polygyny because their wives and children were valuable property. (p. 132)
  2. Patriarchy brought a double standard. Virtuous males could have sex before and after marriage with multiple partners except for another man's wife. Virtuous females, however, had to abstain from sex before marriage and restrict sex after marriage to their husband. (p. 47)
  3. Christianity, according to Russell, brought two new factors into the picture. The first, following St. Paul, is the view that all sex is lustful and that celibacy is the highest calling. Those who cannot abstain, however, St. Paul advises, should marry, "for it is better to marry than to burn." (2) The second is the view that the sole purpose of marriage is procreation. (p. 52) Indeed, sex without the intent to propagate is sin. (pp. 53-54) These novelties, Russell says, furthered the subordination of women and divorced sex from romance, intimacy, and pleasure.
  4. In modern times, Russell observes, women are rebelling successfully against asceticism and the double standard. They demand that the moral freedom which is permitted to men must be permitted also to them. (p. 84) The old inducements to virtue among women – the fear of hell-fire and the fear of pregnancy - no longer work. According to Russell, the former fell victim to "the decay of theological orthodoxy" and the latter to contraceptives. (p. 84)
  5. Russell says that it is time to retire the stork. Sex education should move from the alley to the school and the home. (p. 102, p. 195) At the same time, obscenity laws which prohibit sex education and the distribution of art and literature should be repealed. (pp. 93-117)
  6. Sexual experience prior to marriage, including cohabitation in some cases, should be encouraged to foster sexual learning, sexual fulfillment, and economic benefits, and to help people understand the distinction between sex and love. (pp. 78-92, pp. 165-166)
  7. Given the fact that women outnumber men, and that as a result many women will never marry, unmarried women should be deprived neither of sexual intimacy nor the role of a parent, if they so choose. (pp. 86-88)
  8. It should be easy for couples without children to divorce but not so easy for couples with children to do so. (p. 142, p. 163, pp. 234-235) Russell argues that married couples with children should strive for a "lifelong" bond for the sake of their and their children's happiness. This will require both partners to learn how to balance family, on the one hand, and career and money, on the other. (pp. 118-122, pp. 142-144)
  9. Russell predicted that patriarchy in the West would gradually collapse and that the influence of father over mother and child would decline sharply. I

Indeed, he anticipated that there would be a great many absentee fathers. (p. 187)

Whether you agree with Russell or not, one thing is certain. For good or ill, the West has moved significantly in his direction. Though he would bristle at the suggestion, Bertrand Russell was a prophet.


  1. Liveright Publishing Company, 1929. References which follow will be by page number.
  2. I Corinthians, Chapter 7, Verse 9. Quoted by Russell, p. 45.
  3. Other key points include these: As sexual relations in and out of marriage improve, prostitution should decline because it causes physical and psychological harm (p. 149); and an occasional affair of a married person should be tolerated by the partner and should not put the marriage in jeopardy. (p. 230)

© 2012 Tom Shipka