December 5, 1997


The Feminine Charisma of Diana - Historical and Cultural Perspectives

World Art Studies
University of East Anglia


I am grateful to the members of the Orlando Project, University of Alberta, who invited me to speak at their conference, "Women and Literary History," held in Edmonton on 11-13 September 1997. The talk I gave was written between 31st August and 9th September 1997. I have made only the slightest of revisions and added some essential references. I would like to express my appreciation for the warm hospitality and intellectual stimulation provided by our hosts in Edmonton.

I dedicate this essay to my dear friend Leonore Davidoff, from whom I have learned so much about gender.

Ludmilla Jordanova
World Art Studies
University of East Anglia
Norwich NR4 7TJ
Norfolk, United Kingdom
18 September 1997

Opening Plenary given to the Orlando Project's Women and Literary History Conference, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, on Thursday 11th September 1997

This is not at all the talk I intended to give to a conference on Women and Literary History, but we have been rather overtaken by events! In the light of those events I felt compelled to write something different. Yet the topics I had planned to speak about - women's history, interdisciplinary work in the humanities, what histories of women's writing might look like, women historians as writers -- are still there, lurking, because they remain what motivates the change of tack. So, I have not abandoned my concerns as a feminist scholar: rather they have been greatly sharpened and placed in a new perspective by recent events.

I had just begun to write this talk when Diana, Princess of Wales, died as a result of a car crash. It was a truly shocking event, which elicited intense and highly diverse emotional responses. I found myself touched by it, but also keen to analyse my own and others' reactions. The need for such analysis has grown, taken hold over the ensuing days. I wanted to use an unusual, a unique event to think with, and especially to think about femininity and its representation - a key issue for "women and literary history" -- the subject of the conference. I found myself fascinated by the media coverage of the event, especially given the involvement of at least a part of the media in Diana's death. Somehow everyone was implicated, the general public, the media, Britain's Royal family, her immediate circle -- even if guilt and blame have continually shifted, rarely finding stable targets. I listened to the radio and watched television for several hours on the day she died, and over those hours it occurred to me that there was essentially no critical reflection at all upon her as a woman, as a feminine figure, upon the gender issues her life and death raised; and I began to wonder why that was, and what those of us who are interested in women's past might learn from this, and indeed from her life.

My impressions have not changed: the lacuna remains despite the huge number of words that have poured forth, including those from women columnists and commentators. I believe there has been no serious gender analysis because her femininity was utterly taken for granted; the assumptions she and others made about womanliness and its representation are so commonplace that to reflect on them would, by that very token, be to call them into question. Some aspects of femininity cannot be called into question because so much symbolically rests on it. It is no exaggeration to say that the world requires so much about women and femininity to remain present but unspoken, out of bounds for critical scrutiny. Diana's death has illustrated, for me more vividly than any other event in her life, how very insidious gender assumptions are, how important it is that these issues are explored openly. I accept that it is hard, especially in the present circumstances, to do so dispassionately, but at least we can mobilise our energies to that end. The need for critical analysis is urgent, and by critical I do not mean negative, or hostile, but thoughtful and probing.

If there has been a massive failure over the last eleven days, it has been the absence of serious analysis by women and above all by feminists. (It should be added that the lack of a reasoned historical perspective is also striking.) The drive to idolatry is dramatic, and the almost universal claim by women writers that Diana was notably "modern," together with the sycophantic tone of virtually all tributes to her, are cause for profound concern. (Lest you think that a harsh judgement let me remind you that her own brother took care to comment on her emotional difficulties in his funeral speech.) Feminist scholars, and indeed others, are implicated in a quite special way if we cannot become leaders of a creative response, which helps us all to analyse, understand and learn from the key elements of significance in what has happened.

I would identify five elements, upon which the responses to Diana and her death depend:

First, there is the fact of her being a woman, and hence a wife and a mother, which are reified female roles. Second, her possession of a quite specific kind of charisma, bound up with her physical attractiveness and her photogenic qualities, enabling her to elicit and display empathy. Third, the existence of a global division of psychic labour, which gives women (and some women more than others) a privileged position with respect to empathy, so that others (men perhaps especially) turn over to such feminine figures the emotional work that needs to be done, but cannot be adequately done by others. Fourth, the lack of novelty, the weight of historical precedent that lies behind the phenomena we have witnessed. None of this is new, even if it occurs in radically fresh circumstances, which seem significant largely because of the recent General Election and the ever-increasing amounts of evidence of Tony Blair's direct involvement in the difficult negotiations that followed Diana's death. Fifth, the absence of an integrated vision either of her life or of women's lives more generally; fragments are fastened on to, but the larger perspective is elusive, one that considers the words, the images, the social, political and economic issues all together and tries to make sense of them.

I want to stress that my thoughts do not depend on a particular view of her or of the British Monarchy, but on the recognition that charisma, a concept rarely explicitly used of her (except by Camille Paglia), is an exceptionally powerful force, with a gendered and erotic potency that demands to be understood. I will indicate briefly at the end what my personal views on this matter are, because it is vital to be straightforward about such an emotive issue. What I am saying is not pro- or anti- either Diana or the British monarchy; it is fuelled by a kind of energy that I felt on the day of her death and have continued to feel precisely because the Diana phenomenon relates to so much of the scholarly work I have done on women and gender. It relates just as much to the experience of women who work and raise children, care for relatives, and have experienced even in a small way being in the public eye. In fact, if I am right about the existence of a psychic division of labour between men and women, it relates to everyone.

The coverage of Diana's death stressed her uniqueness, her role as a global figure, and the ease with which many different people identified with her. The sheer exceptionality of the whole thing was enormously eloquent, and it rested on the question of how such a woman is identified with. This identification had, I think, three main components: her glamour, her direct experience of ordinary kinds of suffering, and her humanitarianism, which derived, in all accounts, from a particularly well-developed capacity for empathy. All of these were brought together in her role as a mother, and virtually every commentator stressed her open and passionate commitment to her sons. It is unimportant whether we agree with such assessments or not, whether we liked or approved of her or not. What is important is that virtually all the issues raised by studying women are reprised in this life, which could not help but be simultaneously pathetic and uplifting. It does not matter for me whether as scholars we have been trained in one discipline or another, what kind of a department we earn a living in, what our individual views and values are: if we are committed to doing women's history there are certain, unavoidable features of femininity that have to be faced and explained. I am advocating a broad study of women's past, a study in which, ideally, the different facets of women's lives are brought together in an integrated view, and in which whatever it is that women share, as women, is conceptualised and given its due. My sense is that although we unconsciously recognise the existence and power of these feminine features, relatively few scholars have tried to tackle them head on as historical issues - and I stress the historical in order to differentiate an abstract, psychologised femininity from a contextualised, material femininity. It is worth noting that a distinguished exception, Marina Warner, is a writer rather than an academic. (1)

What are these features of femininity to which I referred? Let me mention just three--the ones Diana's life most dramatically pointed to: the use of a female body to convey not just attractiveness but a transcendent beauty, from which women as much as men derive pleasure; the transfer onto women of the capacity for special empathy for suffering that is not pretty; the seemingly impossible struggle to achieve some sense of complete personhood.

Why is transcendent beauty such a major issue? For most of European history, people have believed in physiognomy -- the systematic study of the interpretation of character from appearance. They may have theorised it in different ways, but the conviction that the outer shell opens up the soul has been remarkably widespread (often expressed in claims such as, "face is the index of the mind"). Purity, i.e. sexual continence, has been especially valued in women, and imaged for them in the figure of the Virgin Mary, still a model of gigantic potency for women. That purity is usually expressed in physical beauty. For the Royal Family, Diana was a valued bride precisely because she was virgin and looked like one. Since the eighteenth century, furthermore, concepts of biological competence have been developed and applied disproportionately to women as childbearers. Remember that, etymologically, "eugenics" is about producing beautiful offspring: beautiful, healthy, fit, have long been bedfellows. Literally, the expectations of women's appearance have been higher and more carefully defined than men's; symbolically, a beautiful and unblemished woman carried a special charge and was endowed with value. What counts as beautiful certainly changes; the investment in women's appearance changes much less--it is still almost inconceivable that major, successful female public figures should depart dramatically from prevailing norms of attractiveness (whereas so many male ones do). If that were not the case, the political history of many countries, including Britain, would look different--Margaret Beckett's failure to be elected leader of the Labour Party, having been an extremely effective stand-in after John Smith's death, was widely attributed, at least in part, to her lack of conventional good looks. Women desire beautiful heroines quite as much, possibly more than men, because their beauty reflects back, as it were, on the identifiers. Scholars are not immune to these processes -- we too desire and make heroines, of women writers as of women in other walks of life.

This need for physical tokens of beauty is intimately related to a tacit and historically persistent belief that women are disproportionately empathetic. Indeed, I think we believe that the capacity to experience empathy generates physical beauty in women. Empathy involves more than feeling with another, it involves putting a bit of oneself inside another. It is not that men are thought devoid of empathy, only that, again across long periods of time and in varied contexts, women are believed to have special capacities to do this, especially in relation to children, to the sick and to the dying. And they do it partly, if not largely, on behalf of men and in the name of creating imaginative collectives. In this way, empathy links individuals and communities; the sense of community derives from emotional surges rather than from quotidian experience. And this empathy is naturalised, it is deemed somehow inherent in women. Historians of women have often been keen to stress the differences between ideology and representation on the one hand and "real" women on the other. The point is that continual affirmation of women's capacity for empathy, especially as mothers or surrogate mothers (i.e. ideology and representation), shapes "real" women's sense of themselves, and enjoys a kind of cultural prominence akin to coercion. So, although these gender divisions are not seamless or cut and dried, men and women have indeed acted them out, scholars among them. Such divisions function because they have genuine appeal; empathy appeals to women because it offers a kind of cultural power that is special to them and which they can hold by a sort of traditional right. Nowhere is this more obvious that in the history of philanthropy and in the work of feminist historians in exploring women's passionate involvement with charitable activities over many centuries. It is absolutely no coincidence that in investigating women's political and religious positions, feminist historians have given prominence to their activities as philanthropists, and shown how in nineteenth-century agitations for women's rights, for example, activists tended to stress their special qualities as women, not their identity with men, and to base their claims on "feminine" qualities.

All European societies, Great Britain included, have accorded special privileges in the handling of birth and death to women, and have disproportionately idealised women, such as Florence Nightingale, who waded into repulsive conditions in a spirit of reformist, crusading zeal. Now, of course, we have a revisionist historiography of Florence Nightingale, based in part on her voluminous writings, but ironically this has not diminished but enhanced her heroism, as the briefest of visits to the Florence Nightingale Museum in London reveals. In inviting a public to identify with charismatic female figures, their exceptional capacity to identify with others is displayed. Thus nurses, a profession still understood in idealistic terms, despite our "knowledge" of a more complex and harsh reality, are still being invited to identify with Nightingale, with her concern for wounded soldiers, and merge their fantasies and practices with hers. In symbolically carrying the weight of human ills, women have been and are assigned the task of doing more empathy-work than men, on whose behalf they enter the lives of others; it is as if they lessen that weight by giving bits of themselves away in empathetic encounters. The more unappealing and outcast the recipient, the more the donor's actions are valued by others, including by the marginal groups themselves. We should note also how many men have commented that they could grieve more for Diana than for people to whom they had actually been close. In that sense she directly lightened their burden, just as she had for AIDS patients years before. And she could only do this because her capacity for empathy was displayed: it was a visual trope with long antecedents.

The subtext of these claims is that outward expression of feelings is morally better than inner management of them. In the latter case, viewers lack evidence of the nature and quality of the feelings because they are private, and thereby not available for public discussion and judgement. The suspicion is that those who do not display feelings, do not have them. Again, these concerns are not new, but the assumptions underlying them are rarely acknowledged, let alone examined. The British press made much of absence of public display of emotion on the part of the Royal family, and of its presence among so-called ordinary people in London. In this way a coercive culture around the proper expression of grief built up, which encouraged criticism, sometimes openly cruel, of those who could or did not act appropriately. We can understand this in terms of a drive for authenticity--good empathy acts as a kind of guarantee of authenticity--but authenticity has to be displayed for all to see, judge, savour, and vicariously enjoy. (This presumably accounts for the lack of public acclaim for Princess Anne's extensive charity work, which has not been conspicuously displayed in the way Diana's was.) Blair's success lay not in the quality of his reaction but in his capacity to display it clearly. William Hague, the conservative leader, is, so far as we know, a perfectly decent human being, but lacks these skills, and hence was perceived as less feeling. The point about empathy, then, is not just its expression but its visual display. Furthermore, making feelings publicly available has been constructed as a form of democracy, dignified by a political label: hence the phrase "people's princess". In the process, emotions are transferred and re-packaged.

In the case of Diana, far more than emotions are being transferred. In her lifetime, she was an extremely valuable asset to the charities she supported--Diana brought in money. Many, many millions of pounds have now been donated to Diana's favourite charities, listed in all the newspapers. The fund looks set to become the largest charity in the world. Of course we must be struck by the generosity, but it is vital to ask what it means. It means, first of all, that emotions, charisma and money are closely related, sometimes inter-changeable. It means that the ideal of caring for others can be packaged and advertised, and that when people literally buy into it, they hope to have purchased social improvement--an imaginative transfer. A transfer of responsibility takes place too, through an emotional blur, onto a powerful idealised figure, who takes the place of and stands for human ideals. The goddess-saint was also a commodity, which has been used in Britain over the past week or so as a populist token.

That the quest for outward perfection and for inner generosity demands a heavy price is readily acknowledged. To be an ideal, to be living for and on behalf of others is a terrible burden; it makes impossible, irreconcilable emotional demands--no human being can survive the complex of forces that impact upon charismatic women--they are in heightened form what many women experience. The difficulty women have experienced and do experience in integrating the bits of their lives is well known, and becomes dramatically greater with idealisation--is it not striking how continual and endless the litany is, from, on the one hand, the trope of the heroic but unhappy woman, to, on the other, the recognition of quotidian misery that remains, through persistent economic inequalities, disproportionately the lot of woman? That Diana suffered, in the ways that countless women have suffered, was important, because it helped "ordinary" women identify with her. At the same time, it actually facilitated idealisation, since the public physical appearance was so faultless, sustained as it was by a level of wealth and privilege unimaginable to virtually everyone. The idealisation was also sustained by an aura of mystery, to do with aristocracy, beauty, royalty. She was close and distant, commoner and royal, ordinary and sacred, knowable and unknowable at the same time. It is an essentially unstable combination.

Feminine mystery always has a flipside. Mary was indeed alone of all her sex in this important respect. In life, Diana was widely vilified as well as adored, and now that a tragic death has foreclosed this possibility, the vilification has been transferred, largely onto men who were close to her--Charles and Dodi Fayed--and in the latter there is a considerable measure of racism, anxieties about an exotic, alien, non-Christian male. So far as it has been possible to judge, extravagant claims have been made about the moral inadequacies of Dodi that bear little relationship to any evidence.

I am suggesting that we are dealing with persistent motifs of Western culture, that they are of historical significance because of their persistence and their capacity to invade the consciousness of large swathes of the population. Of course the heroines, the exemplary, charismatic women, were a tiny privileged few. In Diana's case, certainly, the unacknowledged context for all this was membership of a social and economic elite, which has indeed been true of most of the women who have become female icons in the twentieth century, even those whose origins were more humble: we might think here of Marilyn Monroe and Evita Person. Yet if such feminine figures appeared privileged, this has not limited their mass appeal. Feminist scholars need to take such mass appeal extremely seriously, especially since women make up a major element of the mass.

Diana was charismatic in a way no man could be, not even John F. Kennedy, with whom she has often been compared, given certain similarities in their dramatic, unexpected deaths. She has also been compared with Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Grace Kelly, in order to emphasise her star quality, but the claims that are made for her lasting social and humanitarian contributions would seem to put her into a different category: hence the appeal of comparison with a politician. However, ordinary men did not, I suspect, see their dramas played out in JFK's life; the young identified not so much with him--super rich and super ambitious, whose messy life was not common knowledge until much later--but with his political vision, a vision which in retrospect attracted considerable criticism. There was the shared element of glamour, with its escapism and conspicuous display, which we can evoke with the word "Camelot"--romantic dramas, utopian nostalgia, but also the company that runs our national lottery. Diana was charismatic, I contend, in a way that only a physically attractive woman could be, and in acknowledging that, we acknowledge exceptionally powerful forces in the history of the West, and of the British Isles in particular, with its especially complex legacy of female monarchs and more recently of female political leadership. I want to assert that understanding such exceptional figures is important precisely because of the ways in which they bear on the lives of so-called "ordinary" women and draw upon what is imputed to all women, whether they accept and incorporate these projections or not.

I suspect that Diana's death and its aftermath contain a number of lessons. And there is one potentially quite painful lesson, for scholars of women's past--the psychic and cultural division of labour between men and women is as profound now as it has ever been. The changes that historians of women have charted have been significant--political and civil rights, decline in maternal and child mortality, availability of birth control--but so have the continuities: imprisoning dualisms such as madonna and whore, the centrality of motherhood, the idealisation of the perfect mother, the gendering of selflessness as feminine. It has been politically imperative to chart the changes in women's position. The history of legislation to ensure rights for women, one of the markers of profound historical shifts, is an important example; but we should note that this type of change operates in a quite different way than the continuities, and accounts of it are to be written accordingly. Although historians have noted the extraordinarily powerful hostilities that women's political demands frequently elicited, they nonetheless generally write as if all this was played out in a more or less rational domain, whereas most of the phenomena of gender difference occupy far more dangerous, subterranean territories. The simultaneous love and fury that prominent women provoke needs to be reckoned with and understood, precisely because it is indicative of sentiments applied to women more generally but with less drama.

It may seem that Diana was more loved than despised, and loved furthermore for her capacity to be a secular saint, a prettier version of Florence Nightingale, a madonna who happened to be sexually active, a transcendent, philanthropic figure. But there is always the negative flipside. She was also seen as manipulative, stupid, naive, self-serving, shallow, undignified, and vain--accusations commonly made about women with power, to whom stable emotional reactions are rarely possible. While we may grant that women such as Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry, Marie Curie, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalen were indeed exceptional, all women to some degree share, in their own eyes, as in the eyes of others, these complex feminine features, good and bad. And by that token they have to manage instability and oscillation. It is not, I think, a matter of choice, however much we might like to think otherwise. These femininities are not cloaks, to be swung around the neck, elegantly draped, as and when we wish. They are something altogether more profound, constitutive of our very being, as they have been for centuries. By using the word "constitutive", naturally I am not saying this is genetic, essential, or an unvarying phenomenon. It is the job of anyone who studies the past to chart its variations. But as a phenomenon it simply is very, very persistent. And I increasingly think that the history of women can't be written without taking account of gendered charisma, because female charisma is a heightened and distorted form of femininity, for which it is therefore evidence.

Charisma is a tricky concept. We may note with interest the disproportionate attention given to male political leaders in the literature on charisma; indeed many commentators simply take it as read that charisma is male, which seems to have been Weber's assumption. (2) He further associated charisma with leaders who came from outside normal political structures, especially in unusual times: "The natural leaders in distress have been holders of specific gifts of the body and spirit; and these gifts have been believed to be . . . not accessible to everybody" (p. 245). Subsequent writers have engaged with the Weberian framework and continue to focus on male political or religious leaders, often from a psychoanalytic perspective. In a recent book Charles Lindholm adopts a more cultural perspective. In exploring contemporary charisma suggests that we should not focus only on obvious cults but on more diffused phenomena, that constitute alternatives to more traditional forms of charisma: "within the European-American context, however, the major alternative forms of charisma are found not in public, secular realms of capitalist consumption, nor in the worship of the nation, nor in entertainment, nor in religion, either orthodox or magical. Instead people experience merger and self-loss in more intimate circumstances" (p. 181). He has in mind "the hoped-for unity of the family" and "the romantic dyad". As he puts it, "romance therefore gains currency through precisely the conditions conducive to charismatic movements; that is, as a response to social alienation, competitiveness, and fluidity in a world where old duties and connections have crumbled and the self has become contingent, problematic or threatened". In both cases the relationships (between leader and follower, and between lovers) follow similar patterns, although Lindholm also examines the differences between the two phenomena. His analysis hints at some interesting possibilities in relation to Diana, who managed to combine many charismatic registers. She was not, of course, a leader in the conventional sense, and became a surrogate leader only in death. She herself was clearly vulnerable in just the ways Lindholm describes, and acquired cultural and psychic manoeuvrability for herself by becoming an object of romance, real and fantasised, which brought together family and nation, individuals and collectives. She facilitated many kinds of emotional mergers in which the public could vicariously participate, and since these are represented as lofty, worthy, self-less, she was exemplary, capable of becoming in death a charismatic figure who offered what seemed a genuine intimacy with those she touched, but which was in fact largely symbolic.

Charisma is about an unusual degree of power, obviously, but also about a special kind of power that leads others to behave differently. This is because it elicits in significant swathes of a population something that could be called bridging feelings, which link their own attributes with another person's: charisma depends on holding the revered person and their qualities inside and beyond oneself simultaneously. I have suggested that charisma is profoundly gendered, that what Diana did could only have been done by a woman. When I say "did", I mean not so much her actions, of which we know relatively little, but how they were represented and interpreted. In other words, she was endowed, by common consent, with certain qualities and privileges, that were apt for a beautiful young woman, given the psychic and cultural division of labour to which I referred earlier. "Common consent" is shorthand for the power of the media, Diana's self-fashioning, and public hunger. The idealisation and the commodification of Diana go hand in hand, as she seems to have realised. These qualities and privileges centred around her body, her empathy, her suffering and her motherhood. For this kind of charisma to work, certain values have to be widely internalised; they really have to get inside people; more precisely, they have to get inside other women. That is what identification is all about.

In fact Diana's life and death have a special and poignant relevance to what I wanted to talk about originally. I intended, for example, to talk about female historians of women as writers, about the writing of women's history as an example of the issues the conference addresses. And once I had this idea, I thought immediately of Olwen Hufton's work. Her recent book, The Prospect Before Her, is clearly relevant. It is unusual in being a rather wide-ranging overview of women's past (there are very few to date), despite the fact that it is not a narrative account, but a thematic treatment of three hundred years of European history. Titles of chapters include: On being a Wife, Motherhood, Widowhood, Women and the Devil, The Woman Rioter or the Riotous Woman. The organisation of The Prospect Before Her illustrates a number of points: Hufton has refused a chronologically based narrative, and hence emphasises continuity; she builds many chapters around the female life cycle and feminine types, which implies commonalities among women from very different backgrounds; and these stages of the life cycle are also roles, that is, they are tags through which identity is constructed by and for women. Her style of writing is equally revealing: many specific details of the lives of particular women and vivid metaphors and similes from everyday life are deployed. In that sense Hufton uses similar kinds of insights about women in the past to the ones contemporary commentators and journalists employ. As a leading social historian, Hufton has mostly worked on women who could not or did not write, whose direct testimonies, when they have come down to historians at all, have done so through others, through the offices of law court officials, poor law administrators, higher class witnesses and so on. (Many commentators have pointed out that Diana's own voice was not what lay at the core of her reputation; her words and ideas were generally mediated by others--it was representations of her that counted.)

But I really thought of talking about Hufton for somewhat different reasons. In 1971 she published what could be called a seminal article in Past and Present, one of the most prestigious history journals in the world: "Women in Revolution 1789-1796". It concerned the experiences of "the working woman of the towns" during the French Revolution in the hardest years of the 1790s, when France was at war, winters were hard, food was short, and enchantment, such as there was, with revolutionary fervour for new beginnings, was waning in the face of unrelenting hardship. Hufton wrote not only of the different experiences of women in the revolution when compared with their menfolk, many of whom were away serving in the revolutionary armies--being made, indeed, into French citizens in the process--but she talked about the need of ordinary French women, the backbone of the Catholic church, to make reparation for the desecration of churches that had occurred. She described, and it was painful to read, how these women compulsively cleaned the churches, and in so doing atoned for the desecration and cleansed themselves. Although there has been an element of seductive romance in some women's history, I don't think it was this that I, like so many others, found compelling in the kind of women's history that Olwen Hufton wrote. In her books and articles that have dealt with poor women, with infanticide, with women's work, with the domestic economy and the family life cycle, something else came through, something that speaks to the division of mental labour between men and women that I have already mentioned. This something was a special kind of gender logic.

Hufton has always insisted that there was a logic to women's lives in the (pre-industrial) past, a logic which was different from that which drove men's lives, and that this logic was driven equally by material and by cultural constraints. In terms of material constraints she has stressed the distinct economic situation of women, the lower wages they invariably commanded, and the different types of work available to them, which is still largely the case in industrial and post-industrial societies. She also emphasises their sexual vulnerability, and the difficulty of being a woman alone--a situation in which working women found it almost impossible to survive. (Clearly there have been dramatic changes in the economic situation of unmarried women, especially those with skills valued in the labour market, and, while sexual vulnerability remains a huge issue, it is of a radically different order when compared with eighteenth-century France. When she described the large numbers of tiny skeletons found in eighteenth century France when canals and ditches were drained, she wanted us to imagine the unrelenting logic that led some women to kill their babies.)

In her insistence on the distinct logics of women's existence in the past, Hufton affirmed the importance of empathy, the duty of the historian to follow that logic as experienced by historical actors and as acted out by them in ways that historians can recover, not from direct testimony but from social practices. In effect, although I am not aware that she has described it in quite this way, she also advocated a holistic approach to women's history by showing how a life, a set of strategies only made sense in a larger context--family, work, social structures and so on. She has not homogenised female experience in the past, but she has suggested how and why certain elements were common to all women, and charted some of the ways in which women with greater resources could use and manipulate them to gain a measure of control over their immediate experience. It is, I think, only because of Hufton's distinctive style as a writer, that she has been able to make these points so effectively. Like many historians of women, she has had to search for styles and structures that suit her purposes--a search that is certainly part of the literary history of women. The example of Olwen Hufton's historical writings can, I hope, help to open up larger questions. Her writings use just those "bridging feelings" I described earlier, while her emphasis on gender logic has direct relevance to the case of Diana.

The logic of women's distinctive experience has been extensively theorised by commentators from the eighteenth century onwards in naturalistic terms, by which I mean that attempts were made to explain it by what was known of women's bodies and minds. Yet this proved to be a somewhat problematic enterprise. The sense of there being something sacred in women persisted, indeed was in some ways elaborated further, by scientific and medical interest in them. What is remarkable is how persistent the religious idiom has been in this area. The cult of motherhood, for example, has been going on in one form or another for centuries now, constantly freshened by technological change, political imperatives, social anxieties. And the language of sainthood, similarly. The late nineteenth century saw a spate of young religious women who actually became saints; it is absolutely no coincidence that Diana allied herself with Mother Theresa; that Mother Theresa herself became a global phenomenon with the peculiar ability to reconcile ordinary womanliness with transcendent femininity; and that the ability to empathise with others is a common thread. We should note that the image of Diana and Mother Teresa going to heaven together has been invoked. (Perhaps it is also no coincidence that over recent decades revisionist theology has stressed a more "feminine" Christ, that the gnostic gospels give more prominence to women, that scholarly interest in the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen has revived....)

In the commentary that has followed Diana's death, historical precedent has constantly been invoked. Yet is has also been inappropriately invoked, with the British press claiming that this is a momentous historical turning point, and the comparison with the French Revolution has been mentioned. It is not to lessen the tragedy of recent events to say that such comparisons are absurd. For one thing, the political role of the monarchy is relatively trivial and popular opinion on the subject is strikingly diverse. The status quo has not in any way been called into question. Diana was not anti-Establishment, however much such a position has been projected onto her. The only issue where there would seem to be potential for far-reaching change is the disestablishment of the church, which I have not seen mentioned by the Press, and that would only become urgent if Prince Charles wished to remarry. A great deal of emphasis was placed on the behaviour of the Royal Family that week and on the degree to which they responded to "popular opinion", but this was certainly fuelled by the press and acted as a sort of displacement for people's feelings. Indeed it would be surprising if the political or moral order of Britain was changed by Diana's death, since her power was of a quite different order precisely because it was so entirely determined by her femininity and by the gendered assumptions that suffused her life and death.

In drawing this talk to a close let me come, then, to my own perspective, and to the specially gendered power that she "enjoyed". There was, I think an initial wrong, on the part of the Royal Family in allowing the heir to throne to marry one woman when he was known to be emotionally attached to another. In other circumstances this might not matter, but in the 1970s especially the Royals promoted themselves as a happy nuclear family; they sought to appear more "human" and to a degree emotionally accessible to the public, and, as a result, were hoist on their own petard. Had the marriage been promoted as an arranged one, things might have turned out differently, although whether such honesty would have been tolerated and supported in the wider world remains unclear. Nonetheless, it seems that Diana herself assumed this was a love match and was severely disillusioned when it turned out otherwise. In a collapsing world she took the only route available to a woman in her position who wanted to be more than a fashion plate and socialite--she turned to good works. I have no doubt that she derived considerable pleasure from such work, that she was good at it from a combination of factors--personality, prior media interest and so on. I also have no doubt that the contradictions of her position bore in upon her early in her marriage, that she always suffered from the need to reconcile competing demands and impulses and that she felt profoundly ambivalent about her life. The central question was, given that she had already been thrust into the limelight, what role was she to play. Her solution was to adopt and adapt existing roles, well-tried formulae for women over centuries--mother, mother-extension, charity worker, professional friend. In the late twentieth century, power and independence, which it seems she sought, are hard to achieve, and for public women can only be won and kept with the support of the media--hence her capacity to feel both devastated by them and grateful to them, since without them she could do very little. This debt to the media was incurred because she was newsworthy and photogenic; her life fed a greed for gossip, a thirst for living vicariously and taking risks through her. Her dependence on the media, and the resulting image-cum-identity, required first that she was pristine--yet few can be that, and being a nun, like Mother Teresa, certainly helps--second that she was active and adventurous; and third that she chose male companions who could withstand scrutiny. However prestigious she may be, the divorced woman is always something of a threat. The successful maintenance of the cultural package, Diana, required that she was all of these and more. It simply was not, is not, possible to be all this. In a sense we could tell the end of this sad story in three ways. One: she died through carelessness and a wish to do things her way, without official security operations. Or, two: she died through living a high-profile, jet-set lifestyle, with fast cars, rich men. Or, three: she died through a series of circumstances that beset her as a woman, she died through the weight of others' expectations of her, their desire to have a bit of her, and to know about her, through her own need to be charismatic, given the absence of other possible lives.

Of course, the constraints she lived under were peculiarly crippling. She was caught in a unique web, but her position at the fulcrum of conflicting cultural forces was hardly unique at all. Why do women in public have such a hard time? Why does their physical appearance matter so much? Why do they have to display levels of personal and moral probity more exacting than any man? Why is motherhood still so idealised? Why are women praised for a selflessness, that in a comparable man would be thought weak, passive, or excessive, and denigrated for ambitions that in a man would be construed as dynamic, energetic, constructive? How can we be so naive as to suppose that Diana's death will make Britain a more caring society; why should one woman's ghastly end effect change where others cannot? To believe that is to buy into the dreadful deception that women's displayed goodness to others has been a real historical force. I know of no evidence of that being the case. Why have so few countries opted for legitimate female leaders or encouraged mass political participation on the part of women?

There is something profoundly wrong with a country that spends millions on flowers, left rotting on London pavements and costing millions to remove, but cannot tolerate any redistribution of wealth through taxation. Reactions to Diana's death have not only distracted attention from the real (that is the structural) issues: why landmines continue to be manufactured and used, why AIDS elicited such dread, why refuges for battered women are needed. They have actually claimed that politics occurs where it does not. In my view the only fitting tribute to a woman who was indeed remarkable in many ways would be to understand how emotion substitutes for analysis and why women remain the repositories of humanitarian feeling. The alternative, extreme political naivety and continued idealisation of feminine caring and beauty, is unhelpful. Diana should be remembered not as someone who simply perpetuated the age-old contradictions of womanhood, but as someone who by embodying them so dramatically and tragically, gave fresh impetus to their critical analysis.

(1) Author of books on the Virgin Mary, 1976, Joan of Arc, 1981, and female personifications of abstract virtues, 1985.

(2) Gerth and Mills, eds., From Max Weber, 1970


Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Rise and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, London, 1991

H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1970

Olwen Hufton, "Women in Revolution 1789-1796," Past and Present, 1971, no 53, pp. 90-108

Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her. A History of Women in Western Europe, Volume One 1500-1800, HarperCollins, London, 1995

Charles Lindholm, Charisma, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990

Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1976

Marine Warner, Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985

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