I was just a kid when Diana burst onto the scene, resplendent on the People magazine covers that my Mom bought from the grocery store, despite the razzing she’d get from my Dad about splurging our lower-middle class budget on such nonsense. Sometimes back issues would be procured from our pediatrician’s office after he replaced them with the latest month’s spread.
I loved looking at the pictures, and also reading every tidbit about her glamorous, glittery life, full of charity events and world-class dinners with a who’s who of celebrities, politicians, and other royals.
Just as I was reaching an age to understand such nuances, something shifted in these articles. Her trip to an AIDS clinic in 1987 made headlines around the world when she was pictured shaking hands with one of the patients, and later proclaimed boldly, “HIV does not make people dangerous to know. You can shake their hands and give them a hug.”
This seems like a no-brainer now, but it must be understood that back then her saying it out loud completely changed the narrative for those suffering from AIDS, and for gay people. People began to infuse compassion and respect into their conversations on the subject.
Transpose this against the reaction from some in the royal family. I learned that, rather than supporting her, the Queen was critical of her decision to place so much focus on AIDS awareness. So too were there grumblings about her taking her boys out to be among us “commoners” on volunteering ventures, or have some fun at area amusement parks. She kept doing it anyway.
And I began to understand that not all that glitters is gold.
When her marriage fell apart shortly afterwards, she faced the fight of her life. This is because she had signed a pre-wedding royal decree, standard for all who joined the royal family for centuries, that in the event of a divorce the royal family retained custody of her children.
This was signed in 1981. The price for being a princess was control. Even though I was still a kid, I remember that sinking into my Soul. This ‘upper-class’ world of royal glamour, celebrity socializing, and political influence treated people as beings to be punished if they ever chose to leave it.
She chose to leave it anyway. On her own terms. Those terms being shared custody of her children. Today, you’ll hear a lot about her loss of title and her generous financial settlement, but what is less discussed – and was all over the press back then – was how she was terrified of losing her kids. And because of that agreement made just before her wedding, she had reason to be.
So, she took her case to the press. The same press that had reportedly made millions off of her images. From her separation in 1992 to her final divorce in 1996 she dug her heals in and began revealing her side of the story. It didn’t exactly shine the monarchy in a favorable light. There was tremendous push back. She kept talking anyway.
After her famous 1995 Panorama interview, the Queen finally cracked. She strongly urged Prince Charles to divorce Diana. Which was royal-speak for Diana getting joint custody of her kids like she wanted.
Diana went on to be instrumental in the reform efforts to eradicate landmines, and her influence was key in helping to pass the Ottawa Treaty banning antipersonnel mines. She even reportedly received a call from then British Minister of Armed Forces Nicholas Soames to drop the campaign because, “You never know when an accident is going to happen.”1 She kept campaigning for mine reform anyway.
Her other humanitarian work included more than 100 charities and numerous causes, from homelessness to leprosy.
I didn’t include an image of Diana in this article today. I choose instead to hold in my mind how she acted , not what she looked like doing so. She patterned for a generation of girls and young women what unyielding inner strength looks like – and in so doing flipped her middle finger at the control systems that keep women locked into limited lives.
Today, there’s still a lot of focus on the way that Princess Diana died. I strongly suspect that she’d be much more interested in having us apply the lessons she had to teach us about how to live.
“I think every strong woman in history has had to walk down a similar path, and I think it’s the strength that causes the confusion and the fear. Why is she strong? Where does she get it from? Where is she taking it? Where is she going to use it?” – Princess Diana
1. Diana: The Last Word, 178-180