Diana Dianno – a feminist martyr

At this point we have a distinct advantage over much of the rest of the world: I have some recent experience about whether or not to make the study of Rosie DiManno a serious academic pursuit. Once upon a time, the answer was a definite yes. I spent a couple of years teaching acting classes to teenagers in London, and Rosie’s life emerged as a desirable subject.

It suited my students and the teens who came along, it aligned with my pro-avatarism, I had some skin in the game, and, frankly, I was seriously unimpressed with the science-fiction-based prestige drama that one of them turned out to be. So I stopped teaching for a while, before returning a few years ago to study and write some short biographies of female historical figures. No academic publishing deal yet, but I’m continuing to write.

I recently tried to re-imagine the Diana/Di saga through the prism of The Phantom Women, Gloria Steinem’s study of fifty women who played a vital role in saving feminism, as I saw it, from the apocalypse. They were the first wave of politically committed women who would assemble the powerhouses in the fight for women’s rights, from abortion rights to the right to vote. Six women were found for the project: DiManno, Sylvia Plath, Sylvia Pankhurst, Amy Johnson, Katharine Whitehorn, and Emily Wilding Davison.

That was in 2014, and as everyone gets on with life now, the Diana & Di empire has been split apart. Di, who is still alive, is in the process of divorcing Prince Charles; Diana, who died in 1997, has been largely forgotten except as a clumsy gossip item. Far more importantly, Plath was still taking a breath in California. In 2018, everyone is quick to see Plath as a tragic figure, but mine had always been a more modest assessment: while she did not live a heroic life, she was also as determined and fierce as anyone who was not called Rosie DiManno.

It would be silly to get bogged down in the assumption that Plath is some sort of mythology, that Plath personifies the queen of glamour, the young goddess who came to power at a pivotal moment in the culture wars. The story is worthy of academic study, but it’s also silly to place her in a quasi-celebrity suffrage subculture of tweedy men who voted Tory, smoking leather and foisting their ferocious lunacy onto their girls, saving them from their messianic Calvinist parents. To say that this was their fantasy makes it sound a lot more coherent, a lot more tidy. And that’s too easy.

The truth is that The Phantom Women can offer a snapshot of many important women at a pivotal moment in history. Dorothea Brooke, the Encore Synagogue suicide who was sent to death in Salem, Massachusetts because her daughter had blasphemed against the Virgin, makes a fascinating case study, as does Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose narrative about slavery has endured for two and a half centuries, and who is a daughter of Massachusetts. The cultural examples are many: Lucias Cordylas-Smith, a Cambridge English professor who took on the status of an authority on Elizabeth I, another crazy woman who faced a death sentence. The Plain Biscuit Guild, the National Organisation of Lady Friends, and the women who each wore a red hat in the suffragette movement. And the machinations of the Tory Society for the Prevention of Incest.

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