Princess Diana Was a Feminist Hero As the Royal Family’s ‘Strong Woman’

Princess Diana
Princess Diana on the Caribbean island of Nevis on January 4, 1993. The “People’s Princess” died in a car accident on August 31, 1997. REUTERS/Mark Cardwell

Newsweek published this story under the headline of “Death of a Princess” on September 8, 1997. To remember her legacy 20 years after the death of Diana, princess of Wales, Newsweek is republishing the story.

She was beautiful, of course; she was young and she was royal. In the shock of her death, the world struggled to reconcile the seemingly contradictory sources of Diana's appeal: the Princess of Wales was both pop icon and the mother of kings, a very modern woman who owed her fame to the most archaic of institutions. Her secret was that she was all these things. Diana was capable of profound change—both in her private life and in her public image—while maintaining a passionate link with her public. Such graceful resilience is a rare gift. 

When she married Charles in 1981, Diana personified the fairy-tale version of royalty. The awkward teenager, a cloud of hair dipping over her eyes, captured the world's most eligible bachelor. Her wedding gown seemed to stretch the length of St. Paul's, and when the bridal couple chastely kissed afterward on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, millions thrilled to the spectacle. In time, the public untangled the truth from the tableau. This was not a marriage lifted from the pages of a romantic novel but an all-too-modern, deeply troubled one. The beautiful princess was not a shy young thing gamely struggling with her role but a woman who, in her misery, became desperately sick. The heir to the throne was not a stoic bulwark and tutor but a man who could barely conceal his irritation that Diana did not develop a stiff upper lip and shape up.

Royalty on her watch seemed to become just another branch of celebrity: everyone had a chance to be famous and nobody was allowed to stay on a pedestal for long. After the deadly chase in Paris, Diana became the most tragic casualty so far of the curious connection between the famous and the rest of us.

By the time Charles and Diana separated in 1989, her moment as an icon of young beauty and motherhood was over. What came next was truly surprising. A woman who had been contemptuously thought of as dim was revealed to be rather clever. A person who had led a life of privilege turned out to have the common touch, boldly embracing AIDS babies at a time when fighting the epidemic was far from fashionable. The person who had been raised to stay in her husband's shadow gave a television interview in which she rejoiced in being a "strong woman."

When she first appeared in 1980, she brought light to a drab Old British society that had lost both an empire and its self-confidence. When she died, she had become the epitome of the New Brit—stylish, cosmopolitan, liking the town but hating the country. She could change other people's attitudes, and did. Until Diana, no more than a few hundred Britons cared two figs for land mines—but the abolition of those weapons has become one of the country's most fiercely held causes.

The rest of the royals will now take over again. The princess's funeral will be moving; her two sons will become the focus of an outpouring of love. The monarchy will do what it has done best for a thousand years: mysteriously unite the nation—and a watching world—with a solemn pageant of kings and princes. But in her brief life, Diana pursued a different title, and there is no doubt she succeeded in her quest. "She was the People's Princess," said Tony Blair, Britain's prime minister, "and that's how she will remain in our hearts and memory forever."