Obituary - Diana Leonard 1941-2010

17th December 2010 at 00:00

Few people had considered marriage a tool of patriarchal oppression until Diana Leonard told them it was. From her post at the University of London's Institute of Education, the radical feminist remained at the forefront of the women's liberation movement throughout the 1970s.

Diana Mary Leonard was born in Trinidad in 1941. Her mother was a teacher trainer, her father a scientist; the family was living in the Caribbean while he researched the optimal conditions for exporting bananas to Europe.

They returned to Britain after the Second World War, and teenage Diana attended the independent Brighton and Hove High School. She went on to read natural sciences at Girton College, Cambridge, specialising in archaeology and anthropology.

On graduation, she worked briefly as a science teacher, before leaving to begin work on a PhD in social anthropology at Swansea University. Her research examined trends in courtship and weddings; ever the conscientious academic, she complemented her research by getting married herself. She went on to have three children: Hannah, Polly and Tom.

It was her work on marriage that eventually came to dominate not only her career, but also her political attitudes. This was the late 1960s, when educated women were becoming increasingly vocal about women's oppression within the home and the workplace.

And so the young Dr Leonard published ardent critiques of marriage, claiming it created economic dependence by women on men. Few people before then had drawn attention to the financially exploitative nature of marriage: this, rather than the workplace, she said, was the greatest oppressor of women in society.

Her own marriage, meanwhile, broke down and she subsequently had a series of primarily lesbian relationships. Lesbianism and bisexuality became defining elements in her life. She opposed the use of heterosexuality to oppress women, instead arguing for different, more equal, relationships.

One significant relationship, both personal and professional, was with French sociologist and feminist Christine Delphy, whom she described as her "soul sister". The two met at a sociological conference in 1972. Familiar Exploitation, the product of 20 years of collaboration, was published in 1992.

In 1976, after several years at Essex University, Dr Leonard was offered a job teaching sociology of education at the Institute of Education. In the 1980s, she was promoted to a readership, before being made professor in the 1990s.

This post allowed Professor Leonard to continue her research into marriage, but also to look into issues affecting the treatment of girls in schools. She examined sexual violence and bullying in the classroom, focusing on the behaviour of boys and on the ways in which teachers tacitly condoned such bullying.

In recent years, she also looked into the implication of single-sex schooling on women's family and work patterns.

Intellectually formidable, she could be acerbic at times: she referred to her King Charles spaniel, Harry, for example, as "a completely foppish dog". Though she was never nasty, the combination of incisive mind and acid tongue was often overwhelming for students.

But she also had a keen sense of fun. The minutes of a 1983 meeting of the Explorations in Feminism collective note that "Di kept having good ideas about parties throughout the meeting".

She retained an active interest in current events throughout her life. Weeks before her death, she purchased Tony Blair's autobiography. At other times, she would relax with detective fiction by authors such as Stieg Larsson or Amanda Cross.

She travelled broadly, visiting international academics, and used this as an opportunity to study the position of women in countries such as Mexico, Pakistan and Israel. In return, she welcomed visiting academic friends into her own home, regaling them with stories of her relationships.

But she was aware of the ironies in her life. She felt she had walked into a socio-political trap at the Institute of Education and was resentful that strong women were regularly overlooked for promotion. Colleagues felt it had taken an unconscionably long time for her to be awarded a professorship.

Professor Leonard first developed endometrial cancer eight years ago. Despite apparently successful treatment, the cancer resurfaced and colleagues held a one-day conference to celebrate her career. She surprised them all by surviving for another two years. She was still taking walks with Harry on Hampstead Heath two weeks before her death on 27 November.

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