THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I was determined to be an independent spirit.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, January 2022
JW: Please give us your full name and where and when you were born.
DL: It’s Diana Leidel. I was born 1946 in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
JW: Tell us a little about your childhood. What kind of influences were there that led you to the person you became?
DL: Well, I grew up in Allentown, which was a pretty nice place to be. My parents had very little money. I grew up in a working-class combo neighborhood, but with individual relatively large houses and backyards and an alley that you could ride a bicycle in. I had friends of various ethnic backgrounds. But there were basically no black families in town. It’s a very white community. Bethlehem Steel was a big employer, but not for my father who worked in a local supermarket in charge of their meat department, which is a little weird for me these days.
The one thing that I was very lucky with was the education in Allentown at the time; it was a very progressive school system. When I was in third grade, of course, they’re always doing tests for this or that, and who knows what kind of a test it was at the time, but I was able to get into their advanced program for the school district, which only involved a group of maybe 30 kids in each grade beginning in third grade. It was a marvelous program where we did advanced biology. We were taken to an intermediate school to work with teachers who normally taught older kids. I continued in this program throughout elementary school and junior high school.
My mother, particularly, was very concerned with education and working with me, but I never would have been exposed to as many possibilities and interests as I was there, so it was a really good experience. In high school, I was further involved in art. There was a wonderful art teacher, Mr. Musselman, who had worked in New York, and if you were interested in going on in art, he would work with you. He made it a wonderful experience for me.
I had decided I wanted to go to art school. I could have gotten scholarships, I believe, to various colleges, but I really wanted to go to art school, and I wanted to come to New York, and that’s what I did. Through his assistance and direction, I was able to go to Cooper Union. Cooper Union, still is mostly, but was an entirely free art school and free architecture and engineering school as well. As long as you could sustain your grades, you had a free ride for education and a really marvelous one. Although I always felt a little like I would have liked a broader experience in college, I was happy with the experience and exposure that I had.
JW: When did you become aware of the women’s movement or women’s issues?
DL: I’m not sure exactly. Certainly, in college I was not active and I have never been somebody who really goes on marches or does organizing, but I was interested. I don’t know if I would have identified myself as a feminist in early college, but that was certainly always my direction.
JW: I believe you had some incident that opened your eyes to discrimination against women.
DL: Yes, it was when I was in college, I had a boyfriend that I was very in love with, and we were having sex and using birth control. But I think we were both concerned to be sure that we were protected and I was protected. I got the name of a local OBGYN doctor, actually, who did have an office close to the school. This was through a good girlfriend of mine. Birth control pills had become available, but they were still new. I decided to get in touch with him about birth control pills.
He said, “Certainly, I’ll see you about them,” and made an appointment. “But I’ll see you at my home office.” I thought, well, this is strange, but I agreed to the appointment. My friend went with me. He was perfectly legitimate, a perfectly reasonable office. He did give me a prescription, with no exam. He explained about the birth control pills and gave me a six-month prescription. Then at the end of the six months, I called for an appointment and found out that he was not available. He had had a heart attack and was out very ill. But his partner in the practice would be able to see me. They knew it was a follow up appointment. That’s all they knew.
When I went to the appointment, it was in Stuyvesant Town, which is a large housing development, with very middle-class families and lots of babies. The waiting room was just full of pregnant women. I was like, I don’t know what this is. When I got to see him, and he found out why I was there, he was infuriated and he refused to talk to me. He threw me out of the office, told me to leave. As you can imagine, I was astonished, but I was also outraged. I didn’t feel humiliated. I just felt this can’t be.
I was then, through my friend, able to locate a woman gynecologist. I had decided that I would want to see a woman. Of course, at that time, there weren’t very many women practicing at all. But she was a wonderful doctor who practiced in Manhattan, in the Village. I went to see her, and she was perfectly amenable. That really set me thinking about what male doctors think of women and expect of them, and how did they deal with them? I never went to a male gynecologist after that.
JW: At some point you did become active in women’s health issues?
DL: Yes. As I said, I was always interested. I was in a consciousness raising group, actually, a very large one, which was really important. It was important for all of us, as it was for many women. A friend of mine, who was not part of that group, she worked on part time things while she went to school, and was working as a receptionist at a birth control and abortion clinic. One day when she couldn’t get to her job, she asked, if it was okay with them, would I be willing to go in and sit in for her. I said, “Sure.”
When I went there, I felt like my eyes were opened because it was all women on the staff, which I don’t think was a philosophical choice, but it was a choice that various people had made. I think it was the only nonprofit abortion clinic in the country at the time. People were coming from all over the country, Ohio, Florida, New Jersey, New England, New York.
JW: This is in the early 1970’s, before Roe v Wade?
DL: Yes, exactly. They did counseling, which was unheard of that you would have counseling for any procedure. They were very serious about providing it. I ended up becoming a counselor and staying probably, at least, three years or more. But I think an important thing about the counseling – which was originally part of the counseling for abortion and then for other things, that women in particular instituted and carried out – was that it wasn’t just providing information or setting yourself up as the expert.
But what was important was really talking to women about, for them to be sure, first of all, if it was an abortion, that they wanted to have the procedure – and that they understood what was going to happen. But then following them through with the whole day, going into the abortion procedure with them, holding their hands, talking to them, checking up afterwards. If somebody couldn’t get home, making some arrangements or checking on flights – all that was unheard of in healthcare. It was tremendously worthwhile and engaging.
JW: You did continue, though, in other health care activities?
DL: Well, I stayed with the clinic until it closed. It closed because Roe v. Wade made abortion access much more possible. At that time, not only were people able to have abortion procedures if they wanted them in their own states, but hospitals had loosened up on the availability of procedures, and a number of freestanding clinics had arisen. The clinic, Women’s Medical Center, was nonprofit, at the lowest possible price. And it was getting arduous to continue. Basically, the board, which included the staff, felt that there was no need to maintain the clinical services because new 0profit and nonprofit clinics were able to do the procedures for maybe $10 more than we could.
Then a number of us who had worked there, plus other women from the Women’s Health and Abortion Project and other organizations in New York, felt that we wanted to continue the education aspect that we had developed. We had created a course, open to all, called Know Your Body in conjunction with the Boston Women’s Health Collective, the writers of Our Bodies, Ourselves. We exchanged and coordinated information and always made sure that we checked with the physicians, the nurses, or whatever, to make sure that our information was accurate. It was very successful, with sessions overflowing with women.
Several of us wanted to take the educational program that we had developed and taught at Women’s Medical Center. We decided to set up a much smaller educational women’s nonprofit organization.
JW: What was that called?
DL: It was called Women’s Health Forum, and then became the nonprofit organization HealthRight.
JW: That’s where you did most of the educational stuff?
DL: Yes. We had done a lot at Women’s Medical Center, but our whole thrust with HealthRight was doing courses and/or going to speak to schools, if we were invited, or to colleges or connecting with women around the country, a lot of groups or individuals would come to New York. We would share information and strategies with them and sometimes go out to their locations to work with them. It was an ongoing development of women’s relationships and interest in health issues.
JW: You also mentioned to me that you started to use your art to further the interests of HealthRight.
DL: We published a newsletter, and I was involved in the editing of it, which in those days, you tended to do by committee. But I had to make sure that it was ready to go on schedule. I designed it and other materials for the courses and promotional materials. Also, I did a lot of photography for class materials as well as continuing to teach.
JW: You created a poster with a man on it. Would you describe that for us?
DL: That was as part of a group that I was involved in called, Women’s Artworks, and it was basically more of a consciousness raising group. We did a poster based on the notion, “if men could get pregnant.” We photographed an actor friend, a guy, in a maternity top, the kind that used to be what most pregnant women wore, on the steps of the court building at Foley Square, and then we pasted it up on light poles and such around the city.
JW: You did then get back into your art seriously, right?
DL: Yes. I worked full time for more than four years in the health movement, and I felt that I needed to go into a visual art profession. Although I continued to be involved with women’s health, I went into magazine publishing. I came to the conclusion, if I really wanted to stay in health as a career, I would need to get a public health degree, which was not of interest to me.
JW: How do you use your art as a feminist?
DL: Well, not very much in terms of health, although I did continue to be involved with HealthRight. A friend of mine carried out the design aspect of HealthRight print materials that we collaborated on. On a fine arts note, actually, I have just discovered drawings and paintings in storage I had done around that period. Some of them were almost obscene. I had no notion of that at the time. But that was the anger, feminist anger that I accepted it as part of myself without realizing that it was really very potent. But as far as really feminist action, I didn’t do too much for a long period until after I was very established professionally. I had children and didn’t have very much time to make art. But I started working on some projects in praise of women or asking questions about women’s roles.
One of the things I did was an installation I called Wild Women, which involved historic research. It consisted of the stories of approximately 60 women who you probably never heard of. I created a project, exemplifying their names and their accomplishments. It was also an audio exhibition. It was shown in galleries in several places around the city. I worked on the video part with Cat Del Buono, a friend of mine who’s a tremendously active feminist and has done a number of important projects about women and women being injured by men.
It’s interesting, though, and I think this is a good thing, among the 60 women that I chose, that a lot of them now have come to the fore as more people have started investigating and promoting women’s accomplishments. I didn’t necessarily just select women who you would want to imitate. One was a Spanish bullfighter. Some women were scientists or writers or runners or baseball players. I’m really pleased today that there has been that much interest in discovering women who have excelled. I’ve done some other projects such as women commuters dozing in the subway. I’m always looking for the ordinary person or somebody you might not think about in terms of acknowledging them.
I mentioned that I’m working on a project now that I call, Women Arrested. It consists of small black and white portraits of women who have been arrested. It was partly inspired by a famous mug shot of Emma Goldman, the early 20th century feminist, labor organizer and anarchist. She had been arrested for something she really didn’t do, an assassination attempt that her male companion was involved in. I don’t remember if the assassination target was the president or a steel magnate who had terrible things against the worker’s union. She didn’t have anything to do with that.
In mug shots in those days, the mug shot would include identification, the prisoner number or whatever, which would be written in a rather crude way on the photo. I thought about that a lot. I posted it in the studio and I kept coming back to it. I think that when women are arrested – I’m saying, we, including other people I’ve spoken to – we look at them differently than we look at the way men are arrested. The women are people who have either stepped out of a role or been forced out of a rule that is assigned to women or maybe they have been arrested for something terrible they did, or for no reason at all.
It could be a civil rights issue. It could be a mistake, it could be they were framed, it could be they stole $10,000 many years ago. I’ve been interested in those being separated out from “normal women,” particularly as they are seen in the media at that moment when they’re photographed. They could have been arrested but not convicted of anything. My project is to have 100 of those portraits. Actually, I can show you one if you want to see.
JW: I’d love to.
DL: I brought three. Because they’re from all different periods.
JW: Great. “Arrested several times…” and I can’t quite read the rest.
DL: It says Minsky. This is Gypsy Rose Lee who worked for the Minsky theaters.
JW: I see.
DL: Some of them are famous. Actually, the ones I’ve picked out here are all known. This is Fannie Lou Hamer when she and her group in the south were trying to register to vote. This is Cathy Evelyn Smith, who was the woman who actually ended up shooting up, and killing John Belushi. She didn’t intend to kill him, but she was responsible. Unfortunately, in that instance, the police were not attempting to prosecute anybody. But, I think, two weeks after Belushi died, she did a media interview where she said, “I killed John Belushi,” and she was arrested and tried.
JW: What would you say to sum up, because you were born in this era of attention to women in a way that did not happen before, how does that all affect your personal and professional life?
DL: Well, it’s hard to respond. A house with a picket fence is one thing as a vision, but I didn’t want the two kids and the house and the home in the suburbs. One thing I really did not ever want to be was “at home,” that is married to someone who goes out and you spend your time around the house. My mother did, which was not a problem for her, but that felt like a living hell to me. Again, I’m on, actually the very early cusp of the baby boom. But we were all exposed to things on TV, such as Father Knows Best – although I watched a lot of that stuff and enjoyed it, I just felt it was not for me. I always felt that.
Going off to New York City and going to school was really turning my back on that kind of thing, such as not going to a campus college and having that kind of sheltered experience. I really felt that I wanted to, in whatever way, make my own way. I didn’t have any aspirations to be famous or great or whatever. But I just recalled, when I was thinking about this, when I left for college (my mother was very protective) and I remember saying to her, and I don’t know what I would have thought if I was a mother and my daughter said this, “I love you but I’m not coming back home. I’ll be around but I’m really not coming back.”
That’s the way I have felt. I had read a little Simone de Beauvoir who became a bit of a heroine for me later in college. I was determined to be an independent spirit, but liking men. It’s not that I didn’t want a man in my life but not in what had been the traditional way when I was a child.
JW: Is there anything else you’d like to say in summing up?
DL: As far as being involved, specifically in the women’s health movement, it was a wonderful experience. I still have great friends who were involved intensely for much longer than I was. I think that we all learned a lot and grew a lot in it and I was very happy that many good things have happened – but perhaps not good enough as far as women are concerned in their relationship to the health system and acknowledgement of women and of the strength of them, not to mention what is happening nationally today with abortion rights, which is the tip of the iceberg for the constriction of women’s rights and lives.
I think I had mentioned to you the genesis of the Patient’s Bill of Rights that is common now, that you get to see and acknowledge when you go to a physician your first time. It really was pretty much developed from the Women’s Health Movement. But you don’t hear about that being the impetus for it, but it really was. Of course, there were physicians involved at the time also who were promoting and being very supportive of it, but as women and feminists, it came from us.