Mary McIntosh: feminist inspiration and pioneer of radical, lesbian sociology and criminology (1936 – January 5th 2013)

Mary McIntosh was a leading feminist sociologist of her generation, namely that of what is now often referred to as ‘second-wave’ feminism, and both a pioneer and great inspiration to those of us who followed quickly in her footsteps. She started as a committed Marxist and campaigner for social justice and human rights, rapidly becoming an active member of the lesbian and gay liberation movement, and, at the same time, helping to establish an array of women’s campaigning groups. It was her activism that was an essential characteristic and was both awe-inspiring and breath-taking: she was somewhat of a reluctant writer, although her key publications were hugely influential.

In the 1960s she had been at the forefront of demands for legal and social rights, and was a key member of the London Gay Liberation Front and its links with the rising women’s liberation movement, together with her then partner the equally inspirational Elizabeth Wilson. As a critical sociologist, she helped establish the National Deviancy Conference in 1968 with other so-called Young Turks, namely the late Stan Cohen (who died 2 days after she did on January 7th 2013) and Laurie Taylor. As a new member of the Communist party, she also helped with the establishment of socialist-feminist magazine Red Rag at the end of the 1960s.

During this time her energy was amazing; she started writing, speaking and campaigning about the women’s and gay rights across the country, having published an article entitled ‘The Homosexual Role’ in the American journal Social Problems (University of California Press) Vol 16, No 2, (Autumn, 1968). This was to become one of the classical and foundational arguments for the development of the sociology of deviancy, homosexuality and also feminist sociology. She gave a seminar to the sociology department at the University of Bristol in the Autumn of 1973 (which is where I first met her).

By the 1970s, she was very active in contributing the first four demands of the women’s movement, and played a major role in the fifth demand: the campaign for women’s legal and financial independence. This also spawned the ‘Why Be a Wife?’ campaign and became enmeshed with the campaigns for the right to define one’s own sexuality. She was also very active in the British Sociological Association, helping to set up the women’s caucus in the 1970s, and the first conference on sexual divisions and society held at Aberdeen in March 1973.

She was a founding member of the Editorial Board and the first Editor of Economy and Society from 1972 to 1978. At the same time, she was part of the collective that established Feminist Review in 1979 which described itself as a socialist feminist journal, bringing together theory research and political action and was influential in its editorial policies for 15 years (to issue no 49). 

The Anti-Social Family, (1982) her critique of the family as a social institution and as an experience under capitalist societies, written with her then partner Michelle Barrett, and published by New Left Books, has become something of a classic in feminist and family sociology and social policy. Her edited books have also been serious contributions to the developing field of feminist studies, particularly her Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate (Virago, London, 1992), edited with Lynne Segal.

Born in 1936, Mary went to Oxford to read PPE in the 1950s, and from there she went to the University of California, Berkeley to continue her studies. She returned to England in the early 1960s working first at the Home Office Research Unit, London, and then becoming a lecturer in sociology at the University of Leicester. She moved from there to South Bank (then Polytechnic, now University) in 1968 as a senior lecturer in sociology, helping to establish the then new department of social sciences (which I later went on to Head from 1985 to 1992). She then went to Nuffield College Oxford as a researcher remaining there until she moved to Essex University in 1975 to a lectureship in sociology. She became a senior lecturer from 1980 until her retirement in 1996, and was the first woman head of the department from 1986 to 1989. Despite her excellent pioneering and inspirational teaching and scholarship Essex never saw fit to promote her to a chair, or even readership.

After retirement she continued to work on a range of radical projects, including working as a volunteer with Age Concern. Latterly, her health was not good, and she suffered a series of strokes, before succumbing to one on the weekend of January 5th 2013. As a serious intellectual and critic, she is a tragic loss to the feminist and radical communities.

Her other publications included: Editor of Deviance and Social Control (Tavistock, London, 1974); The Organisation of Crime (Macmillan, London, 1975).

See also a celebration of Mary McIntosh by Professor Ken Plummer of Essex University here

Miriam E. David, GEA policy officer.

2 thoughts on “Mary McIntosh: feminist inspiration and pioneer of radical, lesbian sociology and criminology (1936 – January 5th 2013)

  1. So sorry to hear of marys passing RIP she was amazing woman and inspired me as a irish working claas lesbain to get an education and fight for socail justise for all xx

  2. I’m very sad to hear of Mary’s death. I was one of her students, back in the 1960s at the then South Bank Poly. She was an inspirational teacher.

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