We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Banks [née Davies], Olive Lucy (1923–2006), sociologist, historian, and feminist, was born at 10 Riley Road, Enfield Highway, Middlesex, on 2 July 1923, the only child of Herbert Alfred Davies, a house decorator, and later builder and contractor, and his wife, Jessie Louise, née Tebby, the widow of his brother. Her parents came from a working-class background and her awareness of feminism arose at an early age when she observed the dissatisfaction of her hard-pressed mother. Although there were no books at home and neither of her parents encouraged her to succeed at elementary school, in 1933 she won a scholarship to the local grammar school for girls, determined that a full-time domestic life was not for her. It was at Enfield county school that she developed a love of reading, music, and the theatre, despite the fact that she felt she did not fit in well among her predominantly middle-class peers. Her feminist awareness was sharpened when, at fifteen years old, a debate with the boys' grammar school on the motion that ‘a woman's place is in the home’ angered her; she was horrified both by the arguments advanced by the opposite sex and by the feeble replies given by the girls. The lesson was brought home more forcibly a few months later when she applied for a job at the local public library and was promptly informed that only boys could apply. As she later commented, ‘From that day my feminist commitment has never wavered’ (‘Reflections’, 403). As expected, she left school at sixteen and then worked as a clerk and later as a laboratory assistant until, on 22 June 1944, she married , also from a ‘respectable’ working-class family. During these years her appetite for further study had been awakened when she attended classes run by the local co-operative society and by the Workers' Educational Association.

Marriage did not end Olive Banks's desire for an academic career of her own, and Joe was supportive of her ambitions. In 1947 both entered the London School of Economics to read sociology, and both stayed on for postgraduate work. Her PhD thesis, completed in 1953, was turned into a book, Parity and Prestige in English Secondary Education: a Study in Educational Sociology (1955). This, with its emphasis upon the interplay between the educational system, the class structure of modern Britain, and the labour market, became very influential in the emerging discipline of sociology—as well as in policy-based discussions about how to make Britain a more equal society. Yet despite the recognition that she received for her book, she found it difficult to find a post in higher education. Eventually, in 1954, she was offered a temporary research post in the sociology and social work department of the University of Liverpool, where Joe had been appointed a senior researcher. Typically for women academics, she was kept on short-term contracts until 1959, when her post was made permanent. This enabled her to investigate a topic she had long wanted to study, the history of British feminism. In 1964 she published, with Joe, Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England. However, this book attracted little notice until a decade later when a generation of feminist academics emerged in the USA.

During the 1960s Olive Banks went through a period of depression about the discipline of sociology, largely due to the rejection of any kind of historical scholarship and the growing influence of Marxist theory, which emphasized the importance of social class rather than gender. By now she was teaching and publishing in the newly expanding field of the sociology of education. Her reputation as a leading scholar in the area was sealed with the publication of her highly successful and influential textbook, The Sociology of Education (1965). In 1970 she was appointed a reader in sociology at the University of Leicester (where Joe had been offered a professorship) and in 1973 became the first woman to hold a chair at that university.

During the 1970s, despite her regular attendance at the annual conferences of the British Sociological Association, Olive Banks's discontent with sociology increased. She found herself trapped in a field of expertise in which she had no abiding interest and in a male-dominated department that had no interest in gender issues. The advent of ‘second-wave’ feminism and the renewed interest in feminism generally among women academics at this time spurred her on to return to the subject that interested her, the history of feminism. Faces of Feminism, a historical and comparative study of feminism in Britain and the USA from the early nineteenth century to the 1970s, appeared in 1981. It sold extremely well, hitting the academic market at a time when women's studies courses were being established. The following year Olive and Joe Banks both took early retirement, thus helping to save the jobs of five younger colleagues.

Retirement brought Olive Banks more time for such leisure interests as opera, the arts, and gardening, but especially for research and writing. Her two-volume Biographical Dictionary of British Feminists (1985–1990) soon became an important reference source, while Becoming a Feminist: the Social Origins of ‘First Wave’ Feminism (1986) pioneered collective biography as an approach to the subject. The Politics of British Feminism, 1918–1970 (1993) was her last book. With increasing age she began to suffer from deafness and arthritis. When Joe died in 2005 she was heart-broken. They never had any children and Olive lamented the lack of a close extended family. She died at her home, 30 Lismore Grove, Buxton, Derbyshire, on 14 September 2006, following a heart attack.

June Purvis

Sources  

O. Banks, ‘Some reflections on gender, sociology and women's history’, Women's History Review, 8/3 (1999), 401–10 · The Guardian (12 Dec 2006) · J. Purvis, ‘Olive Banks (1923–2006): an appreciation’, Women's History Review, 16/2 (April 2007), 137–43 · personal knowledge (2010) · private information (2010) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in Guardian (12 Dec 2006)

Wealth at death  

£1,023,232: probate, 23 Nov 2006, CGPLA Eng. & Wales