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date: 04 August 2021

McIntosh, Mary Susanfree

(1936–2013)

McIntosh, Mary Susanfree

(1936–2013)
  • J. Weeks

McIntosh, Mary Susan (1936–2013), sociologist, feminist, and campaigner for gay rights, was born on 13 March 1936 at New End Hospital, Hampstead, London, the younger child of Albert William (Mac) McIntosh (1904–1994), a businessman who later became professor of marketing at the London Business School, and his wife, Helena Agnes (Jenny), née Britton (1900–1989). At the time of her birth registration the family lived at 4a Lawn Road, Hampstead. Her elder brother, Andrew Robert McIntosh, later Baron McIntosh of Haringey (1933–2010), became a Labour politician and minister. Both their parents had been Communist Party supporters during the 1930s, and Mary's own politics in later life were closer to theirs than to the centrist Labour politics for which Andrew became known.

Educated at High Wycombe School for Girls (1947–55) and St Anne's College, Oxford (1955–8), where she read philosophy, politics, and economics, Mary McIntosh subsequently became a graduate student in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley (1958–60). Her career there was abruptly cut short when she was expelled from the USA after participating in a demonstration against the House Un-American Activities Committee. On returning home, in an unlikely move for someone so committed to radicalism, she joined the research unit of the famously conservative Home Office, from 1961 to 1963, as an assistant research officer. She was soon drawn to a more appealing academic career, becoming a lecturer in sociology at the University of Leicester from 1963 to 1968, and at Borough Polytechnic from 1968 to 1972. Following three years as a research fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, studying prostitution, she moved to Essex University in 1975, where she remained, as lecturer and senior lecturer, until her retirement in 1996, becoming the first female head of the sociology department. She was an effective administrator, an excellent and popular teacher, pioneering courses on gender divisions and feminist theory, and an influential if reluctant writer. From the late 1960s she also became prominent in a wide range of radical causes, especially the gay liberation movement and women's liberation.

Mary McIntosh was involved in the London Gay Liberation Front (GLF) from its emergence in October 1970. The GLF offered a dynamic and declaredly revolutionary alternative to the cautious homophile politics that had campaigned to liberalize the law on homosexuality in the 1960s, and McIntosh, one of a relatively small minority of lesbians involved, immediately became a leading figure. She was a key member of the group that wrote the influential GLF Manifesto (1971), and a leading light of the Counter-Psychiatry Group, pioneering opposition to psychiatric practice in relation to homosexuality. When women later left the GLF because of its masculinist bias, her energies were increasingly deployed in the women's liberation movement, though unlike many feminists of the period she never broke her friendships and work with gay men. She took a prominent role in the socialist feminist strand of the women's liberation movement, bringing to it a distinctive Marxist position, with a particular interest in state policy and women's economic dependence in the family. She was active in the Fifth Demand Group, which campaigned for the financial and legal independence of married and cohabiting women, and Rights of Women, concerned with legal equality. In the late 1980s she was active in Feminists Against Censorship, arguing strongly against radical and separatist feminist critiques of pornography, and placing herself clearly with the pro-sex movement among feminists.

McIntosh's theoretical stance had evolved from the structural functionalism of her youth to a sophisticated Marxist feminism (she joined the Communist Party in 1974) but throughout she was interested in achieving a wider understanding of the forces determining structural inequality, sexuality, and women's subordination. In 1968 she published (in the journal Social Problems) an essay entitled 'The homosexual role', which emphasized the social and historical factors that shaped denigratory and oppressive homosexual categories and identities. This became a founding document of what became known as social constructionist approaches towards sexuality—almost a decade before the French philosopher Michel Foucault famously developed a similar argument in The History of Sexuality (1976), which is usually seen as the starting point of this approach. With the birth of gay liberation her essay achieved a new relevance and became highly influential in the development of sexual history and gay theory.

Despite her intellectual originality and power McIntosh's published output was relatively small, as she found the writing process agonizing, but her publications were never less than significant, combining theoretical sophistication, clarity of exposition, and sharp political insights. Notable publications included The Organisation of Crime (1975), her only sole-authored book, and two co-edited volumes, Deviance and Social Control (1974) and Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate (1992). The Antisocial Family (1982), co-written with her then partner, Michèle Barrett, was a subversive challenge to the normative family. It grew out of women's liberation and gay liberation critiques, and was very influential on subsequent debates on the family and personal life. In addition to 'The homosexual role', several other articles were to prove similarly influential, notably on prostitution and the myth of ‘male sexual needs’.

McIntosh was actively engaged in a wide range of other radical projects. She was a prominent member of the National Deviancy Conference (1968–75), which sought to break with the stifling and positivistic orthodoxies of criminology; a member of the editorial board and first editor of Economy and Society (1972–8); and a founding member of the editorial collective of Feminist Review (1978–94). She proved also to be a skilled operator in more conventional committee work, especially as a member of the policy advisory committee to the government's Criminal Law Revision Committee (1976–85), concerned with reviewing sexual offences.

In her personal life Mary McIntosh lived out the egalitarian ideals she advocated in her activism and writings. She had lived openly in a lesbian relationship with the cultural historian and novelist Elizabeth Wilson (b. 1936) in the 1960s at a time when discretion was the norm. Subsequent partners included Kerry Schott (b. 1944), later a business executive in Australia, and the sociologist and social theorist Michèle Barrett (b. 1949), with whom she co-parented a son, Duncan Barrett (b. 1983). Later in the 1980s she began a relationship with the designer Angela Stewart-Park (b. 1948), which endured the rest of her life. They entered a civil partnership in 2005.

Mary McIntosh was a warm, gregarious, and supportive friend, enjoyed travelling and good food, and was much loved by large numbers of people. Despite a slight air of diffidence in public—she would often sit in meetings quietly doing her needlepoint—she was a powerful and passionate speaker, lucid, and above all supremely rational in her arguments. She was made a PhD by Essex University in 1991, but was never promoted by the university to the full professorship that many felt her influence and reputation deserved. After her retirement from Essex University in 1996 she became a visiting teaching fellow at Birkbeck College, London (1996–2001), a volunteer for Age Concern, and a volunteer at and later manager of a Citizens Advice Bureau in north London. She lived for many years in Stoke Newington, and moved to her last home at 7 Highbury Grove shortly before her death. She was badly affected by a stroke in 2010 which slowed her down considerably. Following a second stroke she died on 5 January 2013 at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, in Queen Square, London. She was cremated at Marylebone cemetery on 18 January, when a full congregation braved a howling snowstorm to commemorate her life and achievements. She was survived by Angela Stewart-Park and Duncan Barrett.

Sources

  • M. McIntosh, ‘From GLF to WLM’, video footage, www.bl.uk/collection-items/from-glf-to-wlm, 30 April 2016, BL, Sisterhood and After: The Women's Liberation Oral History collection
  • obituary, University of Essex website, 11 Jan 2013, www.essex.ac.uk/news/event.aspx?e_id=4834, 21 Jan 2016
  • obituary, Gender and Education Association website, 16 Jan 2013
  • The Guardian (11 Feb 2013)
  • The Independent (22 Feb 2013)
  • Radical Philosophy, 178 (March–April 2013), 70–72
  • Australian Feminist Studies, 28/77 (2013), 245–6
  • Sexualities, 16/5–6 (Sept 2013), 743–6
  • personal knowledge (2017)
  • private information (2017)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • London School of Economics

Film

  • BL, Sisterhood and After: The Women's Liberation Oral History collection, ‘From GLF to WLM’, www.bl.uk/collection-items/from-glf-to-wlm

Sound

  • BL NSA, interview recordings, www.bl.uk/people/mary-mcintosh
  • BL NSA, interview and documentary recordings

Likenesses

  • obituary photographs
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British Library, London
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British Library, National Sound Archive