Sheila Allen: Uncompromising sociologist who pioneered the concept of institutional racism in Britain

Sheila Allen was an uncompromising intellectual, feminist, and socialist, and an impressive role model for generations of students who were taught, mentored, challenged, argued with and supported by her. For those in authority, she was often “an impossible woman” precisely because she refused to be bullied and intimidated. She understood the importance of power relations and divisions of every sort in society – ethnicity, class, gender, disability.

She set up Bradford’s Ethnicity and Social Policy Research Centre; she initiated one of the first undergraduate courses on sexual divisions in society, and she is thought to be the first to have used the concept of institutional racism in a British context.

Born Sheila McKenny in Gilberdyke, East Yorkshire, she was brought up in Lincolnshire, and was always proud of her working-class origins.

Aware of the privileged destination, she took up a place at Sleaford Girls Grammar School, when “no one in my family, even those who passed the scholarship, had ever gone to a grammar school”. She went on to LSE to study sociology, and wrote of the luxury of reading for a degree.

She was the first woman appointed to a chair (in sociology) at the University of Bradford, where she drew around her a group of radical social scientists. She was not afraid to appoint members of the awkward squad, and like a heat-seeking missile would positively seek out dissent and controversy. While she tended to believe that her own position was the correct one, she would not impose orthodoxy. This meant that when she wasn’t helping students to grasp the subject-matter of sociology, she taught them another important lesson – that it is possible to be both a good academic and an activist maintaining a critical political stance. In senate she deployed her formidable intellect and feminist politics to considerable effect in confronting the more regressive changes following cuts in university funding.

She understood the obstacles that had to be surmounted by women in academic life and supported colleagues in the local colleges of education who were moving to degree-awarding status and themselves formulating new ways of thinking about their disciplines.

Her own life had taught her the value of education, and she was not one to kick the ladder away. She wrote on employment, the sociology of youth, and of home-working.

She co-edited, with Brian Burkett, The Sociology of Economic Life (1991); her interests in race and colonialism led her to produce New minorities, old conflict (1971); with Diana Leonard, she organised the first British Sociological Association conference on sexual divisions in society in 1974 from which two important collections derived. In the first of these, Sexual divisions and society: process and change (1976), Allen and Leonard reminded readers that only a decade earlier, the sociologists Joe and Olive Banks had remarked that the organised feminist movements could be counted alongside vegetarianism and nudism as bordering on the cult. This book, and the one that followed, Dependence and Exploitation in Work and Marriage (1976) contributed in an important way to putting an end to all that.

At the home she shared with her former husband, Vic Allen, visitors might sit round the kitchen table with a family sheltering from domestic troubles, an African politician, a union activist, or (more glamorously) with her pal Gail who had worked as a hairdresser on a cruise liner. When Peter Sedgwick, the translator of Victor Serge and critical thinker on psychiatry, died unexpectedly, she opened her house for his wake, and was rewarded by the intellectuals drinking her dry and sending her off for more.

Her life was not plain sailing. She was too much of a feisty feminist for some of the men, the wrong kind of feminist for some of the women; too fierce a fighter against racism for some, the wrong kind of anti-racist for others. Refusing to sign up to whatever the current “one true path” was politically or academically could sometimes leave her isolated, despite her collective instincts.

She considered her daughters Sophie and Lucy to be her great achievements, while recognising their achievements as their own. She grumbled to them towards the end of her life that although she had helped to change the law, subtle discrimination was just as hard to root out. She worried about the state (and funding) of state schools; she worried about the NHS. As someone who, for most of her life, had enjoyed a drink and a cigarette, she couldn’t resist pointing out that some of those who had missed out on such pleasures had pre-deceased her. She could have taught a thing or two to Lazarus. By the time of her death, she had lived with insulindependent diabetes for half a century, had had broken hips, broken shoulders, strokes, and was stubbornly resisting moving from a house with steep stairs.

When she had started out, she had wanted to learn more about the way the world worked and how it could be changed for the better. She wrote: “I did not know how to go about this. I had not yet heard of sociology, but the late 1940s were times of great optimism and social change and secretly I thought almost anything was possible.”

It was.

Helen Roberts and Juliet Webster

Sheila McKenny, sociologist: born Gilberdyke, East Yorkshire 2 November 1930; Professor of Sociology, Bradford University 1972-1999 (Emeritus); married 1953 Tim Williams (marriage dissolved), 1968 Vic Allen (two daughters, marriage dissolved); died Halifax, West Yorkshire 16 January 2009.