This is a very personal reflection. I did not know Mary well, nor have I been in contact with her in over 20 years. Our relationship was always a professional one.
Hearing of her death has brought back good memories. Small things that remind me of the influence she had on my intellectual and career development.
I first met Mary McIntosh when I went to the University of Essex as an undergraduate exchange student in 1988-89. I think I took a sociology course about gender and feminism with her.
Her book The Anti-Social Family (co-authored with Michele Barrett) was very influential on my thinking about the family and central to my decision to enter the PhD program at University of Essex with Mary as my supervisor the following year. Although my approach to family is quite different and my career took a different path, my views on family and its use in public discourse remain heavily influenced by this work to this day.
At that time Essex University had a novel program for those coming straight from an undergraduate degree in which you took MA courses in the first year but then went straight into the PhD thesis research. So although Mary was my supervisor that year, I didn’t have a lot of contact with her because I wasn’t taking a course she taught and my focus was on coursework.
Then she went on sabbatical. I rented her house in Wivenhoe and we figured out a new supervision arrangement for me since this would be a crucial year. I worked with Lydia Morris until I completed.
My memories of the year in that house are excellent. The first summer, in particular, I fell into a very productive routine. I would work about 6 hours a day in the front room writing and reading. My day would be punctuated by walking down to the Co-op to buy milk. My days were so regular that I often got all the way to the Co-op before I realized it was Sunday and it wouldn’t be open.
Renting that house also had an interesting intellectual influence: a tea towel. It was purple and had been produced by feminist magazine Spare Rib. It said:
“You start out sinking into his arms and end up with your arms in his sink”.
Years later I became involved in debates about feminism and heterosexuality and used that phrase as the title of an article (published in this book).
Other quirky but significant memories include a sexualities conference in York, Activating Theory (some of the papers from the conference were published as a book in 1993 so the conference was probably 1992). This was an exciting time for sexuality studies in Britain. The conference was exciting. There were discussions of the direction we wanted for the field. And just lots of people working on interesting things in interesting ways.
But what stands out for me were people’s reactions when they saw Mary in a session. “Was that Mary McIntosh doing needlepoint at the back of the room?”
Indeed it was. The disconnect between people’s image of Mary McIntosh — socialist, feminist, lesbian, activist — and their image of “woman who does needlepoint” was clearly visible on people’s faces and audible in their whispered attempts to confirm that this what indeed what they had observed.
I remember chatting to her about it and that she commented that she didn’t knit because she accepted that some people might find the clicking of the needles distracting. As someone who has knit in many meetings since this time, I am not sure that clicking needles is anything but a cover story for the profound cognitive dissonance that a known feminist activist doing needlework engenders.
A final memory is of a casual conversation we had one day later in my PhD. She was complaining about undergraduate students coming to ask for essay extensions, as we all do from time to time. Her particular complaint stood out: She wondered why people asked for extensions when they have just ended a relationship.
“The best thing to do when a relationship ends is throw yourself into your work.”
She suggested. She went on:
“No one ever asks for an extension when they fall in love. And yet when you fall in love, you can’t work.”
(I quote from memory but this is the gist.)
I remember telling a PhD student colleague of mine who happened to be supervised by her about this conversation. He was visibly relieved. He had been dreading an upcoming supervision meeting as he had not accomplished anything recently, having fallen in love.
Reading Ken Plummer’s post about Mary made me realize that the impact of one’s work is not necessarily related to how much one publishes. As Ken states,
“Even though she did not like writing and suffered writer’s block, she published some influential works”
Indeed she did (they are listed with links in Ken’s post).
Through those works and in many other ways Mary McIntosh lives on in the lives and work of those she influenced.
I am proud to be carrying even these small traces of her influence forward.
Sexualities (by Jeffrey Weeks, reprinted on Ken Plummer’s blog for wider readership)
This post was edited July 14, 2015.