Sheila Allen, a leading feminist, sociologist and political activist, has died.
She was born in East Yorkshire in 1930 and brought up in Lincolnshire. Her father was an impoverished Irish labourer with strong nationalist sympathies; when she won a scholarship to Sleaford Girls Grammar School, her mother scraped together the money to buy her a uniform and then encouraged her to continue her studies at the London School of Economics. Aware that she had been given opportunities denied to most people from her background, including her elder brother, Professor Allen retained a lifelong commitment to widening access and breaking down the barriers of class, race and gender.
A first degree at the LSE was followed by a postgraduate course in anthropology and a post as a senior research assistant, which took her and her husband, Tim Williams, to Sarawak in Borneo. After returning to England, she worked for the Prison Service and then at Birmingham and Leicester universities. In 1966, she found a permanent base when she joined the new University of Bradford. After her first marriage ended in divorce, she set up home with Vic Allen - a friend from the LSE who worked at the University of Leeds - and married him in 1968.
Professor Allen spent three decades at Bradford, playing a crucial role in the development of the university. In 1972, she became its first woman professor, taking a chair in sociology. She established its Ethnicity and Social Policy Research Centre, became director of the Youth and Work: Differential Ethnic Experience project, the co-ordinator of equal opportunity policies and eventually pro vice-chancellor. A pioneering researcher into issues of race and gender, she produced key analyses of the problems faced by migrant women and home workers, and helped create one of the UK's first masters degrees in women's studies.
Alongside these academic expressions of her ideals, Professor Allen proved adept at pushing through a number of practical initiatives, such as an on-site nursery at Bradford and options for part-time evening study. She was widely admired as a role model by younger female academics who followed in her footsteps. Marie Macey, senior lecturer in social sciences and humanities at Bradford, remembers a woman of "towering intellect and encyclopaedic knowledge" who was "generous, warm and highly principled - and who put her principles into practice at international, national and local levels".
Although she had diabetes and was dogged by long-term ill health, Professor Allen continued to travel and pursue many other interests after she retired in 1996. She contracted pneumonia at the start of the year and died on 16 January. She is survived by her daughters Sophie and Lucy, and grandchildren Jacob, Freya and Connor.