Photo of Sue Wilkinson

Sue Wilkinson



Training Location(s):

PhD, Loughborough University (1999)

BSc, Leicester University (1975)

Primary Affiliation(s):

University of York (2015-present)

Loughborough University (1994-2015)

University of Hull (1992-1994)

Coventry University (1989-1991)

Liverpool Hope University College (1983-1988)

Career Focus:

Feminist psychologies; feminist methodologies; lesbian psychologies; women's health; social construction of sexuality and sexual identity; equal marriage rights; conversation analysis; helpline interactions; end-of-life issues; England; British;


Sue Wilkinson developed an interest in psychology during her adolescence. She worked part-time for a neighbor who was a psychologist and became fascinated by the field. Given this experience, she decided to pursue psychology as her major when she entered university. Her undergraduate studies at Leicester University led her to develop interests in social interaction and qualitative methods.

Wilkinson has made both institutional and research contributions to feminist psychology. As her academic career progressed, she became aware of the restrictions women experienced within psychology. She noticed that few women were represented in senior positions and not many women were visible in the British Psychological Society (BPS). To address this gender bias, Wilkinson organized two symposia on feminist psychology for the Social Psychology Section of the BPS. During the symposia, she met other women and together they came to realize that there was a need for a formal, institutional space for feminism and women in psychology. As Wilkinson put it, “as soon as there was a sort of rallying point, feminists came out of the woodwork in all directions. In 1984, a group of four of us, myself, Paula Nicolson, Alison Thomas and Mathilde de Jong [now Idema] first talked about the possibility of establishing what we then called a 'Feminist Section' in the British Psychological Society. So that was a year before a group of, I think, 12 postgraduate students actually started to put together a proposal for such a Section.”

Although the proposal for the new Section was initially turned down on the grounds that it was just a political organization masquerading as scientific, it was finally accepted, and the “Psychology of Women Section” (POWS) became a reality in 1987. Wilkinson was elected the first Chair. Less than a decade later she was elected a Fellow of the BPS for her leading role in establishing feminist psychology in the UK, and contributions to its development internationally.

In 1991, she co-established the international journal, Feminism & Psychology with Susan Condor, Jennie Williams, Margaret Wetherell, and Chris Griffin, and became its founding Editor-in-Chief. Initially there were debates about whether it should be a BPS journal or an independent journal. Having the status of the BPS would confer legitimacy. However, knowing that there were strict institutional requirements for BPS publications, Wilkinson insisted that Feminism & Psychology should be independent. This would allow the editors to shape the journal free from constraints.

The publication of the first issue was a landmark moment that signified a shift in British psychology, and provided an outlet for critical psychological work from around the world. Wilkinson continued to edit Feminism & Psychology until 2007. Since then, the editors have been based in New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States, as well as in the UK, attesting to the international scope and status of the journal.

In addition to these institutional achievements, Wilkinson has had a productive and wide-ranging research career. Following her PhD, she taught at Liverpool University and subsequently accepted a position as the Head of Psychology at Coventry University. During a research post at the University of Hull, she began to specialize in women’s health, including women's experience of living with a breast cancer diagnosis. She also became interested in focus groups because they seemed to offer a more participatory approach to research that would be consistent with feminist values. When faced with the challenge of how to analyze the interactions in focus group data, Wilkinson turned to conversation analysis. During her sabbatical in 2002, as a visiting scholar in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, she undertook intensive training in the method.

From 1994-2015, Wilkinson was a professor at Loughborough University. During that time she had opportunities to travel, train, and teach in New Zealand and North America. During 2002-2004, she was the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Professor of Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in Canada. There, she was responsible for outreach and consultancy work in the feminist and health communities across British Columbia and organized a major international conference. She returned to Loughborough University in 2004, as a Professor of Feminist and Health Studies, and began to develop a number of projects involving conversation analysis of healthcare interactions. Her most recent research has focused on the analysis of communications in telephone helplines to improve services.

While in Canada, Wilkinson and her long-term partner and colleague Celia Kitzinger took advantage of very recently-passed same-sex marriage laws and were married. As she described it, they got caught up in the excitement of this liberating moment: “And it was very exciting in Vancouver at that time. You know there were rainbow flags everywhere and street parties and just a general kind of euphoria.”

Together, the couple began new research on the social construction of marriage and other forms of partnership recognition. They also became activists for the right of same-sex couples in England to marry, mounting an unsuccessful challenge in the High Court in 2006, in which they argued that anything less than the right to marry (i.e. civil partnership) was “separate but not equal” treatment. Seven years later, in 2013, full marriage rights were extended to same sex couples – with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act coming into force a year later. In reflecting on what might have caused this about-face, Wilkinson remarked, “We really don't know [what happened], I mean there are little things you can point to, like each of the individual political parties getting behind it was obviously a massive thing. There was a gradual public acceptance and change in attitudes….Those individual factors, individually and even collectively, don't seem like enough of an explanation for how in just 5 or 6 years it could completely change. Or why Ireland, as a Catholic country, could have a referendum in which 62% supported marriage equality.”

Even though their original activism was ahead of its time, Wilkinson has no regrets: “In retrospect it feels even more so that it was the right thing to do. I don't regret any aspect of it. Even though we lost our life savings through it, even though it took several years of our lives. It was the right thing to do and we learned a huge amount and we learned what we don't know.”

In 2015, Wilkinson took up an Honorary post at the University of York, where she teaches short courses in conversation analysis and continues her research. She has also founded a charity, Advance Decisions Assistance, to help people write legally-binding documents setting out their end-of-life choices, and to raise awareness of their right to do so.

In August 2020, Sue Wilkinson became the first British Psychologist to be awarded the American Psychological Association’s Society for Women in Psychology (Divn 35) Carolyn Wood Sherif Award for sustained and substantial contribution to the Psychology of Women.

by Grace Zhang (2016)

Updated (2020)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works

By Sue Wilkinson

Wilkinson, S. (Ed.). (1986). Feminist social psychology: Developing theory and practice. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.

Wilkinson, S. (1990). Women's organisations in psychology: Institutional constraints on disciplinary change. Australian Psychologist, 25(3), 256-269.

Wilkinson, S. (Ed.) (1996). Feminist social psychologies: International perspectives. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Wilkinson, S. (1998). Focus groups in feminist research: Power, interaction, and the co-construction of meaning. Women's Studies International Forum, 21(1), 111-125.

Wilkinson, S. (1998). Focus groups in health research: Exploring the meanings of health and illness. Journal of Health Psychology, 3(3), 329–348.

Wilkinson, S. (1999). Focus groups: A feminist method. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 23(2), 221–244.

Wilkinson, S. (2007). Breast cancer: Lived experience and feminist action. In M. Morrow, O. Hankivsky and C. Varcoe (Eds.) Women's Health in Canada: Critical Perspectives on Theory and Policy. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Wilkinson, S. (2015). Refusing to live with advanced dementia: Contemporaneous and prospective decision-making. Feminism & Psychology, 25(1), 148-154.

Wilkinson, S., & Kitzinger, C. (Eds.). (1993). Heterosexuality: A Feminism & Psychology reader. London & Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wilkinson, S., & Kitzinger, C. (Eds.). (1994). Women and health: Feminist perspectives. London: Taylor & Francis.

Wilkinson, S. & Kitzinger, C. (Eds.) (1996). Representing the Other. London & Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wilkinson, S., & Kitzinger, C. (2005). Same-sex marriage and equality. The Psychologist, 18(5), 290-293.

Wilkinson, S. & Kitzinger, C. (2013). Representing our own experience: Issues in ‘insider’ research, Psychology of Women Quarterly37, 251-255.

Kitzinger, C., & Wilkinson, S. (1994). Re-viewing heterosexuality. Feminism & Psychology, 4(2), 330-336.

Kitzinger, C., & Wilkinson, S. (1995). Transitions from heterosexuality to lesbianism: The discursive production of lesbian identities. Developmental Psychology, 31(1), 95–104.

Kitzinger, C. & Wilkinson, S. (2004). Social advocacy for equal marriage: The politics of ‘rights’ and the psychology of ‘mental health’. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy4(1), 173-194.

Kitzinger, C. & Wilkinson, S. (2015). A matter of life and death. The Psychologist 28(12), 22-29.

About Sue Wilkinson

Braun, V., & Gavey, N. (2008). Tribute to feminism & psychology's founding editor: 'imagining a space': Sue Wilkinson's contribution to feminist psychology. Feminism & Psychology, 18(1), 13-20.

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