Rozsika Parker obituary

Feminist, art historian and writer who joined Spare Rib in 1972

Rozsika Parker, who has died aged 64 of cancer, was a woman of diverse achievements as a feminist, art historian, psychotherapist and writer. In all her work is a stitching-together of the themes that occupied her: women's struggle for recognition within the art establishment; a challenging of the division between fine art and the decorative arts; the tensions, sometimes productive, sometimes destructive, in women's creative work. She was keenly observant of the ambivalences of domesticity and of motherhood. In writing that was assertive without being aggressive, she tackled the pressures on women, especially young women, to have perfect bodies.

Rosie was born in London and her early years were spent near Oxford, where she attended Wychwood school. In 1966 she began a degree in the history of European art at the Courtauld Institute in London, graduating in 1969 just as a new wave of political and cultural feminism was emerging. She joined the feminist magazine Spare Rib in 1972, the year of its launch, and until 1980 wrote, commissioned and edited its arts coverage, as well as many of its mind/body features. In 1973 Rosie met Griselda Pollock and they formed the feminist art history collective, an informal group composed of artists, art historians and journalists. Its aim was to create a framework for tackling the structural sexism of the art world and art history.

Rosie and Griselda's collaboration resulted in the book Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (1981), which analysed the works of women in both the fine and decorative arts, as well as challenging the myths about women's supposed creative inferiority. They next worked on Framing Feminism: Art and the Women's Movement 1970-1985 (1987), which Griselda said was made possible by the collection that Rosie had amassed of invitations, flyers, handouts – "all the ephemera of the working critic and the dedicated feminist responding to and making the effort to see, to understand and write about this emerging culture of creative resistance".

In 1983 Rosie published The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. This radical history showed that embroidery, once the work of women and men, had been recategorised as women's work, at which point "the same characteristics were ascribed to both … mindless, decorative and delicate". The book was reissued early this year, to coincide with the stunning exhibition of quilts at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In 1982, Rosie began to train as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist at the Westminster Pastoral Foundation. In 2000 she joined the WPF staff, and inspired trainees and colleagues alike. Her feminist politics pervaded this area of her work, too. From 1993 until 2002, she was a clinical trustee of the Maya Centre in Islington, which provides free psychodynamic counselling to women on low incomes.

In the mid-1980s she had two children with the Jungian analyst Andrew Samuels. She combined her psychotherapeutic training and her experience of motherhood in Torn in Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence (1995), in which she argued that: "A mother needs to know herself, to own up to the diverse, contradictory, often overwhelming feelings evoked by motherhood ... It's only by accepting that at times you are a bad mother, that you can ever be a good mother."

Among Rosie's other published works were an elegant study of Virginia Woolf's struggle to be both a writer and a woman, Killing the Angel in the House; Creativity, Femininity and Aggression, published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis (1998), and Body Hatred, published in the British Journal of Psychotherapy (2003). In 2000 she started to study creative writing at Middlesex University, earning an MA with distinction in 2002. Out of it came two novels and short stories, as yet unpublished.

Gardening, and the cultivation of roses, were among Rosie's passions and The Anxious Gardener (2006) is a wry account of her travails. Her essay Unnatural History: Women, Gardening and Femininity is included in The Culture and Politics of Gardens (2005).

Rosie was latterly an honorary research fellow in the department of psychosocial studies at Birkbeck. She was to have delivered a paper on body dysmorphic disorder to a research seminar when her cancer was diagnosed. Throughout her illness, Rosie worked on her manuscript Critical Looks, a study of the roots of appearance anxiety and our understanding of that anxiety.

Rosie's beauty, grace and elegance were remarked upon by everyone who knew her. It was always a joy to spend time in her company. Her questing and original mind made all her talk and observations so vital. And her exchanges were laced with the most wonderful wit, irreverence and self-mockery.

She is survived by her son and daughter.

Rozsika Parker, feminist, psychotherapist and writer, born 27 December 1945; died 5 November 2010

Ruthie Petrie

The GuardianTramp

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