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A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century

Barbara Wootton's life of public engagement was remarkable. It ranged from international affairs to welfare, from law reform to wages policy. She served as a magistrate for many years, bringing the practical understandings she gained to her policy work.

A consistent radical, she was the first woman delegate to a League of Nations Conference in 1927 and continued to campaign for peace. After the Second World War she proposed a universal citizen's income and community service as an alternative to prison. Among the first group of life peeresses in the House of Lords in 1958, she managed to get the bill ending capital punishment through the Upper House, and argued against corporal punishment in schools and for assisted dying. She helped to found the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the British Humanist Association and the Homosexual Law Reform Society.

After studying Classics at Girton College, Cambridge, Wootton switched to economics, insisting in the early 1930s that state intervention, rather than lowering incomes, was the way out of the Depression. Sceptical of abstract economic laws and of the benign virtues of the market, she observed how apparently objective economic imperatives were frequently politics in disguise. She believed instead that economists should try to understand social well-being. Here, Ann Oakley describes how this conviction that the economic and the social must be integrated led Wootton towards sociology. She would be a founder member of the British Sociological Association in 1951, and later its president. She favoured sociology with a broad, open scope, and Oakley observes how Wootton accepted divisions between fields for convenience, but always ranged over boundaries.

Her mind was quirky and original. Pondering the vagaries of how wages are determined in The Social Foundations of Wage Policy (1955), she remarked on how, in the late 1930s, the elephant at Whipsnade Zoo happened to be paid the same sum of £600 for giving children lifts as she had earned as director of tutorial classes for the University of London. How was it, she wondered, that some were paid more and others less than the two of them? Over the course of her 91 years, she sought resolutely to encourage equality, both economically and culturally.

Oakley shows too how Wootton pierced through received views of propriety with a resolute sense of personal justice. Confronted in the juvenile courts by a 16-year-old girl deemed in need of care and protection during the Second World War, she mused subversively: "I just could not persuade myself that a night or two a week with a personable American was so immensely more degrading than 40 hours or more unskilled and uninteresting work in a factory."

In an early 1970s radio debate on drugs, the unconventional Baroness declared that she preferred the hippies' values to those of the Pentagon. In 1982, aged 85, and urging stronger curbs on firearms certificates, she wondered why Margaret Thatcher's government appeared to be more concerned about the possession of cannabis than of guns. The Wootton Report's proposal to end jail sentences for possessing small amounts of cannabis had met with similar disfavour from James Callaghan's Labour government in 1977, and the tabloid press poured scorn on the "Little Old Lady Talking Pot".

She had encountered press exposure before. In the 1930s, when she married a Workers' Educational Association student, George Wright, the popular newspapers found it bizarre that he worked as a taxi driver. On the Left, cross-class liaisons were not uncommon, but the rigidity of Establishment class mores and her public profile made the union newsworthy. This would partly explain why, when she left him in the 1950s to live with a librarian, Barbara Kyle, Wootton was so discreet. It remains unclear from Oakley's biography, however, whether she was attracted to women as well as men.

Wootton, who kept her private life private, would have approved of Oakley's focus on her contribution to social science and public policy. But, historically, A Critical Woman leaves us with an enigmatic picture of a woman who belonged to a generation that had gained the vote while continuing to face daunting discrimination. Considering feminist complaint to be undignified, many, like Wootton, fought their corners with deadpan irony. Hints of her wit and mischief flicker through the narrative; challenging male media pundits, insisting on being offered a cigar in the House of Lords, secreting spirits in vases so she could have a drink with visitors at her residential home in old age.

This guerrilla warfare over the details of daily life undoubtedly took a toll, and Wootton's gender made her vulnerable in ways that a man in her position was not. Probing the personal, rather than diminishing Wootton, would have added a deeper emotional meaning to Oakley's scholarly biography.

A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century

By Ann Oakley. Bloomsbury Academic, 426pp, £30.00. ISBN 9781849664684 and 4707 (e-book). Published 8 June 2011

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