This is the story of the life of a remarkable woman. It is superbly well told. It is extraordinarily well researched. It is a magnificent intellectual biography. It is also an engaging account of a long life lived to the full but tinged with sadness in its lack of fulfilment in certain deeply private and personal senses. It begins with a conundrum: Why is Barbara Wootton not widely remembered today, given her manifest achievements in so many spheres? In asking this question Ann Oakley never quite finds the answer, but she certainly convinces me that Barbara Wootton deserves a greater place in the history of Britain in the twentieth century than she has been given.
Few people are better qualified to write this biography. Ann Oakley has worked for many years in social research and public policy, and, like Barbara Wootton, has written both autobiography and fiction as well as publishing widely in her academic field. Coincidentally, twenty years ago, soon after Barbara Wootton's death, I considered writing her biography myself. However, I realized that I probably did not have the time to do it justice. I may also have been influenced by Jim Callaghan who, when I consulted him about it, said he thought perhaps she was not a ‘big enough figure’. Most people who read this fascinating book will come to a different conclusion. Barbara Wootton was a ‘big figure’. However, she did not fit into any conventional box. She was neither a politician nor a conventional academic, nor a head of an important institution. She could not easily be compared to the great women reformers before her – the Florence Nightingales, Elizabeth Frys or Eleanor Rathbones – who espoused a single issue and gave that issue their lives. The causes she fought for were many and varied, so her energies were spread rather than concentrated. To me this makes her more interesting and more remarkable. But because her contributions were so widely diverse, it is harder to define her and, therefore, easier to forget her.
Barbara Wootton was a public intellectual who applied her searching intellect to many of the important questions which faced Britain from the 1930s to 1980s. She did so from the perspective of a social scientist, having abandoned classics for economics as a student at Cambridge. She had no time for social or economic theory or, indeed, for disciplinary labels of any kind. Instead she wished to use the techniques of empirical social science research to identify evidence-based solutions to policy problems. She was a thinker who wanted to improve the world, not just to define it. The books she wrote were critical and iconoclastic, and they did not endear her to many of her more conventional colleagues in the social sciences. Her output was prodigious; yet her research and writing were only part of the contribution that she made.
In her early career she was a leading figure in adult education, running Morley College and then Extra-Mural Studies in London, and working with the Workers’ Educational Association. She sat as a Magistrate on the Juvenile Bench for over forty years. She was the first woman life peer in the House of Lords, playing a leading part in its legislative work for more than twenty-five years. She sat on four Royal Commissions and many other government committees. She was a successful and sought after broadcaster, appearing regularly on programmes such as ‘The Brains Trust’ and ‘Any Questions’. As her international reputation grew, she lectured in many parts of the world on a wide range of subjects.
To achieve all this required drive, energy, courage and self-sacrifice. Her achievements must also have demanded good organization in how she used her time and the support of people who she could persuade that what she believed in deserved their loyalty and help. She worked outside the conventional structures of academic departments or political parties. This gave her the freedom to range widely and to be forthright, and to say what she wanted without compromise. Had she been born half a century later she would have been a splendid head of a centre-left think tank focused on reform and finding solutions to the social problems which face us.
Sharing her political values, her commitment to social reforms and her engagement with the application of social science to the search for rational solutions to policy issues, I found it easy to identify with her and to admire her. Many readers of this book will undoubtedly feel, as I do, that it would have been a pleasure and a privilege to know this woman. To have been in her company would certainly have been challenging: she clearly did not tolerate fools and was probably sometimes intimidating. However, to have obtained her respect must have been rewarding.
She was not blessed with good fortune in her personal life. Her childhood appears to have been relatively happy: she enjoyed a close relationship with her two brothers and adored her nanny whose devotion to her lasted a lifetime. Yet she lost her father at an early age and suffered from her mother's coldness and overweening ambition that her daughter should succeed as a classicist. Marriage at twenty might have provided an escape. But tragically Jack Wootton was killed at Passchendaele less than six weeks after she married him. She did not marry again for another eighteen years. Her second husband was a taxi driver, a student at the adult education classes she organized, later becoming a Labour Party education officer. She and George Wright had a number of happy years together, but eventually she left him. A close female friend with whom she then lived died of cancer. But Barbara Wootton was no victim: she was committed to life and to the causes in which she believed; she enjoyed many important friendships with interesting men and women of the period, and she made the most of the varied opportunities that came her way for visiting other countries and learning about other cultures.
She had no children. Although apparently she did not dwell on it, she did express regret that she did not become a mother. It is perhaps a paradox that in spite of this she spent much of her working life fighting for a better deal for children in trouble. It is another paradox, and Ann Oakley reflects on this, that in spite of being the first woman to reach a variety of positions in public life, she appears not to have been much interested in questions of gender.
The last years of her long life were lonely but made infinitely better than they might have been by the loving support of Vera Seal to whom this book is dedicated. In doing so, Ann Oakley has recognized the generous and selfless care that women often give to others. Barbara Wootton's life was enriched by her friends in the absence of a family and no more so than by Vera Seal.