Wootton, Barbara (1897–1988)

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Wootton, Barbara (1897–1988)

English educationalist, social scientist and public servant who advocated liberal and progressive causes. Name variations: Baroness Wootton of Abinger. Born Barbara Frances Adam on April 14, 1897, in Cambridge, England; died in Surrey on July 11, 1988; daughter of James Adam (a university teacher) and Adela Marion (Kensington) Adam; educated at home; Perse High School for Girls, Cambridge, 1910–15; Girton College, Cambridge, 1915–19; married John Wesley Wootton, in 1917 (died 1917); married George Percival Wright, in 1935 (died 1964); no children.

Made research student, London School of Economics (1919–20); named director of studies in economics, Girton College, Cambridge (1920–22); hired as researcher, Trades Union Congress and Labour Party Joint Research Department (1922–26); named principal of Morley College for Working Men and Women (1926–27); named director of studies for tutorial classes, University of London (1927–44); named reader in social studies, University of London (1944–52), professor from 1948; named Nuffield research fellow, Bedford College, University of London (1952–57).

Selected writings:

Twos and Threes (Howe, 1933); Plan or No Plan (Gollancz, 1934); London's Burning (Allen & Unwin, 1938); Lament for Economics (1938); Freedom under Planning (Allen & Unwin, 1945); Testament for Social Science: An Essay in the Application of Scientific Method to Human Problems (Allen & Unwin, 1950); The Social Foundations of Wage Policy: A Study of Comparative British Wage and Salary Structure (Allen & Unwin, 1955); Social Science and Social Pathology (Allen & Unwin, 1959); Crime and Criminal Law (1963); In a World I Never Made: Autobiographical Reflections (Allen & Unwin, 1967); Crime and Penal Policy: Reflections on Fifty Years' Experience (Allen & Unwin, 1978).

While studying classics at the University of Cambridge, the 20-year old Barbara Adam married, on September 5, 1917, John Wootton, an army officer who was serving in the war. On the eve of their wedding, a telegram had arrived ordering him to be in London on September 7 to return to active service in France. Their honeymoon was canceled. Instead, they spent two nights together, one near Cambridge, the other in a London hotel close to the railway station from which John Wootton had to leave. Five weeks later, he was shot in the eye. He survived for two days, dying of his wounds on October 11, 1917. The tragedy, not unusual at a time of massive casualties, was to alter the course of Barbara Wootton's life. She moved from classics to social inquiry, from Christian faith to agnosticism, and from conservatism to socialism. But she always retained the intellectual discipline and sense of purpose with which she was brought up.

Barbara Wootton was born in 1897 into a moderately prosperous and intellectually distinguished household in Cambridge. Her father's social origins were humble: James Adam was the only son of an Aberdeenshire farm worker, but by means of scholarships he rose to become a classics don and senior tutor of Emmanuel College in the University of Cambridge. In contrast, her mother Adela Kensington Adam , was the daughter of a banker; she went to Cambridge as a student of classics and married her tutor, James Adam. They had two sons before the birth of their third and last child, Barbara.

The regime under which the Adams children were brought up insisted on academic achievement, although in keeping with the attitudes of the time Barbara was educated at home, while her brothers went to preparatory and public schools (by a peculiarity of the British system, public schools are in reality both private and exclusive). At age three, she was a fluent reader, and by ten she could read from the New Testament in Greek to her father as part of the family's Sunday routine.

The death of her father, at age 47 in August 1907, clouded Barbara's early years, especially

as her mother had a somewhat austere personality. It was to a family servant (known for obscure reasons as "The Pie") that Barbara turned for reassurance. There was some respite from an emotionally arid home life when, at the age of thirteen and a half, she was sent to school, where she made friends with girls her own age.

In 1915, Barbara entered the University of Cambridge to study Greek and Latin and moved to student accommodation in Girton College; she did so partly in obedience to her mother's wish that she too should become a classicist. In September 1916, her younger brother, who was serving in the war, died in action. A few months later, she became engaged to John ("Jack") Wootton, a friend of her elder brother. Many years later, she wrote in her autobiography that similar tragedies had affected many others, but the premature deaths of a father, a brother, and a husband had inevitably left permanent marks.

Again and again I have had the satisfaction of seeing the laughable idealism of one generation evolve into the accepted commonplace of the next.

—Barbara Wootton

In some respects, her studies kept her mind occupied, while her upbringing had ingrained in her perseverance and self-discipline—characteristics she showed throughout her life. However, in the summer of 1918 an attack of tonsillitis prevented her from sitting some of her examinations; she later wondered if the illness had been psychosomatic, a reaction to family pressure to study classics. But in the following year, after she switched to economics, the examiners awarded her scripts a distinction, for the best-ever performance in the subject. At that time, women could not formally be conferred with the full degree of the University of Cambridge, and Barbara Wootton was not permitted to add the letters "B.A." after her name. She was always resentful of the slights to which women were subject because of gender prejudice. Among the forms of this discrimination, she included the tendency to draw attention to a woman's achievements when no comment would be made were a man to have a similar record. She was exasperated when women were "elaborately treated as equals" and disliked intended compliments such as those attributing to her a "masculine brain."

Typical of the way she kept to personal principles, Barbara Wootton refused to accept a war widow's pension: she believed she was able to make a living by her efforts and abilities. In 1919, she was awarded a research scholarship at the London School of Economics, and then, after a year, she returned to Cambridge as director of studies in economics at Girton College. Social attitudes, while less rigid than some of those encountered by Emily Davies and earlier generations of women at Cambridge, could still be annoying, especially to someone of Wootton's sensibilities. On one occasion, because she was not formally a member of the university, the name of a male colleague was printed instead of hers as the lecturer, although it was known that she had been given responsibility for the course. Such slights were to some extent compensated for by the lively intellectual atmosphere of the time, and she came into contact with several younger scholars who shared, and helped to develop further, her left-wing views. As well as refining her political ideas, she thought deeply about ethical and religious questions. The Christian beliefs of her parents were abandoned in favor of agnosticism. This aspect of her moral code was as deeply seated as her feminism, and on one occasion she was far from flattered when a well-meaning Christian friend wrote that she was not truly an agnostic: to her that was equivalent to suggesting that a devout believer was not genuine in their Christian faith.

A sense that academic life was too restrictive—a feeling that, as she put it in her autobiography, "a wider world was calling"—led her to resign her Cambridge post in 1922. She moved to London to work as a researcher for the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party. She was, in her own words, "absolutely whole-hearted" in her devotion to the labor movement and content therefore to work for a lower salary. Her abilities were widely recognized. She was offered the chance to become a candidate for the House of Commons, but declined it (and never stood for election to a public office). Her appointment in 1924 to a government inquiry into taxation aroused much press comment, on the grounds of her age and sex; such comments would no doubt have been heightened had it become known that she wrote the entire report that appeared under the names of those who formed a minority on the inquiry. She noted wryly that much of what she wrote as a researcher was credited to others.

On several further occasions, she sat on official inquiries, developing a reputation as a shrewd and constructive committee member. On that first occasion, she was acutely aware that while entrusted by the state to be a member of a public inquiry—and, from 1925, to be a justice of the peace—she was denied a parliamentary vote. Only in 1918 had women received the franchise, and then only if they had reached the age 30; it was not until 1928 that a common age, 21, applied to both sexes. To Barbara Wootton it showed the piecemeal, inconsistent, and often grudging process by which women's civil and other rights were conceded.

Even as a busy researcher, she had retained an interest in teaching, particularly adult education, and in 1926 Wootton decided to accept the post of principal of Morley College for Working Men and Women. In 1927, she moved to the University of London, to hold the directorship of studies—an appointment dealing with part-time students, and one free of the "marriage bar" (the requirement, then common in some of the professions open to women, that obliged marriage to be accompanied by resignation). She held the director's post until 1944.

A highly efficient administrator, Wootton was always capable of undertaking several tasks at apparently the same time. Her reputation ensured that she was regularly invited to speak at conferences throughout the world. In 1927, for example, she attended a League of Nations economic conference in Geneva; in 1930, she made her first visit to the United States (and was shocked in Chicago by the squalid slums "separated by one block only from the magnificent lakeside frontage"); and, in 1932, she traveled to the Soviet Union. As well as academic work, she experimented with expressing her social ideas in fictional form: in this she was influenced by H.G. Wells, but a collection of short stories, Twos and Threes (1933), and a novel about a fascist uprising, London's Burning (1938), were regarded as too stilted and enjoyed little success.

Her scholarly work, however, was widely noticed. Almost everything she wrote grew out of interests that were practical as well as academic. Her Plan or No Plan (1934) reflected the debate over the extent to which the state should enter into the field of economic organization. She believed state intervention was preferable to the unfettered competition of the market. She also maintained that economists should make their writings relevant to the issues of the period. Her Lament for Economics (1938) was a statement of what she believed was wrong with the approach taken by many of her contemporaries who were writing on the subject, although, some two decades after her brilliant degree in economics, she saw the book as marking the point at which she began to regard herself as no longer an economist.

Subsequently, writings in the field of social administration formed the basis of her scholarly reputation. The outbreak of world war in 1939 ended for several years opportunities to travel abroad. One of her last overseas journeys was to the United States to hold a lectureship founded in tribute to the American feminist Anna Howard Shaw . However, Wootton's interest in the wider world took the form of activity in organizations dedicated to promoting a system of international government. As she ruefully observed in her autobiography, "hard-headed practical men" regarded people such as herself as "a hopeless lot of woolly idealists, if not actually near-traitors"; but, she added, practical men "can always demonstrate the impracticability of idealistic proposals by the simple device of making sure that these are never tried."

Having moved in 1944 to Bedford College, which was part of the University of London, she was promoted to a professorship in 1948. There were renewed opportunities to travel abroad, including a visiting professorship at Columbia University, which in 1954 conferred on her an honorary degree. This was the first of several such awards: in subsequent years, no fewer than 13 British universities recognized her scholarship in the form of honorary degrees. What she regarded as her most substantial book, Social Science and Social Pathology, appeared in 1959 and attempted to explore the concept of "the criminal personality." Her many years as a magistrate specializing in cases of juvenile delinquency gave her practical insights into the problems of deviancy which were also evident in her Crime and the Criminal Law (1963). Similarly, an earlier book, The Social Foundations of Wage Policy (1955), drew upon another of her activities—membership of a civil service arbitration board—in discussing those influences which determined wages and salaries.

At the age of 60, in 1957, Barbara Wootton decided to retire from her university post, though she accepted visiting appointments in Ghana in 1958 and Australia in 1961. In 1961, she was invited by Japan Airlines to join the inaugural flights over the North Pole on the London to Tokyo route. When her hosts inquired what she would like to see during her visit, she characteristically asked to be taken to inspect a prison. Invitations such as this came because of her position as a member of the House of Lords. In 1958, she had been raised to the peerage with the title of Baroness Wootton of Abinger. Her elevation had been made at the request of the Labour Party, which had relatively few representatives in the upper chamber of Parliament. She took her duties, as always, very seriously and was prominent in the debates and other functions of the House of Lords.

She took the Surrey village of Abinger as part of her title to acknowledge having settled there, in a converted barn, two years earlier. The move had marked also a change in her personal circumstances—separation from her second husband, George Wright. Their marriage was somewhat unconventional. When they met in the 1930s, her husband was the driver of a taxi, though he was about to begin a scholarship at the London School of Economics. To Wootton's great annoyance, the circumstances were picked up by the newspapers which ran "cabby marries don" stories. The wedding took place in July 1935, and subsequently George Wright became a Labour Party official and was elected as a member of the London County Council. Nevertheless, the original story remained on file, and when she entered the House of Lords the press pestered her for a photograph of the couple "standing beside his taxi." Reflecting on their life together a few years after his death, which occurred in 1964, she acknowledged that she had been "too much occupied with my own affairs, and too reluctant to modify my way of life, to make an easy marriage partner," while her husband had been "a natural polygamist." Even after they had separated, there was no divorce; they continued to spend time in each other's company, and she helped to support him financially.

For most of her adult life, Barbara Wootton was called upon to serve on many voluntary or nominally paid bodies. These included four Royal Commissions (on Workmen's Compensation, 1938, the Press, 1947, the Civil Service, 1954, and the Penal System, 1964–66), membership of the University Grants Committee, 1948–50, and the board of governors of the British Broadcasting Corporation, 1950–56; and the chair of the University Grants Committee, 1968–70. A frequent broadcaster, she also put forward her views in articles in newspapers and periodicals. The House of Lords provided another platform, although she usually limited her speeches to the topics about which she had an expert knowledge. Her standing among her fellow peers was recognized when she was made a deputy-speaker, the first woman to occupy that post. In 1977, she was made a Companion of Honor, and so joined an order limited to 65 distinguished persons; she was one of only two women members.

When Barbara Wootton wrote In a World I Never Made: Autobiographical Reflections in 1967, she assumed it would be her final book. She was, however, to continue to write until her mid-80s, when fading powers brought an end at last to a career of over 60 years of public and academic work. In advanced old age, some time before her death on July 11, 1988, she moved to a nursing home. She had taken the title of her autobiography from a poem by A.E. Housman which includes the lines: "I, a stranger and afraid/ In a world I never made." Yet if she could not make the world, she did see social changes of the sort that she approved. While she preferred not to label herself as a feminist—she was always wary of the forms of discrimination that could be tied into the apparently enlightened treatment of women—the principles by which she lived were those that advanced the woman's status. Her formidable intellect, with both its constructive and iconoclastic characteristics, was combined with immense self-discipline and a sturdy conviction that she could help to change society for the better. When asked as a child what she would grow up to be, she replied "an organizing female with a briefcase," and she was content to believe that she had been.


Bean, Philip, and David Whynes, eds. Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Public Policy: Essays in her Honour. London: Tavistock, 1986.

Clywd, Ann. "Women of Our Century. IV: Barbara Wootton," in Listener. July 26, 1984.

Seal, Vera G., and Philip Bean, eds. Selected Writings: Barbara Wootton. 4 vols. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992.

Wootton, Barbara. In a World I Never Made: Autobiographical Reflections. London: Allen & Unwin, 1967.

suggested reading:

Caldecott, Leonie. Women of our Century. London: BBC, 1984.

D. E. Martin , Lecturer in History, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England

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Wootton, Barbara (1897–1988)

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