A short biography

BwYoungSBarbara Adam was born in an academic Cambridge household and took her first degree (classics and economics) at Girton College, Cambridge, where she attained the highest mark ever achieved, but was barred as a woman from being awarded her degree. The deaths of her brother and her husband, Jack Wootton (after five weeks of marriage) in the First World War affected her deeply and turned her into a lifelong pacifist. She became Director of  Studies in Economics at Girton and was the first woman to give University lectures at Cambridge. She later worked for the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress’s research department, and became Principal of Morley College and Director of Tutorial Studies for the University of London. As an economist she worked with William Beveridge on his plans for social security and full employment during the Second World War, and with other economists on the economics of Federal Union – a movement which laid the foundations for the modern European Community. She was committed to the principal of state planning, and did much to persuade others that this could be combined with the preservation of individual freedom.

She published a number of classic texts on the failings of theoretical economics to deal with real world issues, particularly Lament for Economics (1938) – a book which anticipated many much more modern criticisms; andThe Social Foundations of Wage Policy, which begins with the much-quoted observation that her own salary as a University professor exactly equalled that of the elephant who gave rides to children in Whipsnade Zoo. Later she argued for a radically egalitarian incomes policy, including a tax on wealth and on capital gains. Barbara Wootton was the first woman to be a member of a national policy commission (on national dept and taxation) in 1924. Her work for world peace included being one of four women delegates to the League of Nations World Economic Conference in Geneva in 1927, a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1957, and a sponsor of the World Peace Congress in Moscow in 1962. In the late 1930s she worked with H. G. Wells and others on the first modern Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1944, Wootton moved to Bedford College, the University of London, where she headed a Department of Social Studies and set up a Social Research Unit to conduct policy-relevant empirical research. Because of the hostility to social research of her academic colleagues there, she gave up the Research Unit and her professorship in order to embark on her best-known work, Social Science and Social Pathology (1959) – a systematic examination of the social research evidence relating to the causes and prevention of crime. This work was driven by her own long term service as a magistrate in the Juvenile Courts (she became a magistrate before as a woman she was eligible to vote). In 1958 Barbara Wootton left academic life and moved to the House of Lords as the first woman life peer. She was the first woman to ‘sit on the woolsack’ as Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords.

BaronessSBarbara Wootton was an outstandingly vigorous public figure, contributing to many important government investigations and other public activities. She was a Governor of the BBC and served on four Royal Commissions (Workmen’s Compensation, 1938-44; the Press, 1947-9; the Civil Service, 1953-5; and the Penal System, 1964-6). She was a member of committees and tribunals on national debt and taxation; shop hours; the criminal courts; criminal statistics; drugs policy; and the penal system. The latter two topics each produced a ‘Wootton Report’, on cannabis and on alternatives to prison, both of which received an enormous amount of media attention for basing their recommendations on systematically gathered evidence rather than on subjective ‘expert’ opinion. Her work on penal reform led directly to the innovation of Community Service Orders. In the House of Lords she played leading roles in legislation to abolish capital punishment and corporal punishment in schools, to prevent cases of wrongful imprisonment, and reform the laws relating to the possession of firearms and assisted suicide. She had an international reputation as a leading humanist thinker, helping to found the British Humanist Association in 1963; and her work as a pioneer social scientist included the establishment of the British Sociological Association in 1951. She was an early environmental campaigner, working with the Pedestrians’ Association, founded in 1929 (now known as ‘Living Streets’) to limit the human and environmental damage caused by cars, and arguing that crimes caused by motorists were equal in seriousness to other crimes. She was the first chair of the Countryside Commission, and a leading campaigner against supersonic aircraft in the late 1960s.

Barbara Wootton's wide range of interests was represented in a long and popular career as a broadcaster on radio and television. She collected 13 honorary degrees and was made a Companion of Honour in 1977. On a personal level, her life was less satisfactory. After the devastation of her first marriage in 1917, it was eighteen years before she married again. Her second husband, George Wright, was a taxi-driver active in the adult education movement. She never had children, and publicly regretted this. For two periods of her life, before and after George, her domestic relationships were with women (though intimacy with men always mattered more to her). For the last twenty years of her life she lived alone in a converted barn in Surrey with two donkeys, who she said were very nice people. Despite these personal difficulties, she was enormously committed to, and interested in, life, and enjoyed many important friendships and experiences.

BwDonkeySBarbara Wootton led a life of extraordinary public service. Her commitment to an empirically-based, utilitarian social science struggled with the obscurantist nature of much academic knowledge. She was more sophisticated and farsighted than most of her contemporaries about the importance of a practical union between what we know about how social systems work and how we can improve these workings in the equal interests of all citizens. Many of her ideas and proposals were so far ahead of their time that their value was not recognised, yet many of her views which shocked orthodox opinion at the time have since become received wisdom - the failings of neoclassical economics; the inability of prisons to reduce crime; the dangers of subjective expert knowledge; the role of men and cars in the modern epidemic of antisocial behaviour; the importance of preserving the natural world. What she contributed was a union of practical idealism and careful analysis of social institutions and human behaviour. She had the ability ‘to make sound judgements based on valid deductions from correct premises, which startle a world accustomed to false conclusions drawn from mistaken, but unquestioned, assumptions’. She created a vision of a rational public policy based on the equal rights of all citizens to share equally in the world’s social and economic resources.

Her papers are in the Archives of Girton College, Cambridge, where she studied classics and economics as a young woman, taught economics and later became an honorary fellow.