Barbara Adam Wootton

The British social scientist Barbara Adam Wootton (1897-1988) began as an economist, progressing to a student of social policy and in particular the problems of welfare and social deviance. She was among the first "Life Peers" in Parliament and the first woman to chair that assembly by sitting on the Woolsack.

Barbara Wootton died in the summer of 1988 in her 92nd year. She was born in 1897 into an academic family in Cambridge, the daughter of James Adam, a classical scholar and senior tutor of Emmanuel College. Her mother taught at Girton, the college founded for women who were, until the 1920s, excluded from full membership of the university. Mrs. Adam taught her daughter at home until she was nearly 14, after which she went first to the Perse School in Cambridge and then to Girton. Her father died in 1907 when she was only 10 and the younger of her two brothers was killed in World War I in 1916. At the age of 20, having begun to read classics, she married Jack Wootton, a young army officer whom she had met when he was a research student at Trinity College. Their honeymoon lasted less than two days as he was recalled to his regiment in France at short notice; five weeks later he was killed in action. She remarked in In a World I Never Made, her autobiography published in 1967, that "in ten years I had learned little about life, much about death… ."

Wootton moved from the study of classics to that of economics, and such was her enthusiasm that she is known to have annotated every line of her copy of Alfred Marshall's Principles of Economics. In her examinations she achieved a first class with a special mark of distinction; owing to the rules of the university she was not, as a woman, entitled to be formally awarded the degree of B.A. Her early training in classics gave her an unusually fine command of language, to be demonstrated in her later writings, and her sound foundation in economics gave an equally firm foundation to her work in applied social science. She embarked at a relatively early age upon a teaching career, which continued until 1952 when she resigned her professorial post.

Wootton's talents as a teacher were formidable, although her lectures at Cambridge had to be listed under the name of a man for whom she would, by arrangement, act as a substitute. She left Cambridge in 1922 to become a research officer for the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party though continuing to teach part time at Westfield and Bedford Colleges. In 1926 she decided to move into the field of adult education and became principal of Morley College for Working Men and Women. She was not to stay there for very long before she was offered and accepted the post of director of tutorial studies for the University of London, a branch of the university which was also concerned with adult education. In 1944 she moved to Bedford College where she became head of the Department of Economics, Sociology and Social Studies, having the title of professor conferred upon her four years later.

But Bedford, then a women's college, was not an easy place in which a social scientist might flourish and in the course of an internecine squabble over the allocation of a government grant—in which she was the principal victim— Wootton resigned and applied for a research fellowship with the Nuffield Foundation. The fruits of this fellowship were to be found in a major work, Social Science and Social Pathology (1959). Nine years earlier she had published Testament for Social Science: An Essay in the Application of Scientific Method to Human Problems, in which she set out her essentially positivistic belief that only through the application of scientific method could human problems in the area of economic and social planning have any serious hope of solution. It was an idealistic work that inspired many of the rising generation. The Social Foundations of Wage Policy appeared in 1955; it was a polemical analysis of the structure of wages and salaries in British society, and in a seminar she summarized it in the aphorism, "The more you earn the less hard you have to work to get it." It contained some strange echoes of her earlier work, Lament for Economics, which had appeared in 1938.

Always a supporter of the Labour Party, she became one of the first of the new Life Peers in 1958 with the title of the Baroness Wootton of Abinger and was to become a deputy speaker in the House of Lords. Curiously, when the Wilson government was formed after the Labour election victory of 1964 she was never given any office but continued to serve as a member of the Advisory Council on the Penal System, chairing notable subcommittees on the subjects of noncustodial penalties (subsequently incorporated into legislation) and on cannabis (whose recommendations were rejected by government).

Wootton performed many other public services. She was a magistrate and specialized in the juvenile courts, a member of the University Grants Committee, a governor of the BBC, and the first chairman of the Countryside Commission. She was made a companion of honour in 1977. Her record of public work alone was a formidable achievement, but in addition she was able to produce a continuous stream of books and pamphlets in which her scholarship as a social scientist was blended with a strong political commitment to liberty and a social justice predicated upon the notion of equality. Among sociologists she left little if any mark, but among the analysts of social policy, not least in the criminal justice field, her influence was considerable if not always immediately apparent.


Further Reading on Barbara Adam Wootton

Probably the most useful introduction to Wootton and her work is to be found in Philip Bean and David Whynes, editors, Barbara Wootton: Social Science and Public Policy (1968). Wootton's work, which addresses issues in social economics, planning, and criminal justice policy, is representative of the British tradition of social democratic thought in the period 1935 to 1970. Her autobiographical writing is a useful source of information for the period 1920-1970 in which she was active in academic and public life.