Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A Critical Woman

Baroness Wootton of Abinger was the first of the life peers when this breed was created in 1958, heading what became a flow of women into the Lords, though setting a standard to which few of us could aspire.

In A Critical Woman by Ann Oakley, we learn that Wootton defined a socialist (like herself) as someone who thinks that economic resources should be used to provide a good living for everyone in the world, who puts equality high in the scale of values, who ‘thinks that ordinary people ought to have enough .. [and] that other people .. ought not to have too much .. someone who abhors the class system.’  Hardly surprising that her 1975 Fabian pamphlet is titled In Pursuit of Equality. (The press summarised it: ‘Inherited wealth should be taxed out of existence’).

Wootton was an activist and academic, who wanted ‘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 define it’ particularly in the areas of welfare, freedom and peace.

Her achievements were extraordinary, a simple list requiring one and a half pages of text. They included judicial achievements – notably helping the ‘rights of man’ to become the gender-neutral ‘human rights’ of post-war charters. She was an inaugural member of the Federal Union, which influenced the creation of both the European Union and the OECD.

In 1943 she set out her views on full employment, detailing why the then analogy between the chancellor and the prudent housewife was false:  the former, unlike the latter, needs to spend what he does not have:  ‘The straight road to full employment is a comprehensive and considered plan of public outlay’. A lesson for today, along with her view, drawn from her own experience which she found lacking elsewhere, that ‘public life is administered by people who, quite literally, know next to nothing, at first hand, about the life of the public. And these people are not even conscious of their own ignorance’.

Other comments resonate today. Talking of the 1960s financial crisis, and referring to (while not recommending) the Russian habit of shooting speculators, she asked: ‘Is it not time that some steps were taken to put a stop to the activities of those who, in the irresponsible pursuit of private gain, periodically wreck the currencies upon whose stability ordinary citizens rely?’

Wootton was ambitious for her politics but deeply practical, a thinker who put ideas into action – whether on how to train social workers, human rights adoption or pacifism. Dismissing the notion that politics is the art of the possible, she wrote: ‘it is from the champions of the impossible rather than the slaves of the possible that evolution draws its creative force’.

This thoughtful, warm biography gives Barbara Wootton (a ‘fairy godmother’ to the 1945 Labour government) her due recognition while serving as an inspiration to thinkers and politicians alike.


Dianne Hayter is a Labour peer and former chair of the NEC

She reviewed: Ann Oakley, A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century, Bloomsbury, 2011

You can read more about Barbara Wootoon at



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Dianne Hayter

is the author of Fightback!: Labour’s Traditional Right in the 1970s and 1980s, published by Manchester University Press

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