top of page

A Humanist of Substance: Barbara Wootton

By John Coss, Vice-chair of Stockport


Continuing our series of profiles of humanists who are not

as widely known as they should be, including distinguished

men and women not generally known to be humanists.

Barbara Frances (née Adam), Baroness Wootton of Abinger (1897-1988), Professor of social studies and philanthropist. By Walter Bird, 20 August 1964. Image used by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

Barbara Wootton (1897-1988) was a distinguished British social reformer, criminologist, and economist, who made significant contributions to the fields of social policy, penology, and welfare economics. As a pioneering female scholar, she broke barriers and challenged societal norms, paving the way for future generations of women in academia. In 1958 she was one of the first four women in the House of Lords, where she later introduced the bill abolishing capital punishment. In 1967 she was the first woman to become Deputy Speaker of the Lords. She was an outstanding exemplar of the humanist approach to life, and was a vice president of the Ethical Union/British Humanist Association from 1954 until 1969, when she was removed over her views on abortion – she thought the foetus was a person, and that her or his right to life had to be respected precisely because there is no life after death.

Nevertheless, the British Humanist Association invited her to give the 1970 Voltaire Lectures, later published as Contemporary Britain. She argued that the decline in religion and the growing liberalisation of society had created an important vacuum: “What is needed to fill the vacuum is a moral system which accepts the fact that the only human experience of which we have certain knowledge is that which falls between birth and death; which invokes no supernatural sanction; and which derives its precepts from the importance of promoting happiness and welfare here on earth.”

Wootton was a trailblazer in social reform and progressive thought, as brought out in this obituary notice from Sir Campbell Adamson in the Family Policy Bulletin: “Barbara Wootton, one of the most remarkable women of her time, found success in so many fields that anyone not knowing her might be forgiven for imagining a formidable, even frightening person...In fact, she was not only approachable but had a remarkable capacity for friendship ...A burning desire to remove injustice and bring about change, without ever losing her sense of humour about her current preoccupation, was the magnet which drew so many to her...”. And as Paul Barker said in The Times Literary Supplement, 28 May, 1993, “She was a tough cookie, but she was a long way from being pompous...”

Wootton was an advocate for women's rights and believed in the importance of gender equality, including the role of women in public life. She recognised the need for women's voices and perspectives to be included in decision-making processes and in shaping public policy, and was committed to advancing women's rights and opportunities. Throughout her career, she actively supported initiatives aimed at promoting gender equality, and was involved in organisations such as the National Council for Civil Liberties, which advocated for civil liberties and human rights, including women's rights. She challenged traditional gender roles and was active in breaking down barriers that limited women's participation in public and professional spheres. Wootton’s own achievements as a prominent social scientist, academic, and member of the House of Lords, served as examples of women's capability and potential to contribute to public life. Her positions and actions demonstrated her belief in the importance of women's voices being heard and considered in matters that affected society as a whole.

Wootton studied classics and economics at Girton College, Cambridge, but despite an out-standing academic record – she recorded the highest marks ever achieved – she was not awarded a degree (the University did not award them to women until 1948). Nevertheless, 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. In 1944, she 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. She retired from academia when she became a member of the House of Lords.

Wootton was deeply critical of conventional laissez-faire economic thinking and was a strong advocate of planning and social equality. She was largely supportive of Keynesianism and wrote a strong riposte to Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944). As a long time friend and collaborator of William Beveridge, she made significant contributions from an economics perspective to the development of his thinking about social security, unemployment and the post-war welfare state in the years following the publication in 1942 of his famous Report. She also worked with other economists on the economics of federal union – a movement which laid the foundations for the European Community. Her influence was grounded in a wide range of contacts and activities.

She wrote many books, perhaps the most noteworthy being Social Science and Social Pathology (1959) which was a collection of her Gifford Lectures, exploring the connections between social science and social problems, particularly focusing on crime and social inequality, and drawing on her long experience as a magistrate in Juvenile Courts (she became a magistrate at age 28, before she was eligible to vote).

Wootton also played a significant role in reforming the British penal system. She served as a member of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (1949-53) and her participation in the Wootton Committee on Police Powers in 1959 helped shape the Criminal Justice Act of 1967, which introduced major reforms such as the decriminalization of homosexuality and the abolition of the death penalty (except for treason). And she was responsible for the introduction of Community Service Orders.

A Critical Woman, a biography by Anne Oakley, provides a comprehensive account of Barbara Wootton’s life and achievements. Woman of substance Oakley’s article in The New Humanist, May-June 2011 (link below) is a shorter summary, which concludes with this tribute:

“Humanists today would do well to remember Barbara Wootton and to claim her as their own. Actually, in today’s morally and politically disheartening world, we could all do with a strong dose of the Wootton medicine: morality and science, passion and reason, respect for individual experience combined with a proper reverence for the lessons of cumulative and systematised knowledge. What is the point of sentencing criminals? Why is crime a masculine speciality? Why do some people earn more than others? Who defines the meaning of mental health? What is the best way to teach children, to use technology wisely, to protect the natural world? These were the kinds of questions she asked and tried to answer. She was a woman – a person – ahead of her time, critical in both senses of that word: both important and a source of acute commentary on many of those customs and arrangements that deeply affect all our lives.”

Wootton quotations

“It is in fact a strength, not a weakness, of a secular morality that it must stand upon its own merits, designed to fit the only world we know.”

“My own secular morality, like that of many other agnostics, rests ultimately upon utilitarian principles. We hold...that virtue resides in qualities such as integrity which are necessary to maintain the fabric of human society, and in those actions which promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”

“The prevention of poverty, rather than the relief of poverty, should be the primary aim of a civilised society.”

“...the only things that matter are the answers to such questions as: How do people live? Are they free to speak their minds? Do they have enough to eat? What sort of houses do they live in? Do they have fun and gaiety in childhood, adventure and opportunity in youth, ease of mind and body in old age?”

“It is surely the primary social function of education to prevent, wherever possible, the occurrence of those problems which will eventually need to be dealt with by the application of criminal law.”

Further reading and watching

26 views0 comments


bottom of page