because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Barbara Wootton

Most people disagreed with Barbara Wootton about something because she held a number of divergent, controversial, and apparently contradictory views. In A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootten, Social Science and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century, Ann Oakley writes: "She was too radical and visionary, too far ahead of her time...[And] it wasn't just crime and justice or economics or social welfare. It was everything."

Born in Great Britain in 1897, when women's intelligence was still being disregarded, Wootten's economics exams at Girton College, Cambridge University, were declared to demonstrate "special distinction" (a recognition never before offered), but she still wasn't allowed to graduate because she was a woman. And when Wootten lectured at Cambridge anyway in 1921 (at the age of 24), the lectures were advertised to be delivered by a fictitious "Mr. Henderson" with only a footnote to indicate who the lecturer really was. No wonder she marched for women's suffrage!

Still, Wootten published books on economics, politics, social welfare and public policy from 1938 to 1974, while serving on royal commissions and committees related to worker's rights, the press, civil service, and the criminal justice system. Made one of the first Life Peers in the House of Lords in 1958 because she simply couldn't be ignored, she pushed through a bill abolishing capital punishment. She believed in doctor-assisted suicide. And she co-chaired a committee to produce The Wootten Report on Cannabis, making the argument (in 1968) that marijuana is safer than alcohol and should be just as legal.

It's not hard to see why Oakley suggests that, if Wootten had been a man, she would have been "lord chief justice or something similar." But that would have meant that she couldn't have been an in-your-face woman. And we wouldn't want that, would we?

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