Words by Professor Gina Rippon (Psychology, 1972)
On Thursday 23 March, Professor Ann Oakley, herself a Bedford college alumna, spoke about her biography of Barbara Wootton, A Critical Woman. Barbara Wootton was long-lived (as ruefully observed by her biographer), a member of staff at Bedford College from 1921 to 1952 and, as we learned, a highly active public figure in the twentieth century.
I have to confess that I used notice of this talk as an excuse to arrange a mini-reunion with some fellow old Bedfordians (1972 graduates). Thus it was that a psychologist, a botanist and two zoologists found themselves at a sociology talk last week. Maybe outside our everyday comfort zones, but the talk was interesting and informative and provided an evening of insights.
These were, obviously, insights into Barbara Wootton herself. She became a life-long pacifist after her first husband, Jack Wootton, died at Passchendaele after 3 weeks of marriage. She achieved many ‘firsts’ - the first woman to give lectures at Cambridge University, the first to be a member of a national policy commission, the first to become a life peer in the House of Lords, where she became deputy speaker in 1965. She was, apparently, inordinately fond of donkeys, even writing an article about their love of peppermint creams for Donkey magazine.
There was Barbara Wootton the politician – she championed the bill to abolish capital punishment in the House of Lords Lords and on to the statute book. There were two Wootton Reports; one, on cannabis, published in 1968, and one on alternatives to prison, published in 1970. As a result of this latter report, community service orders were introduced into Britain for the first time.
There was Barbara Wootton the academic, founding the British Sociological Association with Ann Oakley’s father, Richard Titmuss. She is hailed as the founder of evidence-based social policy and set up higher education’s first social policy research unit at Bedford College. Made a professor in 1948, she then had to resign her chair to take up some disputed grant funding. Ann Oakley described Bedford as a mixed blessing for Barbara Wootton and there was the impression that she was treated as something of a second-class citizen, perhaps because sociology was not viewed as a traditional classical discipline. She was (rather belatedly, I think!) made an Honorary Fellow of Bedford College in 1970, and fought hard in the 1980s to save the Regent’s Park site (we should have a portrait at 11 Bedford Square!).
During questions at the end, Ann Oakley suggested that Barbara Wootton has largely been forgotten because she was ahead of her time, an early multidisciplinary academic. Asked if perhaps Baroness Wotton had spread herself too thinly over different arenas, the response: “no, she spread herself thickly over so many areas” was the quote of the evening for me!
My first time at 11 Bedford Square was a real pleasure – good food, drink and company and a chance to hear one distinguished Bedford alumna talking about another.