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Response to Review of A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century

As Margaretta Jolly notes, Barbara Wootton defied easy plotting. That is one reason why telling a (not the) story of her life was so fascinating. It is also perhaps why some reviewers have struggled with the book. A Critical Woman is not recognisable as feminist hagiography, nor as conventional great man/woman biography, and its revelations of salaciously intimate moments are disappointingly absent (from the book, not necessarily from Barbara Wootton’s life).

Barbara Wootton, a very private person in a very public world, detested labels and quick descriptions: she wanted to be known as a polymath, as a human being whose driving concern for the welfare of other human beings necessitated a wide span of expertise and understanding. It cannot really be the task of a biographer simply to retell the story of someone’s life as they told it – we all know how much reconstruction goes into the autobiographical narratives we spin in our heads. But, on the other hand, the biographee, with all her or his singular perspectives, deserves the same respect as all research participants. Writing A Critical Woman taught me a lot about the methodology of biography, about the mix of quantitative and qualitative skills required, about the meshing of oral and written accounts, about the relations between sociology and history, about how to juggle elusive secrets, about the ethics embedded in any vision of a person’s life. It also alerted me to the tendency of other biographers not to discuss why or how they did what they did, thus leaving us in the dark about the all-important choices that are made concerning inclusions and omissions, themes and sub-themes, interpretations and perspectives. The ‘housework’ of biography is a serious and under-discussed subject.

As Jolly so well observes in her review, A Critical Woman, is the product of two biographies: Barbara Wootton’s and my own. I do not think that admitting this in any way lowers the status of biography as an art – or science – form. It does account for my worrying away in the book at the topic of Wootton’s aversion to feminism, which in such a splendidly trailblazing and intelligent life remains a curiosity. It accounts, too, for the book’s concern with impact. Everywhere I looked – and Wootton’s life took me into many different places – I found that her work had made a difference, yet so often there was little acknowledgement of this, either at the time or subsequently. What is impact, if no-one can recognise it? How do, or should, we measure the public importance of a person’s life? The answer certainly does not lie in the facile formulae of the evaluation exercises afflicting modern universities, but there must surely be a trustworthy way of ensuring that those people who make history do actually find their way into the history books.