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Sunday, 17 March 2013

Ann Oakley, A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century (2011)

I'm woefully behind about posting about things I've been reading recently. I was behindhand enough with actually reading A Critical Woman, because between one thing and another I had it on my to-read pile but was not feeling in the right headspace for a big fat biography of twentieth century woman economist, social scientist and activist.

Even though it did, in fact, turn out to be very readable on the whole (and I did have a few historian-type niggles, like occasionally feeling a need for more chronological anchoring than I was getting). I was very struck by the family origins - far from coming from generations of Cambridge scholars or intellectuals her father came from a humble background yetended up a renowned classical scholar.

It's got a bit of an uphill struggle given that Wootton was obviously a very reserved and private woman and it probably quite hard to get know to know her beyond the formal level even when she was alive. I wondered, however, how much of that reserve and forbidding air was a necessary stragety, given that, while still quite young she was widely regarded as an outstanding economist, and as a result was interacting with a lot of much older men, many of them of considerable political or social distinction. How far would her being  a war widow would have discouraged displeasing attentions, quite apart from a reasonable desire to be taken seriously? Her surprise marriage to a much younger man (and the occasional hint at other affairs) makes one wonder if there was a friskier aspect that she kept well-concealed.

I was very taken by Wootton's firm line that the death and devastation caused by the motorcar was a much greater evil it was than many menaces against which contemporaries fulminated,  and her insistence upon on having actual evidence-based data  in order to produce government report on cannabis.

Given her troubled relationship with her mother, and her lack of interest in feminism, I think there's probably a whole study waiting to be done about generations and feminists and suffragist/suffragette mothers and their daughters and how the second generation do or do not consider themselves feminists or different kinds of feminists.

Probably about as thorough an account of a rather opaque woman as one is likely to get, paying particular attention to what she would have considered most important, i.e. her intellectual work and her politics.

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