Shirley Williams Biography

(Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords (2001-04))

Birthday: July 27, 1930 (Leo)

Born In: Chelsea, London, England

Shirley Williams was a British politician and academic who was a Member of Parliament from the Labour Party and one of the 'Gang of Four' rebels who formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. She served as Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection in Prime Minister Harold Wilson's cabinet and later served as Secretary of State for Education and Paymaster General in the cabinet of James Callaghan. She was made life peer in 1981, becoming Baroness Williams of Crosby, of Stevenage in the County of Hertfordshire. She served as Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords from 2001 to 2004, and remained an active member of the House of Lords until 2016. A former professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, she remained a Professor Emerita of Electoral Politics till the time of her death.

Quick Facts

British Celebrities Born In July

Also Known As: Shirley Vivian Teresa Brittain Williams, Baroness Williams of Crosby, Shirley Vivian Teresa Brittain Catlin

Died At Age: 90


Spouse/Ex-: Richard Neustadt (m. 1987), Bernard Williams (m. 1955 – div. 1974)

father: George Catlin

mother: Vera Brittain

siblings: John Edward Jocelyn Brittain-Catlin

children: Rebecca Williams

Born Country: England

Political Leaders Film & Theater Personalities

Died on: April 12, 2021

City: London, England

Notable Alumni: Somerville College, Oxford

More Facts

education: Columbia University, Somerville College, Oxford

Childhood & Early Life
Shirley Vivian Teresa Brittain-Catlin was born on July 27, 1930 in Chelsea, London, England to political scientist and philosopher, Sir George Catlin, and feminist and pacifist writer Vera Brittain. She had an older brother named John Edward Jocelyn Brittain-Catlin who died in 1987.
She attended various schools including Mrs. Spencer's School in Brechin Place, South Kensington; Christchurch Elementary School in Chelsea; Talbot Heath School in Bournemouth; and St Paul's Girls' School in London.
She graduated as a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, politics and economics from Somerville College, Oxford, and became the first woman to chair the Oxford University Labour Club in 1950.
She attended Columbia University in New York City under a Fulbright Scholarship, and much later in 1980, was awarded an honorary doctorate from Heriot-Watt University. She began working as a journalist for the 'Daily Mirror' before joining the 'Financial Times' (1954–59).
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Shirley Williams, who became active in politics while studying at Somerville, ran for Parliament from the constituency of Harwich at the 1954 by-election, when she was nicknamed the 'schoolgirl candidate'. She lost that year, as well as the general election the next year, following which she spent 3 years in Africa with her husband, teaching at the University of Ghana in Accra.

Her attempt to run for a seat in Parliament from Southampton following her return in 1959, was also unsuccessful, but she became the general secretary of the Fabian Society in 1960. She was finally elected to Parliament from the Labour Party at Hitchin, Hertfordshire in October 1964.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson gave her minor roles in the Ministry of Health (1964–66), the Ministry of Labor (1966–67), the Ministry of Education and Science (1967–69), and the Home Office (1969–70). As she was a Catholic, the Protestants of Ulster never trusted her, which was made worse after she voted against liberalizing divorce laws and abortion rights in the 1960s.

She served as Shadow Home Secretary in 1971-73, and in February 1974, won seat in Parliament representing Hertford and Stevenage, following which she became minister of Prices and Consumer Protection in Harold Wilson's cabinet. Under Wilson's successor James Callaghan, she served as Secretary of State for Education and Paymaster General in 1976-79.

Following a striking defeat in 1979, she resigned from the Labour Party in 1981, to co-found the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and was joined by thirty-one other Labour MPs and one Conservative. In 1981, she became the first SDP member to be elected to Parliament, but lost in the 1983 general election, and later supported merger with the Liberal Party forming the Liberal Democrats.

She moved to the US in 1988, and became a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She was honorably discharged in 2001, and remained a Public Service Professor of Electoral Politics, Emerita.

Major Works

In May 1971, Shirley Williams was among hundred Labour MPs to sign a declaration endorsing the cmmon market. As Secretary of State for Education, she led a campaign for the comprehensive school system.

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Awards & Achievements

While Shirley Williams had previously turned down a DBE honor, she was made a life peer on February 1, 1993, as Baroness Williams of Crosby, of Stevenage in the County of Hertfordshire.

Personal Life, Legacy & Death

Shirley Williams fell in love with Peter Parker after she met him at Oxford. She later met moral philosopher Bernard Williams while studying in New York in 1952, and married him in 1955.

She and Bernard had a daughter named Rebecca and lived happily for a time despite their schedules keeping them apart, but their different religious beliefs often clashed. They divorced in 1974, following Bernard’s affair with Patricia Law Skinner, after which she married professor and presidential historian Richard Neustadt in 1987.


Shirley Williams died on April 12, 2021. She was 90.

Shirley Williams spent three years in Minnesota, US, during World War II. Later, she toured the USA with OUDS, playing the role of Cordelia in a production of Shakespeare's 'King Lear'.

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