Educated initially at Plympton Grammar School in Plymouth and then at Girton College, Cambridge, she chose to continue her studies in the US at both the University of California and New York’s Columbia University. She became active in the civil rights movement, picketing segregated restaurants and assisting in the voter registration drives that took place in Mississippi in the 1960s.
Returning home, she became a lecturer in modern history and Dean at the University of East Anglia in Norwich from 1967 until 1990. She served as a National Commissioner for English Heritage from 1988 until 1991.
It was at the first of the two general elections in 1974 that she contested the Great Yarmouth constituency for Labour. She was to do so twice more, unsuccessfully.
By then, she was serving on the council in Norwich, and became its leader from 1983 to 1988. She also served on the Press Council from 1988 to 1990.
In 1990, she was given a life peerage and was an opposition whip in the Lords until 1995, and Labour’s spokeswoman there on housing, local government, the environment, disability and social security. Following Labour’s 1997 election victory, she was made under-secretary at the Department for Work and Pensions.
She was also a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the author of several books on women’s history and on Labour history. Her 1997 biography of the pioneering Labour MP Jennie Lee, whose husband was the former party leader Aneurin Bevan, won both the Wolfson History Prize and the Orwell Prize.
She was married to Martin Hollis, professor of philosophy at the University of East Anglia, until his death in 1998. They had two sons.
Her partner was the Labour peer, Lord Howarth of Newport.