She was educated at Plympton Grammar School , and at Cambridge University (BA history 1962), the University of California and Columbia University, New York (both where she was Harkness Fellow from 1962 to 1964), and at Nuffield College, Oxford (MA, DPhil).
She was a lecturer in modern history, reader and Dean at the University of East Anglia in Norwich from 1967 until 1990, and was founder-director, Radio Broadland from 1983 until 1997. She served as a National Commissioner for English Heritage from 1988 until 1991.
She contested the Great Yarmouth (UK Parliament constituency) constituency for Labour at the February 1974 general election, the October 1974 election and at the 1979 general election. Patricia Hollis served on the Press Council from 1988 to 1990. She was raised to a life peerage as Baroness Hollis of Heigham, of Heigham in the City of Norwich and was an Opposition Whip in the House of Lords between 1990 and 1995, and Opposition Spokeswoman on Housing, Local Government, the Environment, Disability and Social Security from 1990. While in opposition she carried through the Lords the proposals for pension sharing on divorce which have now become law.
Hollis was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions (previously Department of Social Security) from 5 May 1997 to the 2005 reshuffle, was made a Privy Councillor in 1999 and is now a Deputy Lieutenant for Norfolk.
She is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, an honorary fellow of Girton College, Cambridge and the author of half a dozen books on women's history and on labour history. Her most recent book 'Jennie Lee - a life' (1997), won the Orwell Prize for political biography and the Wolfson History Prize for the history book of the year. In 2001 she was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of the University by the Open University