Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, after she was elected MP for Plymouth Sutton in November 1919.
An American citizen born in Virginia, Nancy was the eighth of eleven children. Her mother, Nancy Witcher Keene, had married when she was sixteen, and her father, Chiswell Dabney Langhorne had become a wealthy tobacco and railway businessman by the time Nancy was a teenager. Disapproving of women’s education, he sent her to finishing school in New York, where Nancy married her first husband Robert Gould Shaw II aged just 18. It was an unhappy marriage, and they divorced after four years.
Nancy moved to England with her younger sister Phyllis in 1905. On the ship to England, she met her Waldorf Astor, another American expatriate, and the couple married in 1906, moving to the estate of Cliveden in Buckinghamshire.
A mild-mannered man, Nancy encouraged Waldorf to go into politics, and he became MP for Plymouth Sutton. After his father died, Waldorf became the 2nd Viscount Astor and joined the House of Lords, having to forfeit his seat in Parliament. Nancy decided to stand for election as MP, winning Waldorf’s former seat of Plymouth Sutton as a member of the Tory party and becoming the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament. She was elected on 28th November 1919 and took up her seat on 1st December. However, Nancy was not the first woman elected MP; this had been Constance Markievicz in 1918, but as a member of Sinn Fein Constance did not take her seat.
Prior to her election, Nancy had not been connected with the women’s suffrage movement and Constance Markievicz described her as ‘out of touch’. However, in Parliament, Nancy supported welfare reforms, equal voting rights and access to the professions for women. During her maiden speech on the 24th February 1920 in a debate on Liquor Traffic (Restrictions) to an audience of over 500 male MPs, Nancy said:
I know that it was very difficult for some hon. Members to receive the first lady M.P. into the House. It was almost as difficult for some of them as it was for the lady M.P. herself to come in. Hon. Members, however, should not be frightened of what Plymouth sends out into the world…. I am simply trying to speak for hundreds of women and children throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves.
Many male MPs refused to speak to her initially, and Churchill admitted some had tried to freeze her out. Nancy later recalled, “I had the privilege of being the first woman in the House of Commons, and sometimes I used to doubt whether it was a privilege. When I stood up and asked questions affecting women and children… I used to be shouted at for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. That was when they thought that I was rather a freak, a voice crying out in the wilderness”.
Within the hostile environment of a male-dominated Parliament, Nancy learnt to dress austerely and avoid the bars and smokings rooms. She remained the only female MP for two years, but later befriended other female MPs, including ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson, a former Communist. Nancy even proposed creating a ‘Women’s Party’ but political differences meant this did not come to fruition.
During the 1920s, Nancy made several speeches in Parliament. A staunch teetotaller herself, she introduced the first Private Member’s Bill sponsored by a woman, becoming the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under 18) Act 1923, which raised the legal age for consuming alcohol in a public house from 14 to 18, a law which remains to this day. Nancy was also concerned with the treatment of juvenile victims of crime, contributing to the Departmental Committee on Sexual Offences Against Young People in 1925.
Nancy never held a ministerial post, but she was well liked for her wit and informal style. Her exchanges with Winston Churchill are infamous. When Churchill supposedly told Nancy that having a woman in Parliament was like having one intrude on him in the bathroom, she retorted “you’re not handsome enough to have such fears”. On another occasion, when Churchill asked what disguise he should wear to a masquerade ball, Nancy replied “Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister?”.
In her later years as MP, Nancy’s popularity waned. In the 1930s, her son Bobby was arrested for homosexual offences, which caused harm to her political career. Nancy also made a number of unpopular speeches, including one arguing that alcohol use was the reason Australia had beaten England in cricket. In another rambling speech, she claimed that a Catholic conspiracy was subverting the foreign office.
At the Astor estate of Cliveden, Nancy became renowned as a hostess for members of the political and social elite, cultivating friendships with influential men across the political sphere. She converted to Christian Science along with her friend Philip Kerr, and supported his political clique Milner’s Kindergarten
, which advocated the expansion of British imperialism.
Nancy was also friends with George Bernard Shaw for over twenty years, despite their markedly different political opinions. In 1931 the pair visited Russia and were granted an interview with Stalin. In her abrupt manner, Nancy asked Stalin, “When are you going to stop killing people?”, to which Stalin replied “When it is no longer necessary for the protection of the state”.
Many of Nancy’s friends were supporters of the appeasement of Hitler, and some accused the ‘Cliveden Set’ of being fascists, a claim which Nancy called a “terrible lie”. However, Nancy herself held some unsavoury views, and was strongly anti-Catholic, anti-Communist and anti-Semitic. In a letter to US Ambassador to Britain Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., Nancy speculated that Hitler could be the solution to the “world problem” of Jews. In 1939, the MP Stafford Cripps referred to her in Parliament as “The Member for Berlin”, showing how her views impacted on her political career.
Nancy served as MP until 1945 when, after 25 years in Parliament, the Tories and her husband encouraged her to retire, believing she had become a liability. She died on the 2nd May 1964.
Written by Annabel Twose, Project Coordinator of First 100 Years