Though born in America, Nancy Astor (1879-1964) became the first female MP to sit in Britain’s House of Commons, holding the seat of Plymouth Sutton from 1919-1945.
As political landmarks go, the election of the first woman to sit in the House of Commons must rank as particularly momentous: it took 704 years since the creation of the Magna Carta and the establishment of the Great Council in the Kingdom of England before a woman gained a seat in Britain’s legislative body of government.
Despite her political achievements, Astor’s legacy is not without controversy: today, she is remembered as both a political pioneer and a “virulent anti-Semite”. In the 1930s, she reputedly criticised the Jewish “problem”, supported the appeasement of Adolf Hitler’s expansionism and expressed harsh critiques of communism, Catholicism and ethnic minorities.
Here’s the highly contentious story of Britain’s first female MP, Nancy Astor.
Wealthy American anglophile
Nancy Witcher Astor may have been Britain’s first female MP, but she was born and raised across the pond, in Danville, Virginia. The eighth daughter of Chiswell Dabney Langhorne, a railroad industrialist, and Nancy Witcher Keene, Astor endured near-destitution in her early childhood (in part due to the impact of the abolition of slavery on her father’s business) but the Langhorne fortune was restored, and then some, by the time she hit her teens.
She spent the remainder of her youth thoroughly ensconced in the trappings of wealth at the family’s opulent Virginia estate, Mirador.
Having attended a prestigious New York finishing school, Nancy met Robert Gould Shaw II, a fellow socialite, in Manhattan. The couple embarked on a brief and ultimately unhappy marriage in 1897, before divorcing six years later. Then, after a couple years back at Mirador, Astor set off on a tour of England, a trip that would change the course of her life and, ultimately, British political history. Astor fell in love with Britain and decided to move there, taking her son from her first marriage, Robert Gould Shaw III and sister, Phyliss, with her.
Nancy was a hit with England’s aristocratic set, who were instantly charmed by her effortless wit, sophistication and glamour. A high society romance soon blossomed with Waldorf Astor, the son of Viscount Astor, owner of The Independent newspaper. Nancy and Astor, a fellow American expat who also happened to share her birthday, 19 May 1879, were a natural match.
Beyond the uncanny coincidence of their shared birthday and transatlantic lifestyles, the Astors came to share a common political outlook. They mixed in pollical circles, including the influential ‘Milner’s Kindergarten’ group, and developed a broadly liberal brand of politics.
While it’s often thought that Nancy was the more politically driven of the couple, it was Waldorf Astor who first entered politics. After a faltering first step – he was defeated when he initially stood for Parliament in the 1910 election – Waldorf settled into a promising political career, eventually becoming the MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1918.
But Waldorf’s time on the green benches of Parliament was short-lived. When his father, Viscount Astor, died in October 1919, Waldorf inherited his title and place in the House of Lords. His new position meant he was required to relinquish his seat in the Commons, little more than a year after winning it, triggering a by-election. Nancy saw an opportunity to maintain the Astor’s Parliamentary influence and make political history.
Waldorf’s departure from the Commons was well-timed: a year earlier the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed, allowing women to become MPs for the first time in the institution’s history. Nancy quickly decided that she would contest the Plymouth Sutton seat her husband had just departed. Like Waldorf, she stood for the Unionist Party (as the Conservatives were then called). While there was plenty of resistance within the party – as you’d expect at a time when the idea of a female MP was widely regarded as radical – she proved to be popular with the electorate.
It’s hard to say if Nancy Astor’s status as a wealthy American expat helped or hindered her electoral aspirations but she certainly presented the electorate with a fresh proposition and her natural confidence and charisma stood her in good stead on the campaign trail. Indeed, she was popular enough that her public opposition to alcohol and likely support of prohibition – a big turn-off for voters at the time – didn’t seriously diminish her prospects.
Some of Nancy’s colleagues in the Unionist Party remained sceptical, unconvinced that she was sufficiently well-versed in the political issues of the day. But even if Astor did lack a sophisticated understanding of politics, she made up for it with a dynamic, progressive approach to electioneering. Notably, she was able to seize on the emergence of the female vote as a significant electoral asset (especially after World War One, when women voters were often in the majority) by using women’s meetings to rally support.
Astor won Plymouth Sutton, beating the Liberal candidate Isaac Foot by a convincing margin, and on 1 December 1919, she took her seat in the House of Commons, becoming the first woman to sit in British Parliament.
Her election victory was an irrefutably significant landmark but there is an oft noted caveat: Constance Markievicz was technically the first woman elected to Westminster Parliament but, as an Irish Republican, she didn’t take her seat. Ultimately, such nit-picking is unnecessary: Nancy Astor’s electoral triumph was genuinely momentous.
A complicated legacy
Inevitably, Astor was treated as an unwelcome interloper by many in Parliament and endured no little hostility from her overwhelmingly male colleagues. But she was strong enough to take the two years she spent as Britain’s only female MP in her stride.
Though she was never an active participant in the suffrage movement, women’s rights were clearly important to Astor. Over the course of her tenure as MP for Plymouth Sutton, she played a big part in securing significant legislative advances for British women. She supported lowering the voting age for women to 21 – which was passed in 1928 – as well as numerous equality-driven welfare reforms, including campaigns to recruit more women into the civil service and the police force.
One highly controversial aspect of Astor’s legacy is her reputed anti-Semitism. Astor is quoted as having complained about “Jewish Communistic propaganda” during her time in Parliament, and is believed to have written a letter to America’s ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy, stating that the Nazis would deal with Communism and the Jews, which she termed “world problems”.
Based on Astor’s anti-Semitism, the British press printed speculation about Astor’s Nazi sympathies. And while these may have been exaggerated to some degree, Astor and Waldorf were openly opposed to Britain resisting Hitler’s European expansionism in the 1930s, instead supporting appeasement.
Ultimately, Astor was MP for Plymouth Sutton for 26 years before opting not to run in 1945. She set a precedent for the continued presence of women in Britain’s House of Commons – 24 women became MPs in the year of Astor’s retirement – but her political legacy remains both complex and controversial.