In history

In a by-election on 19th November 1919, history was made when the people of Plymouth Sutton replaced their previous MP with his wife, creating the first female MP to sit in parliament. This is a brief look at the life of Nancy Astor, a trail blazer for women in politics.

While the election took place on 15th November, the results weren’t announced until the 28th and she didn’t enter the House of Commons until 1st December. However, not content with being the first female MP, Nancy Astor also received more votes than the Labour and Liberal candidates combined and she was sponsored by the then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George and former Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, who was the Lord President of the Council at the time.

Prior to being an MP, Nancy Astor was an American-born English socialite. She was born Nancy Witcher Langhorne in Danville, Virginia in 1879 and was the eighth of eleven children. Her father Chiswell Dabney Langhorne was a railroad businessman and her mother, Nancy Witcher Keene, a housewife.

Despite the wealth she experienced in later years as a socialite and MP, Nancy’s early life was marred with poverty, her father’s business struggled following the American Civil War which saw a lot of destruction throughout the southern states. The family’s fortunes had reversed by the time Nancy was in her teens, as her father branched out into construction, rail and tobacco. In fact, they had become so wealthy, that they moved to Mirador, an estate located near Greenwood in Albermarle County, Virginia. Nancy lived at the estate from 1892 until 1897.

Following their change in fortune, Nancy was sent to a finishing school in New York City. These schools taught society’s eligible young ladies all the etiquette they needed for entering high society. It was when living in New York that Nancy met her first husband, Robert Gould Shaw II. They married when Nancy was just eighteen and by 1898 had welcomed their son, Robert Gould Shaw III who was known to family and friends as Bobby. The marriage wasn’t a happy one and they divorced a few years later, their relationship likely impacted by the death of Nancy’s mother in 1903. Nancy and Bobby moved back to Mirador to run the household, though this arrangement didn’t last long. A few years later, Nancy, her son and younger sister decided to move to England where they moved in the highest social circles.

Not long after her arrival in England, Nancy met Waldorf Astor, son of Viscount Astor and heir to the Independent Newspaper. The pair were much better suited than Nancy’s previous husband, they had a lot in common and they even shared a birthday! They married 6 months after meeting and moved to Cliveden, an estate in Buckinghamshire which was gifted to them by the Viscount. Cliveden is now a grand hotel, with the grounds managed by the National Trust.

The pair went on to have five children, four boys; William Waldorf Astor II, Francis David Langhorne Astor, Michael Langhorne Astor and John Jacob Astor VII, and one girl; Nancy Phyllis Louise Astor.

Even though you would expect the pair to be busy with five children and hosting lavish parties as was expected of socialites at the time, they quickly turned to politics, which was a mutual hobby. Nancy had an interest in social reform and encouraged her husband to become an MP. Though his first attempt was unsuccessful, by 1910, he was elected to the House of Commons for Plymouth. While Waldorf was getting acquainted with life as an MP, Nancy too was getting involved in politics, using her social connections to join the Milner’s Circle, a political group which campaigned for equality among English speaking people and more British imperialism. The pair were well known for being a political power couple, with Waldorf remaining an MP for almost 9 years and moving to the Plymouth Sutton constituency when his own was dissolved. The by-election was only triggered on the death of his father, when the title of Viscount passed to him and he had to relinquish his seat in the Commons and automatically take one in the House of Lords. The previous year, the Qualification of Women Act had been passed, allowing women to become MPs for the first time and giving Nancy the perfect entry into politics.

She contested her husband’s former seat, standing as a Unionist – the modern-day Conservative Party – despite reservations from fellow party members. Historians say that Nancy’s charm and wit meant she really excelled at campaigning and the constituency having a majority of women voters in the aftermath of WWI, gave her the landslide victory over her fellow candidates. That wit and charm would go on to serve her well in the Commons. She became known as being someone who did not follow the rules and became outspoken for her views on specific issues including women’s rights and restrictions on alcohol.

Her maiden speech was held on 24th February to a room of notably hostile men. She is quoted to saying: “You must remember that women have got a vote now and we mean to use it and use it wisely.”
She spent almost two years as the only women in the House of Commons, though she wasn’t the only woman to have been elected. Constance Markievicz actually got there the year before, only she refused to take the oath due to her connections with Sinn Fein.

During her tenure, Nancy advocated for lowing the voting age of women to 21 (at the time of her election, the voting age for women was 30) and raising the legal age to buy and consume alcohol to 18 (it was 14 at the time.) Both things were passed into law, the voting age of women was lowered in 1928 and the legal age to buy and consume alcohol became 18 in 1923 and still remains to this day.

She also supported welfare reforms, the development and expansion of nursery schools and working to recruit more women into the civil service and the police force. She was known to be supportive of other women in politics, no matter what their political beliefs.

As tensions in Europe began to mount and a second world war was becoming more likely, both Nancy and Waldorf objected to Britain being involved. Initially, the pair backed Neville Chamberlain’s Appeasement Policy, alongside a number of other prominent members of society, a group that became known as the Cliveden Set. There is some debate over the groups’ thoughts on fascism and their allegiance with Nazi Germany, but as the war progressed the Astors stopped supporting Chamberlain with Nancy voting against him in 1940 and paving the way for Winston Churchill to become Prime Minister.

Even though she was against the war, Nancy contributed to the war effort by opening Cliveden as a hospital for wounded soldiers and as a family, the Astors were hugely generous, financing a number of projects in Plymouth, including donating land and buildings to the cause. One building, 3 Elliot Terrace, later became the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Plymouth and is now run as a place for official visitors to the city to stay.

Over the course of her political career, Nancy won seven elections and was MP for Plymouth Sutton for 26 years, eventually deciding not to stand in the 1945 election. Her decision to retire from politics has been debated, with historians claiming that Waldorf refused to support another term and that several members of the Party advised her to step down following a period of erratic behaviour. Throughout the 1940s, Nancy had lost the support of fellow MPs and made a series of bizarre speeches, including one in which she claimed there was a Catholic conspiracy in the foreign office. Despite this, her impact on politics continues to be felt. In the year that she retired, 24 women became MPs.

Her work for the city of Plymouth saw her named an honorary Freeman of the city in 1959. Waldorf was appointed Lord Mayor of Plymouth in the 1930s even though he wasn’t a member of the council because of the family’s work during the war, an honour that hadn’t been bestowed since Sir Francis Drake was given the title. As Viscountess Astor, Nancy performed the launching ceremony of the HMS Plymouth, an event that was doubly exciting for the city as it was the first time in 250 years that a ship had borne the name.

Nancy lived to the age of 84, passing away in May 1964 at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire.

Places to visit:
Cliveden, Buckinghamshire
Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire
Plymouth, Devon

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