100 years ago this November, Nancy Astor was elected to Parliament, becoming Britain’s first female MP. This post will look at the life of Nancy Astor and her role as the first woman to hold a seat in the House of Commons. Astor gave voice to a number of female issues to try and create a better space for women in the twentieth century, and her position represented a crucial step forwards towards gender equality in politics.
Her Life and Her Move to England
Nancy Astor was originally from the United States, but decided to move to Britain at the age of 26. She became known among the aristocracy in Britain upon her move to the country, and soon married a man named Waldorf Astor – a British aristocrat and newspaper proprietor with whom she had 5 children.
Cliveden House was Nancy Astor’s home for the first half of the twentieth century. Cliveden became the centre of her social gatherings and she often hosted parties among the elite. The house was also used for wartime meetings, and through her marriage and events in her home, Astor became well linked to different political circles in Britain.
Naturally, Astor entering the British aristocracy had an important impact on her political career, particularly since her husband had been an MP. Her step into British politics also coincided with women getting the vote, so Astor encouraged women to use this new right to their advantage. She became an MP just one year after certain women in Britain were granted the right to vote.
Gender and Politics at the Time
Until the late 1910s, politics was a male-dominated arena, with men firmly in charge of political decision-making. Women were expected to remain in the home, with domestic work and childcare as their main responsibilities. Despite the social change that occurred after the First World War, women’s political participation was still restricted. Due to this, Nancy Astor becoming a politician was a major change to traditional gender roles, since she was taking on a position that had always been reserved for men.
Even though Astor’s entry into the political world was an enormous success, she faced sexism that made her daily working life difficult. In particular, she was often greeted with backlash in the House of Commons when she spoke up about issues affecting women and children.
The public also had an uneasy view of Astor as both a politician and a mother. Since women were supposed to put childcare at the forefront of their duties, Astor working as a politician meant she wasn’t giving her full attention to motherhood. This made Astor’s position very out of the ordinary and hard to understand for some.
Nancy Astor in Politics
Nancy Astor became the first woman sit as an MP in the House of Commons on 1 December 1919, entering as a member of the Conservative Party. She won 51% of the vote in a by-election in Plymouth and took the seat that formerly belonged to her husband. Astor started her career as an MP surrounded in Parliament by 706 men, and she would continue to be the only female member for almost two years.
However, while Astor was the first female to take her seat, Constance Markievicz, a suffragette and nationalist, was the first woman elected to British Parliament. Markievicz became interested in Irish politics when her family moved to Dublin, and she turned down her seat in the House of Commons due to Irish independence and her involvement in Sinn Féin.
Nancy Astor was extremely passionate about her political role, taking seriously issues regarding women and children with limited opportunities. She also supported the increase of the alcohol sale age from 14 to 18. Astor’s American background may have prompted this, since the temperance movement and prohibition were becoming influential in the United States at the time. In parliament, she gave a very effective speech on this issue, and succeeded with raising the legal age.
Astor worked hard to widen women’s votes in the 1920s – a time when they were getting their own public voices and more political representation. She was also in support of the development of nursery schools to improve children’s education. Astor’s commitment to improved education was a priority, and she was hoping to raise the legal age for children to leave school. As well as this, she hoped to increase the recruitment of women into the civil service. In the 1930s, Astor strongly supported Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, wishing to avoid any future engagement in war. Her commitment to certain issues and irreverent approach definitely gained her a significant following during her time as an MP.
Astor’s campaigns were sometimes made difficult by her own social position, since she wished to be a representative for poor women and children. Astor being part of the aristocracy and involved among the elite meant her own lifestyle was far removed from those she wished to represent. Some people believed she was out of touch and didn’t fully understand the plight of working class families.
Interestingly, Astor was not a direct supporter of women’s causes, making some feminists and women’s rights activists skeptical about how Astor intended to use her political position. She hadn’t been involved with the prominent suffrage movement, despite her dedication to women’s rights. Her lack of involvement with the women’s suffrage movement did have disadvantages for her campaign.
Although her campaigns faced some struggle, Astor’s gender changed the nature of British politics. She was able to give voice to women’s issues which were often ignored in Parliament. Astor offered a different perspective on social issues, making her role a crucial step forward towards political gender equality.
Views of Lady Astor were controversial before she even entered politics. She was previously married while in America, and was a divorcee when she moved over to England. Divorce at the time was rare, and was considered a scandal. At the start of the 20th century, there was only one divorce for every 450 marriages in the UK, making Astor’s position as American and divorced quite unusual.
In the early 1930s, the actions of her son had a negative effect on her political career. At a time when homosexuality was seen as a criminal offence, her son from her first marriage was arrested in 1931 for engaging in homosexual activity. She also held controversial views, such as a hatred of Catholicism, and her racial views were out of touch with the undergoing cultural change of the time.
Nancy Astor’s Blue Plaque
Despite some controversies, difficulties with her campaigns and significant backlash, Lady Astor will always be remembered as the first female to become an MP. She changed the nature of British politics and used her voice to raise issues regarding women and the underprivileged. Astor is the second woman to have a blue plaque, acting as a tribute to her position as a role model and spokesperson for women who weren’t able to speak out for themselves.
Astor starting her career as the only female MP took courage and bravery, directly influencing parliamentary debate and making her career a significant step towards political equality in Britain. She endured significant hostility and proved that there is a place for women in Parliament.