On the 1st December 1919, Lady Nancy Astor became the first woman to take a seat in the British Parliament. Originally from America, Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor was born on 19th May 1879. After her second marriage, to Lord Waldorf Astor, she began a life of campaigning for better rights for women and children in Britain.
Lord Astor had enjoyed a successful political career before the First World War. After, he succeeded to the peerage, and his new wife, Lady Astor, decided to put herself forward as a Conservative Party candidate for his vacated seat, in Plymouth Sutton, Devon.
Unlike Constance Markievicz, who was the first woman to actually be elected to Parliament (rather than the first to take up her seat), Nancy Astor had not been connected with the suffrage movement, a fact which did not make her popular at first. Constance believed that as a rich socialite from the States, Lady Astor was “of the upper classes, and out of touch.” Nancy was also unpopular because she was against the consumption of alcohol. She was also largely ignorant of the problems in her constituency and of current political issues in general. She was also well known for saying odd things, which led some people to believe her to be unstable. However, her informal style appealed to some, and Nancy managed to rally supporters of the current government once she had moderated her views on alcohol, and used women’s meetings to gain the support of female voters.
A by-election was held on 28 November 1919, and after winning, Nancy took up her seat in the House on 1 December as a Unionist (Conservative) Member of Parliament, where she made a landmark speech which began, “I shall not begin by craving the indulgence of the House. I am only too conscious of the indulgence and the courtesy of the House. 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. After all, I suppose when Drake and Raleigh wanted to set out on their venturesome careers, some cautious person said, “Do not do it; it has never been tried before. You stay at home, my sons, cruising around in home waters.” I have no doubt that the same thing occurred when the Pilgrim Fathers set out…’
Lady Astor maintained her seat in Plymouth thereafter, until she finally stepped down in 1945.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.