Here we are at the beginning of 2020 and it strikes me that being (i) a woman, and (ii) a politician remains a difficult combination. What must it have been like 100 years ago for Nancy Astor, when she became the first woman to take up a seat in Parliament? Dr Jacqui Turner’s illuminating talk at The National Archives provided a fascinating insight into this complex personality.
Nancy Witcher did not have the start to life you might expect. She was, commented Dr Turner dryly, an “interloper”, having been born, in 1879, into “relative poverty”. In 1903, two years after divorcing her first husband, Robert Gould Shaw II, she met Waldorf Astor on a Cunard liner bound for England. The couple married at Cliveden (a present from Waldorf’s father) a few months later – and went on to have seven children.
Already a Conservative MP, when his father died in 1919, Waldorf Astor succeeded to his peerage as the 2nd Viscount Astor, automatically becoming a member of the House of Lords and forfeiting his seat of Plymouth Sutton. Nancy decided to contest the by-election for this vacant Parliamentary seat – and won with a huge majority. In December 1919, she took her seat.
The impact Nancy Astor made when she entered Parliament cannot be overstated. The Times, for example, reported it as an “enormous breach”. The Speaker of the House of Commons could no longer address the “Gentlemen of the House” – and was at a loss as to whether to ask Viscountess Astor to remove her hat. Being the first, remarked Nancy at the time, was never easy.
Outside Parliament, the reaction to Nancy Astor’s election victory was mixed. Interestingly, not all of the suffrage campaigners were pleased, some were dismayed that, as they saw it, Astor’s family connections had secured her seat. Despite her limited education and divorcée status, they viewed her as a product of the establishment. Worse, she was American!
One might well wonder how Nancy managed to get elected at all. Dr Turner ascribes this to Astor “representing something new”. Letters from her supporters show that Nancy was in no way seen as an extension of her husband – and that she was aware from the very first day of campaigning that she was on a historic path. Astor very much wanted to pave the way for other women:
“I am not standing before you as a sex candidate. If you want an MP who will be a repetition of the other 600 other MPs don’t vote for me. If you can’t get a fighting man, take a fighting woman.” – November 1919
Astor was also the first mother in the House of Commons – although you won’t be surprised to hear that not all of her peers approved of working mothers. Some, however, did – believing that Nancy understood the daunting responsibilities of being a mother. Funnily enough, the press of the day rarely dwelled upon Astor’s maternal status – but when they did, it was in a positive way, publishing appealing photos of Nancy with her husband and children. She was perceived as representing the vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society.
As, alas, remains the case today, Astor’s image was shaped as deemed necessary, the Conservatives striving to maximise her electoral value. In 1922, the Party published a pamphlet explaining how Astor was doing her best to help women and children; her fellow Tory MPs wanted to show that Astor was bringing something new to the party, especially in areas previously ignored by their more right-wing colleagues.
I can’t imagine how it must have felt, being the only woman working alongside 600 men. According to Dr Turner, Astor had to contend with constant, insidious sexism; Nancy avoided comments on her clothes by adopting a “uniform” (other female MPs, as they were elected, followed suit). Nancy was operating in a “culture of misogyny”, yet found the courage to deliver her maiden speech to a hostile audience about the evils of alcohol, reflecting her abstentionist beliefs. Astor claimed that she was speaking for thousands of women and children up and down the country who couldn’t speak for themselves.
In 1923, Astor was responsible for the first Private Member’s Bill to be passed by a woman and become an Act of Parliament – the Intoxicating Liquor Act, which remains in statute. She was, however, a “shocking” Conservative, defying the Whip over & over again – the reason she remained a backbencher. Nancy didn’t really, says Dr Turner, have a political philosophy of her own, tending to be influenced by her constituents’ needs. Her conscience meant more to her than her party: praiseworthy, but career-limiting.
Astor frequently campaigned for women’s rights regarding childcare and jobs, battling for years for women to be allowed to join the police force. Nancy was determined to prove women as capable in politics as men – but in a positive way. Women, she argued, had “moral courage”. She certainly needed courage herself: “Blasted American whore: go home” and “You’re having Hitler’s baby” were just two of the insults aimed at her during a lifetime of abuse.
Astor remained an MP until 1945, but the Commons never grew to love her. Unable to cultivate the “right” persona, she infuriated her fellow MPs with constant interruptions and running commentaries during their speeches.
Nancy Astor was far from perfect and her career was not without controversy – although, argues Dr Turner, some of the claims made against her have little factual value. Yes, she was a supporter of appeasement, although as a backbencher she had little influence over her party’s strategy. Yes, she was anti-Communist and disliked Catholics and Jews. Astor did not, however, accuse British soldiers serving in Italy as being “D-Day Dodgers”; this rumour came about following a “stupid joke” Astor made in a letter to three of her constituents serving in Italy and she was never able to shake it off.
Astor was a feminist by default rather than by design. She could be prickly and difficult, of that there is no doubt, although she showed kindness to many and “demonstrated courage and resilience” in standing alone as a woman in Parliament for two years. Dr Turner believes that we should place her in the context of the interwar period and understand, rather than condone, her views. Her male counterparts, inevitably, were subjected to far less scrutiny.
What of the female MPs who in due course joined Astor in Parliament? They were allocated a ‘Women’s Room’ in the House of Commons, complete with ironing board, which was used until Margaret Thatcher’s time. They shared one desk, so saw each other’s correspondence; they also shared a disproportionate workload, thanks to all of the political parties trying to prove that they supported women. These women bonded – due to a collective desire to help women and children.
Would you believe that, of the sparse number of biographies written about Nancy Astor, not one has been written by a woman? Dr Turner wants to right that wrong and has embarked upon her own biography of Astor. In the meantime, she has launched ‘Astor 100’: the “memorisation of the achievement of an individual that will facilitate a wider celebration of what she represented and the avenues she pioneered for women who followed.”
I’m embarrassed to admit that the little I knew about Nancy Astor before attending Dr Turner’s talk was based around Cliveden and its connection to the Profumo scandal. You don’t need to share Astor’s views to admire her achievements and I fully intend to find out more about her.
For all her faults, Nancy had a keen sense of humour and I’m going to close this post with an anecdote that she never tired of sharing. Out campaigning one day in the poorest area of her Plymouth constituency, Astor was accompanied by a close friend from the Navy who was also her campaign manager. Their knock at the door of a particularly dilapidated home was answered by a young girl, who looked the pair up and down and, upon being asked whether her mother was home, answered: “Me mam’s not here. But she told me that if any lady was to turn up with a gentleman from the Navy, I was to charge them five shillings and send them upstairs to the second bedroom.”