Life of the Week: Nancy Astor

After being appointed as a member of parliament for Plymouth Sutton, Nancy Astor entered the House of Commons on 1 December 1919, becoming the first female MP in British history to take a seat in parliament

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Nancy was an advocate of women’s rights, prison reform, and changes to the legal drinking age.

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Here, we take a look at Nancy’s life…

Born: 19 May 1879 in Danville, Virginia, US

Died: 2 May 1964 at Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, England

Remembered for: Becoming the first woman to take her seat in the British parliament, as an MP for Plymouth Sutton – a position she held from 1919 to 1945.

Family: Nancy was the daughter of Chiswell Dabney Langhorne, a railway entrepreneur, and his wife, Nancy Witcher Keene. Nancy Astor had seven siblings.

In 1897 Nancy married American socialite Robert Gould Shaw II. They had one son, before divorcing in 1903. After moving to England in 1905, Nancy married Waldorf Astor (later made 2nd Viscount Astor) in 1906. The couple had four sons and one daughter.

Her life: Nancy was born into an impoverished family in Virginia in 1879. However, by the time she reached her teenage years, Nancy’s father had become a wealthy businessman, making a fortune in construction, rail, and tobacco. Nancy had a great fondness for reading growing up, but her father apparently expressed a dislike of women gaining an education.

In the 1890s, Nancy and her sister Irene enrolled in a finishing school, where women were taught etiquette and manners before entering high society in New York. While attending this school, Nancy met the American socialite Robert Gould Shaw II. The pair married in New York City on 27 October 1897, and welcomed the birth of their son, Robert, in August 1898. However, the marriage was an unhappy one, and the couple divorced in 1903.

In 1905, Nancy moved to England with her son and her sister Phyllis. Upon her arrival in England, Nancy became known among the English aristocracy as a witty and beautiful American socialite. She soon caught the eye of Waldorf Astor – the son of Viscount Astor – and within six months the couple were married.

Soon after their wedding, the couple moved to the large Cliveden estate in Buckinghamshire, and Nancy became a prominent hostess among the English elite. According to Nancy’s biographer, Christopher Sykes, she soon became “among the five or six most famous women in the world … loved and hated, admired and deplored.”

Nancy encouraged her husband to become involved in politics. In December 1910, Waldorf was elected as a member of parliament for Plymouth in the general election. After this constituency was dissolved in 1918, Waldorf became an MP for Plymouth Sutton – a position he held until 1919.

In 1919, Waldorf’s father died and he inherited the title of Viscount Astor, which made Nancy ‘Viscountess Astor’. Due to the advancement in his title, Waldorf had to give up his position as a member of parliament, and he succeeded to the House of Lords.

In the same year, Nancy decided to stand for parliament in her husband’s seat as a Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton. She was successfully elected as the next MP for this constituency and became the first woman to ever sit in the House of Commons on 1 December 1919.

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A proclamation announcing the election of Nancy Astor (centre) to the House of Commons in 1919. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Nancy quickly became known for her outspoken nature on specific issues. She was an advocate for women’s rights, and believed greatly in causes that benefited women and children. In her maiden speech to the Commons in February 1920, Nancy referred to the fact that some women over the age of 30 could now vote in Britain, stating: “You must remember that women have got a vote now and we mean to use it, and use it wisely”. During the initial years of her political career, Nancy supported lowering the voting age for women to 21 – this Act was later passed in 1928.

Nancy also appealed for stricter restrictions on the drinking hours that had come into effect during the First World War. She proposed raising the age of purchasing alcohol to 18 (it was set at 14 in 1901), and this Act was voted in by parliament in 1923.

Nancy clearly impressed her constituents in Plymouth Sutton – she represented her constituency in parliament for 26 years.

In the 1930s, Nancy and her husband spoke out against the rise of Nazism in Germany, and objected to engaging in a second world war. The couple both backed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy in reducing the threat of entering into a war with Germany.

However, after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Nancy began to lose popularity among her fellow MPs. She made a number of longwinded speeches, including one in which she accused the foreign office of being manipulated by Catholics, whom she loathed. However, despite opposing the conflict, Nancy contributed to the war effort by running a hospital for Canadian soldiers.

Ahead of the 1945 general election, Nancy resigned from her political seat. In the same year, 24 women became MPs and took their seats in parliament.

After the Second World War, Nancy and Waldorf separated for a number of years. However, they reconciled before he died in 1952. After her husband’s death, Nancy lost contact with most of her children, and many of her closest friends died.

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On 2 May 1964, Nancy died at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, aged 84.