December 2019 marked 100 years since Nancy Astor became the first female MP in British history to take a seat in parliament. But how much do you know about the American-born socialite and women’s rights campaigner? Here’s everything you need to know about her life, political views and achievements…
Key facts about Nancy Astor:
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. Astor was not the first woman to be elected to the Commons; this was Constance Markievicz, in the general election of 1918 (as a member of Sinn Fein, Markievicz did not take her seat).
Family: Nancy was the daughter of Chiswell Dabney Langhorne, a railway entrepreneur, and his wife, Nancy Witcher Keene. Nancy Astor had seven siblings.
Marriages: Nancy married American socialite Robert Gould Shaw III in 1897. 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.
Who was Nancy Astor?
Nancy Witcher Langhorne was born into an impoverished family in Virginia, USA in 1879. She was the daughter of Chiswell Dabney Langhorne, a railway entrepreneur, and his wife, Nancy Witcher Keene. By the time she entered her teenage years, her father had become a wealthy businessman, making a fortune in construction, rail and tobacco. Growing up, Nancy had a great fondness for reading, although 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. Glamorous and charming, she became popular in aristocratic circles and soon caught the eye of Waldorf Astor – the son of Viscount Astor, who owned The Observer newspaper. Within six months the pair 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”.
A keen advocate for social reform, Nancy encouraged her husband to become involved in politics, and in December 1910, Waldorf Astor was elected as a member of parliament for Plymouth in the general election. The constituency was dissolved in 1918, and Waldorf instead became an MP for Plymouth Sutton – a position he held until 1919.
How and when did Nancy Astor become an MP?
In November 1918, nine months after some women in Britain had won the right to vote, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed, allowing women to become MPs for the first time.
The following year, Waldorf Astor’s father died. His son inherited the title of Viscount Astor, thereby making Nancy ‘Viscountess Astor’. Due to the advancement in his title, Waldorf had to give up his position as a member of parliament, instead succeeding to the House of Lords. Nancy made the decision to stand for parliament in her husband’s seat.
Nancy Astor (in hat), the first woman to take her seat in parliament, on the campaign trail in Plymouth. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
A gifted political campaigner, Nancy managed to appeal to all social classes with her wit and charm (although her vocal teetotalism lost her some support). She could also hold her own at hustings and wasn’t afraid to take on her male rivals. Following a successful campaign, she was elected as the MP for Plymouth Sutton and became the first woman to ever sit in the House of Commons on 1 December 1919.
Political views, achievements and controversies
It wasn’t all plain sailing from thereon. As the only woman in parliament for nearly two years, Nancy faced sexism and resentment. She gained a reputation for heckling and interrupting, and reportedly remarked that her fellow MPs “would rather have had a rattlesnake than me”.
Nonetheless, she worked tirelessly for welfare reforms and equal voting rights, and believed greatly in causes that benefited women and children. In her maiden speech to the Commons in February 1920, for example, she 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 – and this Act was later passed in 1928.
However, perhaps Nancy’s biggest achievement was the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under Eighteen) Act, which became known as Lady Astor’s Bill. The first private member’s bill by a woman to become an act of parliament, it raised the age for consuming alcohol in a public house from 14 to 18, and remains in force to this day.
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.
After 26 years in the House of Commons and seven successful elections, Nancy retired in 1945. The end of her parliamentary career was shadowed by rumours of German sympathies and a subsequent loss in popularity, but her legacy was evident: in that same year, 24 women were elected and took their seats in parliament.
After the Second World War, Nancy and Waldorf separated for a number of years. However, they reconciled before his death in 1952. On 2 May 1964, Nancy died at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, aged 84.