Nancy Astor takes her seat in parliament

Less than two years after some 8.5 million women gained the right to vote, the British parliament gains its first sitting female MP. Emma Slattery Williams finds out why her fellow MPs "would rather have had a rattlesnake than her" for BBC History Revealed

Nancy Astor on the campaign trail in 1919

On 1 December 1919, Viscountess Nancy Astor became the first female MP to take up her seat in parliament. She was a member of the Unionist party for the constituency of Plymouth Sutton, winning 51.9 per cent of the vote in a by-election the previous November.

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Nancy Witcher Langhorne was born in Virginia in 1879, the daughter of a railroad businessman. His fortune grew as Nancy became a teenager, allowing her to attend finishing school and enter high society. She married her first husband, Robert Gould Shaw II, when she was 18, but they divorced after a few years. Nancy moved to England in 1905 after falling in love with the country during a trip there.

Glamorous and charming, Nancy became popular in aristocratic circles and soon attracted the attention of Waldorf Astor, son of the owner of The Observer newspaper and also an American expatriate. They were soon married, and Nancy, as an advocate of social reform, encouraged her new husband to enter politics. He was elected for the Unionist party in Plymouth in 1910.

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. Nancy, whose husband was forced to give up his seat in the House of Commons after inheriting his father’s peerage in October 1919, made the decision to stand for her husband’s vacant parliamentary seat in the resulting by-election. 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.

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”. She worked tirelessly for welfare reforms, equal voting rights, access to the professions for women, and supported other female MPs regardless of their political party. 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.

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.

Emma Slattery Williams is BBC History Revealed’s staff writer.

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This content first appeared in the November 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed