Nancy Astor (1879-1964)
“Real education should educate us out of self into something far finer; into a selflessness which links us with all humanity”
Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor (1879-1964), known as Viscountess Astor, the American-born politician and society hostess, was the first woman to sit in Britain’s Parliament in 1919, holding her seat for over 25 years. She is best regarded as the “first lady of British politics,” and throughout her career, proved to be a truly influential and eccentric activist, one far different from anyone else of her time.
Nancy Witcher Langhorne was born in May 1849 at the Langhorne House in Danville, Virginia in the United States. She was the eighth of eleven children of the railroad businessman Chiswell Dabney Langhorne and his wife Nancy Witcher Keene. By the time she reached her adolescence, her father had become a wealthy businessman, making his fortune off construction work and tobacco farming. This provided Astor family the means to proper education of all of her children. In the 1896, Nancy Langhorne and her sister were enrolled in a “finishing school” in New York, where women were taught etiquette and manners before entering “high society” of the city. While attending this school, Astor meets the infamous socialite Robert Gould Shaw II (1872-1930), a wealthy landowner from Boston, and the pair married in October 1897. The marriage was unhappy, because Shaw became an abusive alcoholic, and the couple got a divorce after four years.
Together with her sister Nancy Shaw moved to England one year later; a step typically for many American upper-class women who tried to find the right husband. She met the wealthy Englishman Waldorf Astor (1848-1919) in the same year and after a short courtship the couple married the in 1906. He was an American-born attorney, politician, businessman, and newspaper publisher, who had moved with his family to England in 1891, became a British subject in 1899, and was made a peer as Baron Astor in 1916 and Viscount Astor in 1917 for his contributions to war charities.
Following their marriage, the couple moved to Buckinghamshire, and Astor 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.” As she continued to gain influence among English society, Astor continuously encouraged her husband to become involved in politics. In December 1910, he was then elected as a member of parliament for Plymouth in the general election. Then becoming MP for Plymouth Sutton, a position he held until 1919.
In 1919, following the death of her husband Waldorf Astor, Lady Nancy Astor decided to run 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 on December 1, 1919, became the first woman to ever sit in the House of Commons. She won with 51 percent of the vote and remained the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton for over 25 years, from the years 1919 to 1945.
Astor was heavily recognized for her fiery campaigning spirit and enthusiasm for politics within her political career and within such, championed many causes on behalf of underprivileged women and children. She supported welfare reforms, equal voting rights for women and access to the professions for women and men over 21 (which were finally achieved in 1928 in Britain). She was also supportive of other female MPs regardless of their association to a political party. Her most effective speeches were in support of the legislation to ban the sale of alcohol to anyone under 18. And in 1923, she was responsible for the first Private Members’ Bill ever passed by a woman, the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to persons under Eighteen) Bill. The principle embodied within this bill, one that argues alcohol cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 18, remains active to this day.
Taking on a culture of ingrained sexism and outright resentment among within the House of Commons, Astor developed a reputation for being a “disruptive” and outspoken woman within parliament, as she regularly interrupting speeches and promoted a sphere of contestation and perceptivity within parliament. According to the UK Houses of Parliament, Astor even recalled that her fellow MPs “would rather have had a rattlesnake than me” in the House of Commons. In a 1956 BBC interview, Astor recalls her early days in the House,
I had the privilege of being the first woman in the House of Commons, and sometimes I used to doubt whether it was a privilege. When I stood up and asked questions affecting women and children, social and moral questions, I used to be shouted at for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. That was when they thought that I was rather a freak, a voice crying in the wilderness.
During her time in parliament, many MPs refused to speak to her, and Churchill even later told her “we hoped to freeze you out”. However, Astor continually prevailed against the discrimination and resentments she faced from her colleges, winning seven elections between 1919 and 1935. Astor reluctantly resigns from Parliament in 1945, after an erratic performance during World War II. She had served as a strong-willed, passionate MP for 26 years.
Rosa Bestmann, Communication Studies, Class of 2018
Literature and Websites
- “Devon—Features—First Lady of Politics.” BBC Home, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/discovering/famous/astors.shtml (Accessed April 21, 2018).
- “Nancy Astor MP The First Woman to Sit in the House of Commons 1919-1945.” British House of Parliament, 2013, at: https://www.parliament.uk/documents/works-of-art/nancy-astor-leaflet-web-version.pdf (Accessed April 21, 2018).
- “Nancy Astor’s Campaign Leaflet, 1919” Parliament, United Kingdom, at: https://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/nancy-astor-campaign-leaflet.pdf (Accessed April 21, 2018).
- “Woman’s Hour, Viscountess Nancy Astor, Nancy Astor Interview.” BBC Radio 4. 1956, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01lfw2p (Accessed April 21, 2018).
- Collis, Maurice. Nancy Astor: An Informal Biography. New York: Dutton, 1960.
- Grigg, John. Nancy Astor: Portrait of a Pioneer. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1980.
- Langhorne, Elizabeth Coles. Nancy Astor and her Friends. New York: Praeger, 1974.
- Sansom, Ian. “Great Dynasties of the World: The Astors.” The Guardian. March 26, 2011, at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/mar/26/nancy-astor-family-dynasty-ian-sansom (Accessed April 21, 2018.)