Nancy Astor: First Woman in Parliament

Nancy Astor: First Woman in Parliament


On 1st December 1919 the first
woman to sit in Parliament took to the green benches, introduced by the Prime
Minister David Lloyd George and former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. Was this
one of the great women’s suffrage campaigners, Millicent Fawcett or
Emmeline Pankhurst? No. Instead the first woman to take her seat, after Constance
Markievicz, a Sinn Féin candidate elected the previous year refused to do so, was
the American political hostess Nancy Astor. Born in Virginia in 1879,
Nancy Langhorne had moved to the UK in 1905 marrying Waldorf Astor the
following year. When Waldorf Astor was elevated to the House of Lords his
Plymouth constituency seat became available and Nancy threw herself into
the contest, despite having no history of campaigning for women’s suffrage. “If you want an MP who will be a repetition of the 600 other MPs don’t vote for me. If
you want a lawyer or if you want a pacifist don’t elect me.
If you can’t get a fighting man, take a fighting woman. If you want a Bolshevist
or a follower of Mr Asquith, don’t elect me. If you want a party hack don’t elect
me … the war has taught us that there is a greater thing than parties and that is
the state.” The election took place on 15th November. Among Astor’s local supporters in Plymouth was Bessie Le Cras, an early
woman election agent. The count took place on 28th November and Astor
was elected with the majority of more than 5,000 votes. A strong advocate of
temperance, Astor’s maiden speech on 24th February 1920 was on the
subject of maintaining restrictions on the sale of alcohol. In 1923
Astor’s Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under Eighteen) bill became the first private member’s bill by a woman to become an Act of Parliament. To this day,
alcohol cannot be sold to anyone under 18. Many MPs, including Winston
Churchill, were hostile to the idea of women MPs some members refused to speak to her and some refused to move to give her space to sit on the benches. As Astor
recalled “I know that it is very difficult for some honourable members to
receive the first lady MP into the House. It was almost as difficult for some of
them as it was for the first lady MP herself to come in. Honourable Members,
however, should not be frightened of what Plymouth sends out into the world.”
The member for Plymouth, as the sole woman in parliament, was regarded by many women as ‘their’ MP and Astor received thousands of letters from women across
the country. Reciprocally Astor worked tirelessly for causes affecting
all women. She supported calls for an equal franchise, women police and spoke
in favour of reform in areas such as housing, education and the employment of children. Astor won 7 elections and held her seat continuously from 1919 to her
retirement in 1945. The MP who replaced her in Plymouth Sutton was also a woman, Lucy Middleton, who held the seat until 1951 when Astor’s son, Jakie, became
the MP. When Astor died in 1964, Gilbert Campion, a former clerk of the
House of Commons, reflected “For a generation she held a continuous
watching brief in the House of Commons for the best interests of women and
children.”