This month in history: Nancy Astor

Houses of Parliament, UKNancy Astor was the first woman to take a seat in the House of Commons. She dedicated her political career to campaigning on issues that affected women, including widows' pensions, employment equality, women in the police force, the provision of nursery schools, and measures to reduce maternal mortality rates.

Born in Virginia, US, on 19 May 1879, Nancy Langhorne was the 8th child in a family of 11. Her father, Chiswell Langhorne, was a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in the development of the railways.

After attending prestigious schools in New York, she married an American Civil War veteran. They had one son, Robert, but the marriage was an unhappy one. They separated in 1901 and divorced in 1903, when she was just 24.

In 1905, age 26, and encouraged by her father, she moved to England with her sister, Phyllis. It was while she was a passenger on the Atlantic crossing that she met Waldorf Astor, the son of the hotel-building William Waldorf Astor. After a rapid courtship, the couple married in May 1906, and were given the family estate in Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, by Waldorf’s father, as a wedding gift.

Unlike Nancy’s previous marriage, her union with Waldorf was a happy one. They had 5 children: William (1907), Nancy (1909), David (1912), Michael (1916) and John (1918).

Waldorf was a member of the Conservative Party, and represented the Sutton division of Plymouth in the House of Commons (Gazette issue 28449). In 1918, he served as parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Food, and on the death of his father, became a member of the House of Lords (Gazette issue 31147). With this change, he forfeited his seat of Plymouth Sutton in the Commons, and Nancy decided to contest the vacant parliamentary seat.

Nancy beat the Liberal Party candidate, Isaac Foot, and on 1 December 1919, became the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons (Gazette issue 31669). Contrary to popular belief, she was not the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons. This happened in 1918 with Constance Markievicz, but as a member of Sinn Féin, she disqualified herself by refusing to take the oath. On Astor’s victory, Markievicz is reported to have said that Nancy was "of the upper classes, and out of touch".

However, Nancy’s political career was to last until 1945. During her time in parliament, she:

  • supported the development of nursery schools
  • supported raising the legal age for consuming alcohol from 14 to 18
  • worked to recruit women into the civil service

Her popularity waned in the 1930s, after her son was arrested for so-called ‘homosexual offences’. With the rise of the Nazis in the early 1930s, she often met with Nazi officials and publically supported their expansionist aims.

Lady Astor turned against Neville Chamberlain after the outbreak of World War 2 and joined Conservative rebels in forcing him from office in May 1940. Throughout the war, she devoted much of her time to raising morale in Plymouth, where Waldorf served as mayor for 5 years. Plymouth became a major target of attack, and the Astors' house suffered damage from incendiary bombs.

Despite Nancy’s work in helping to raise morale throughout the war, the people of Plymouth had not forgotten her pro-Nazi views in the 1930s, and she was warned that she was likely to be defeated if she contested the 1945 election. She stepped down and was replaced by Lucy Middleton, a Labour Party candidate (Gazette issue 37238).