|Women’s Suffrage in the UK||Women Suffrage in the USA||Parliamentary Reform|
In 1897 Nancy married Robert Gould Shaw. The relationship was not a success and the couple divorced in 1903. The following year she moved to England where she met and married the immensely wealthy Waldorf Astor. The couple moved into Cliveden, a large estate in Buckinghamshire on the River Thames. They also had a home in St. James's Square.
Astor was a member of the Conservative Party and represented the Sutton division of Plymouth in the House of Commons. On the death of his father in 1919, Astor became a member of the House of Lords. Nancy now became the party's candidate in the resulting by-election. Oswald Mosley was one of those who campaigned for her in the election: "She was less shy than any woman - or any man - one has ever known. She'd address the audience and then she'd go across to some old woman scowling in a neighbouring doorway, who simply hated her, take both her hands and kiss her on the cheek or something of that sort. She was absolutely unabashed by any situation. Great effrontery but also, of course, enormous charm. People were usually overcome by it. She was much better when she was interrupted. She must have prayed for hecklers and interrupters. She certainly got a lot."
Nancy Astor beat the Liberal Party candidate, Isaac Foot, and on 1st December 1919 became the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons (the first woman to be elected was Constance Markievicz in 1918 but as a member of Sinn Fein had disqualified herself by refusing to take the oath). Markievicz, like many feminists, was highly critical that a woman who had not been part of the suffrage campaign had been elected to parliament. She accused her being a member of the "upper classes" and "out of touch" with the needs of ordinary people. Norah Dacre Fox, one of the leaders of the Women's Social and Political Union pointed out: "the first woman to be elected for an English constituency was an American born citizen, who had no credentials to represent British women in their own parliament save that she had married a British subject."
Astor's maiden speech was in favour of the Temperance Society and in 1923 she introduced a private member's bill that raised to eighteen the age qualification for the purchase of alcoholic drinks. Over the next few years Astor campaigned for women's suffrage at twenty-one and equal rights in the Civil Service. She was also a strong supporter of the nursery schools of Margaret McMillan.
Like most members of the Conservative Party, Astor was a strong supporter of Neville Chamberlain and his government's appeasement policy. After the outbreak on the Second World War Astor grew increasingly critical of Chamberlain and in May 1940 voted against the government and helped Winston Churchill to become prime minister.
Nancy Astor died on 2nd May 1964.
(1) Oswald Mosley helped Nancy Astor in her campaign to be elected to the House of Commons in 1919. Mosley later wrote about this campaign.
She had, of course, unlimited effrontery. She was less shy than any woman - or any man - one has ever known. She'd address the audience and then she'd go across to some old woman scowling in a neighbouring doorway, who simply hated her, take both her hands and kiss her on the cheek or something of that sort. She was absolutely unabashed by any situation. Great effrontery but also, of course, enormous charm. People were usually overcome by it. She was much better when she was interrupted. She must have prayed for hecklers and interrupters. She certainly got a lot.
(2) Norah Dacre Fox, Fascist Quarterly (1935)
I preferred to stand as an Independent, going down with all the other women candidates on this occasion, save one. The exception was the Sinn Fein Countess Markievicz, who though a notorious and avowed enemy of Britain, found it a perfectly simple matter under the democratic system to secure election to the Parliament of the country which she had openly boasted that she would destroy, disintegrate and discredit. She was if I remember rightly, returned unopposed. The next example was hardly more encouraging, for the first woman to be elected for an English constituency was an American born citizen, who had no credentials to represent British women in their own parliament save that she had married a British subject.
(3) Nancy Astor, maiden speech in the House of Commons (1919)
I do not want you to look on your lady Member as a fanatic or lunatic. I am simply trying to speak for hundreds of women and children throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves. I want to tell you that I do know the working man, and I know that, if you tell him the truth about drink, he would be as willing as anybody else to put up with these vexatious restrictions.
(4) Nancy Astor, speech, House of Commons (July, 1923)
In 1920 nearly 2,000 persons were cautioned by these women police for acts of indecency in parks and public places. There were nearly 3,000 persons cautioned for unseemly behaviour in parks, and 2,700 young girls were cautioned for loitering in the streets, and advised as to the danger of doing so; 1,000 girls passed into homes and hospitals, and 6,400 respectable girls and women stranded at night were found shelter.
We had the evidence of Sir Nevil Macready, Sir Leonard Dunning, and chief constables and social workers, and the Committee unanimously reported that in thickly populated areas, where offences against the law relating to women and children are not infrequent, there was not only scope, but urgent need, for the employment of women police, and they also said that the women should be specially qualified, highly trained and well paid.
(5) Editorial, Time and Tide (17th October, 1922)
It is true that we have been most singularly fortunate in our first two women members. They have set a standard to which few could hope to attain. Nevertheless, even though we can scarcely hope that many future women M.P.'s will achieve so conspicuous a success as have the first two it is undoubtedly most desirable to add to their number. In the last Parliament Lady Astor and Mrs. Wintringham were doing the work often ordinary people. No human being can be expected to keep going indefinitely at such a pressure. We publish today the first of a series of three articles dealing in some detail with the chances of the prospective women candidates who have been adopted up to the present. It seems clear from a close scrutiny of the list of seats placed at their disposals that none of the Parties have been prepared to pay much more than lip service to the proposition that it is desirable to have women in Parliament. The Independent Liberals head the list so far as numbers are concerned, but even the Independent Liberals do not so far appear to have given their women candidates any safe seats. Perhaps, however, there was some excuse for the 'Wee Frees,' seeing that they had not many safe seats to give.
Few people who have closely followed the course of events in the last Parliament will be found to deny that there is need in the next for a greater representation of women. And this not only on the general grounds that it is desirable to have national political problems fully envisaged from every possible angle, but also and at the present time particularly because there are still today a certain number of subjects the importance of which tends to be underrated by many of the men in Parliament but is adequately appreciated by women. The value of Lady Astor and Mrs. Wintringham has lain not only in their contributions upon general political questions but also in the steady hard work they have put in over such matters as the Criminal Law Amendment Bill (whose passage was largely due to their efforts), the Equal Guardianship of Infants Bill, the Women Police question (that any Women Police at all have been retained in the London area is due almost entirely to them), and other matters of the kind. It has lain also in the fact that they could be trusted to understand the point of view of the professional and working woman.
(6) Nancy Astor, speech during the General Strike in 1926.
We found such kindness and courage, and no bitterness among the miners and their wives. We returned with a longing to help, not only with milk and food, but in bringing about some method of settling disputes by some other way than war - for industrial disputes are war, in which the women and children suffer first and most. It all seems so useless and hopeless - here in this country, where all sections of the community seem to have the same virtues and the same faults. They certainly have the same sporting instincts, for they all asked for the winner of the Derby, and got a lecture on the evils of betting for their pains!
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