Celebrating 100 years since Nancy Astor became the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons: Lisa Berry-Waite

This November marks 100 years since Nancy Astor won a Plymouth Sutton by-election, becoming the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. She inherited her seat from her husband Waldorf Astor, after he was elevated to the House of Lords following the death of his father, the first Viscount Astor. Astor’s historic election represented a new era for British politics; parliament was no longer a male-only space and for the first time a woman was able to directly influence legislation. The timely unveiling of Astor’s statue on Plymouth Hoe on 28 November, as part of the Astor100 campaign, is an important milestone in celebrating women’s achievements in politics.[1] The campaign to raise the statue of Astor was crowdfunded and led by the Plymouth Women in Business CIC.

Following the passing of the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, women over the age of twenty-one could now stand in parliamentary elections. Seventeen women stood in the 1918 General Election, but only Constance Markievicz was successful. As she stood for Sinn Fein, she refused to take her seat in adherence to their abstentionist policy. Astor was an unlikely first woman MP – she was American and had no record of supporting the women’s suffrage movement. Born in Virginia in 1879, Astor visited England following her divorce from an unhappy marriage to Robert Shaw. She later met Waldorf Astor whom she married in 1906.

Astor supported Waldorf’s political work in Plymouth, where he was MP for Plymouth Sutton from 1910 to 1919. Through canvassing and speaking on the public platform on his behalf, Astor gained a large amount of electoral experience and knowledge of constituency affairs. She was persuaded to stand for election, acting as a ‘warming pan’ whilst he tried to renounce his peerage and return to the Commons. Women MPs inheriting their seats from their husbands became a common pattern in the interwar period, with Brian Harrison referring to this as the ‘male equivalence’.[2]

The by-election was scheduled for 15 November and was a three-party fight against the Labour candidate William Gay, and Asquithian Liberal Issac Foot. Although Astor stood as a Conservative candidate, she was fiercely independent and possessed liberal views, particularly on matters of social reform. Indeed, Astor’s public image focused on her gender, and her role as a wife and mother.

In her 1919 election address, she declared ‘I know the real Plymouth, its children and women, and its social problems better than any of the other candidates.’[3] Female candidates were believed to have a ‘special knowledge’ of matters related to women and children, emphasising stereotypical gender ideals. Women’s ‘special knowledge’ was thought to be an asset after the First World War, as domestic issues were increasingly becoming part of public life.

Astor portrayed herself as a loyal wife and respectable figure who understood the needs of the constituency. In her adoption speech, she declared ‘If you can’t get a fighting man, take a fighting woman.’[4] Such a statement highlighted Astor’s connection to Waldorf, adding a sense of familiarity to her campaign. At this point, female candidates were still viewed as a novelty and the press increasingly described Astor’s campaign as ‘a sort of circus.’[5] Thus, it is not surprising that Astor utilised her marital status, as female candidates were believed to be less threatening to voters if they were thought to be representing the views of a man. Although campaign literature stated to ‘Vote for Astor once again’, Astor’s gender ensured her candidature could not have been more different to Waldorf’s.[6]

Astor’s electioneering style was unconventional and sparked a multitude of headlines, both in the British and American press. The New York Times followed Astor’s campaign with great interest, referring to her quickness of repartee and Virginian wit.[7] She was a captivating public speaker and dealt with hecklers with ease. When interrupted during an election speech, she exclaimed ‘Don’t give me any of your sass. I shall come right down there to you. What you fellows want is to stop yelling and get to work.’[8] Her informal style intrigued the electorate who were not use to the political elite behaving in such a way. Despite Astor’s wealthy background, she aimed to ‘transcend class’ and visited the poorest parts of Plymouth.[9] The Western Mail reported that ‘As she went round amongst the poorest people – who are among her most ardent supporters – her progress was in effect a brilliant political success.’[10] Astor was able to form connections with people from all walks of life and had a common touch, with constituents referring to her as ‘Our Nancy.’[11]

Astor won the Plymouth Sutton by-election with more votes than her opponents combined, but had to wait until 28 November for the results to be announced. Despite standing as a ‘warming pan’, she went on to win seven elections and was MP for Plymouth Sutton from 1919 to 1945. Astor refused to be conventional and paved the way for future generations. Her informal electioneering style challenged society’s perceptions of how a woman should behave. The unveiling of Astor’s statue in Plymouth will help to ensure Astor’s legacy, and women’s political achievements more broadly, are not forgotten.

Lisa Berry-Waite is a History PhD candidate at the University of Exeter and the recipient of a Leverhulme Trust studentship to work with Professor Richard Toye and Professor David Thackeray on the research project ‘The Age of Promises: manifestos, election addresses and political representation.’ Her research focuses on the British parliamentary election campaigns of female candidates, 1918-1931. 

[1] For more information see https://research.reading.ac.uk/astor100/

[2] Brian Harrison, Prudent revolutionaries: portraits of British feminists between the wars (Oxford, 1987), p. 79.

[3] Nancy Astor’s 1919 Election Address, BRO/1, Ernest Brown Papers, Parliamentary Archives, London.

[4] ‘LADY ASTOR JOKES WITH FISHERMEN, OPENING CAMPAIGN’, New York Times, 4 November 1919, p. 1.

[5] ‘Lady Astor entertained by Women M.P.’s: Luncheon and Presentation at House of Commons’, Western Morning News, 2 December 1944, p. 3.

[6] Election Leaflet, 186/22/7, Waldorf and Nancy Astor Papers, Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, Plymouth.

[7] ‘LADY ASTOR, FROM VIRGINIA: Picturesque British Politician Still Clings to Memories of the Days When She Was a Belle in Richmond’, New York Times, 16 November 1919, p. SM1.

[8] Adrian Fort, Nancy: the story of Lady Astor (London, 2012), p. 166.

[9] Fort, p. 164.

[10] ‘Lady Astor Busy: Incidents In A Novel Bye-Election’, Western Mail, 5 November 1919, p. 5.

[11] ‘“Our Nancy” Goes Electioneering’, Sheffield Weekly Telegraph, 22 November 1919, p. 3.

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