December 1st, 1919 – Lady Astor, Member of Parliament

Today-In-History

On December 1st, 1919, Lady Astor became the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom

Lady Astor 680

Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, Viscountess Astor, better known as Lady Astor, was an American-born English socialite who made a second marriage to Waldorf Astor as a young woman in England. After he succeeded to the peerage and entered the House of Lords, she entered politics, in 1919 winning his former seat in Plymouth  on November 28th, 1919, and becoming the first woman to sit as a Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons. 

Nancy_Viscountess_Astor_by_John_Singer_Sargent

Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, Viscountess Astor, CH (May 19th, 1879 – May 2nd, 1964)

Astor’s Parliamentary career was the most public phase of her life. She gained attention as a woman and as someone who did not follow the rules, often attributed to her American upbringing. On her first day in the House of Commons, she was called to order for chatting with a fellow House member, not realizing that she was the person who was causing the commotion. She learned to dress more sedately and avoided the bars and smoking rooms frequented by the men.

Early in her first term, MP Horatio Bottomley, who wanted to dominate the “soldier’s friend” issue and thought she was an obstacle, sought to ruin her political career. He capitalized on her opposition to divorce reform and her efforts to maintain wartime alcohol restrictions. He portrayed her as a hypocrite, as she was divorced; he noted that the reform bill she opposed would allow women to have the kind of divorce she had had in America. Bottomley later went to prison for fraud, which Astor used to her advantage in other campaigns.

Astor made friends among other women MPs, including members of the other parties. Margaret Wintringham was elected after Astor had been in office for two years. Astor also befriended “Red Ellen” Wilkinson, a former Communist then a member in the Labour Party. Astor later proposed creating a “Women’s Party”, but the female Labour MPs opposed this, as their party was in power and had promised them positions. Over time, political differences separated the women MPs; by 1931 Astor became hostile to female Labour members such as Susan Lawrence.

Lady Astor and Salvage Workers

Lady Astor consulting salvage workers during the Battle of Britain.

Nancy Astor’s accomplishments in the House of Commons were relatively minor. She never held a position with much influence, and never any post of ministerial rank, although her time in Commons saw four Conservative Prime Ministers in office. The Duchess of Atholl (elected to Parliament in 1923, four years after Lady Astor) rose to higher levels in the Tory Party before Astor did. Astor felt if she had more position in the party, she would be less free to criticize her party’s government. She did gain passage of a bill to increase the legal drinking age to eighteen unless the minor has parental approval.

During this period Nancy Astor continued to be active outside government, supporting the development and expansion of nursery schools for children’s education. She was introduced to the issue by socialist Margaret McMillan, who believed that her late sister helped guide her in life. Lady Astor was initially skeptical of this aspect, but later the two women became close; Astor used her wealth to aid their social efforts.

Lady Astor and Churchill

Winston Churchill heeds the advice of Lady Astor.

Although active in charitable efforts, Astor also became noted for a streak of cruelty. On hearing of the death of a political enemy, she expressed her pleasure. When people complained, she did not apologize but said, “I’m a Virginian; we shoot to kill.” Angus McDonnell, a Virginia friend, angered her by marrying without consulting her on his choice. She later told him, regarding his maiden speech, that he “really must do better than that.” During the course of her adult life, Astor alienated many others with her sharp words as well.

During the 1920s, Astor made several effective speeches in Parliament, and gained support for her Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under 18) Bill (nicknamed “Lady Astor’s Bill”), raising the legal age for consuming alcohol in a public house from 14 to 18. Her wealth and persona also brought attention to women who were serving in government. She worked to recruit women into the civil service, the police force, education reform, and the House of Lords. She remained popular in her constituency and well liked in the United States during the 1920s, but her success is generally believed to have declined in the following decades. She was also concerned about the treatment of juvenile victims of crime: “The work of new MPs, such as Nancy Astor, led to a Departmental Committee on Sexual Offences Against Young People, which reported in 1925.”

She served in Parliament as a representative of the Conservative Party for Plymouth Sutton until 1945, when she was persuaded to step down.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


 

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