Nancy Astor: First Woman Seated in the House of Commons

Virginia-Born Member of the British Parliament

Portrait of Nancy Astor, about 1926
Portrait of Nancy Astor, about 1926. The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Nancy Astor was the first woman to take a seat in the British House of Commons. A society hostess, she was known for her sharp wit and social commentary.  She lived May 19, 1879 - May 2, 1964

Childhood

Nancy Astor was born in Virginia as Nancy Witcher Langhorne. She was the eighth of eleven children, three of whom died in infancy before she was born. One of her sisters, Irene, married the artist Charles Dana Gibson, who immortalized his wife as the "Gibson girl." Joyce Grenfell was a cousin.

Nancy Astor's father, Chisell Dabney Langhorne, was a Confederate officer. After the war he became a tobacco auctioneer. During her early childhood, the family was poor and struggling. As she became an adolescent, her father's success brought the family wealth. Her father is said to have created the fast-talking style of auctioneering.

Her father refused to send her to college, a fact that Nancy Astor resented. He sent Nancy and Irene to a finishing school in New York City.

First Marriage

In October 1897, Nancy Astor married society Bostonian Robert Gould Shaw. He was a first cousin of the Civil War Colonel Robert Gould Shaw who had commanded African American troops for the Union Army in the Civil War.

They had one son before they separated in 1902, divorcing in 1903. Nancy first returned to Virginia to manager her father's household, as her mother had died during her Nancy's short marriage.

Waldorf Astor

Nancy Astor then went to England. On a ship, she met Waldorf Astor, whose American millionaire father had become a British lord. They shared a birthday and birth year, and seemed to be very well matched.

They married in London on April 19, 1906, and Nancy Astor moved with Waldorf to a family home in Cliveden, where she proved an adept and popular society hostess.

They also bought a home in London. In the course of their marriage, they had four sons and one daughter. In 1914 the couple converted to Christian Science. She was strongly anti-Catholic and also opposed hiring Jews.

Waldorf and Nancy Astor Enter Politics

Waldorf and Nancy Astor became involved in reform politics, part of a circle of reformers around Lloyd George. In 1909 Waldorf stood for election to the House of Commons as a Conservative from a Plymouth constituency; he lost the election but won on his second try, in 1910. The family moved to Plymouth when he won. Waldorf served in the House of Commons until 1919, when, at his father's death, he became a Lord and thereby became a member of the House of Lords.

The House of Commons

Nancy Astor decided to run for the seat that Waldorf vacated, and she was elected in 1919. Constance Markiewicz had been elected to the House of Commons in 1918, but chose not to take her seat. Nancy Astor was the first woman to take a seat in Parliament -- the only woman MP until 1921. (Markiewicz believed Astor an inappropriate candidate, too "out of touch" as a member of the upper class.)

Her campaign slogan was "Vote for Lady Astor and your children will weigh more." She worked for temperance, women's rights, and children's rights.

Another slogan she used was "If you want a party hack, don't elect me."

In 1923, Nancy Astor published My Two Countries, her own story.

World War II

Nancy Astor was an opponent of socialism and, later during the Cold War, an outspoken critic of communism. She was also an anti-fascist. She refused to meet Hitler though she had an opportunity. Waldorf Astor met with him about the treatment of Christian Scientists and came away convinced that Hitler was mad.

Despite their opposition to fascism and the Nazis, the Astors supported economic appeasement of Germany, supporting the lifting of economic sanctions against Hitler's regime.

During World War II, Nancy Astor was noted for her morale-boosting visits to her constituents, especially during German bombing raids. She just missed being hit once, herself.

She also served, unofficially, as hostess to American troops stationed at Plymouth during the build-up to the Normandy invasion.

Retirement

In 1945, Nancy Astor left Parliament, at her husband's urging, and not entirely happily. She continued to be a witty and sharp critic of social and political trends when she disapproved, including both communism and the American McCarthy witch-hunts.

She largely withdrew from public life with the death of Waldorf Astor in 1952. She died in 1964.

Also known as: Nancy Witcher Langhorne, Nancy Langhorne Astor, Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, Viscountess Astor, Lady Astor
More: Nancy Astor Quotes

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Nancy Astor: First Woman Seated in the House of Commons." ThoughtCo, Oct. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/nancy-astor-facts-3529776. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, October 31). Nancy Astor: First Woman Seated in the House of Commons. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/nancy-astor-facts-3529776 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Nancy Astor: First Woman Seated in the House of Commons." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/nancy-astor-facts-3529776 (accessed November 21, 2017).