Biography of Nancy Astor, First Woman Seated in the House of Commons

Virginia-Born Member of the British Parliament

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

Nancy Astor (May 19, 1879—May 2, 1964) 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.

Fast Facts: Nancy Astor

  • Known For: Social critic and first woman seated in the British House of Commons
  • Also Known As: Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, Viscountess Astor
  • Born: May 19, 1879, Danville, Virginia
  • Parents: Chiswell Dabney Langhorne, Nancy Witcher Keene
  • Died: May 2, 1964, Lincolnshire, England
  • Published Work: "My Two Countries," which was her autobiography
  • Honor: Freedom of the City of Plymouth
  • Spouses: Robert Gould Shaw II (m. 1897-1903), Waldorf Astor (m. 1906-1952)
  • Notable Quote: "Women have got to make the world safe for men since men have made it so darned unsafe for women."
  • Notable Exchange: Nancy Astor: "Sir, if you were my husband, I'd poison your tea." Winston Churchill: "Madame, if you were my wife, I'd drink it!"

Early Years

Astor was born in Virginia as Nancy Witcher Langhorne. She was the eighth of 11 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.

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 Astor resented. He sent Nancy and Irene to a finishing school in New York City.

First Marriage

In October 1897, 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. Astor first returned to Virginia to manage her father's household, as her mother had died during her Astor's short marriage.

Waldorf Astor

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 thus 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.)

Astor's 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, Astor published "My Two Countries," her own story.

World War II

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 Adolf 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, 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 buildup to the Normandy invasion.

Later Years and Death

In 1945, 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 Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist witch hunts in the U.S.

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

Legacy

Astor's time in Parliament was not one of great achievement or towering influence; she held no government posts and had no legislative achievements to show for her time of service. But the fact that she was the first woman to serve in that legislative body had a large impact. "Lady Astor made a valuable political contribution by showing that the presence of women in parliament drew attention to 'new subjects' and 'new points of view' not even 'suspected' by men, supplementing and enriching the male perspective," according to the New World Encyclopedia.

In the 2017 general election in Britain, a record 208 women MPs were elected to the House of Commons, a record high of 32 percent. Two female MPs, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, even ascended to the position of prime minister. Astor, as the first woman in the British House of Commons, was a trailblazer who first made it acceptable for women to serve.

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