American-born Nancy Langhorne Astor (1879-1964) became the first woman to serve as a member of the British Parliament, a position she held from 1919 to 1945.
Born in Danville, Virginia, on May 19, 1879, Nancy Langhorne grew up in the straitened circumstances of the post-Civil War South. Financial success eluded her father, Chiswell Dabney Langhorne, a former Confederate officer, until the 1890s. Then contracts with the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad paid off, and thereafter he amassed considerable wealth. In 1892 he bought an estate, Mirador, near Charlottesville, where she spent her adolescence. She had seven brothers and sisters, one of whom, Irene, became the celebrated "Gibson girl" painted by her artist husband, Charles Dana Gibson.
Her family experience provided some of the basis for her later feminism. Her father exerted tyrannical rule, and her mother, Nancy Witcher Langhorne, accepted his authority and the conventional feminine role. Worn out by repeated unwanted pregnancies (she had 11 children, eight of whom survived) and by managing her family and household staff, she died of a heart attack at the age of 56. Astor was badly shaken by this event, but later she lamented her mother's restricted life. Women of that day, she wrote in 1951, had no "independence. It seemed to me wrong then. I think it is wrong still." Her father's refusal to send her to college was a deprivation Astor regretted throughout her life.
At the age of 18, on October 27, 1897, Nancy married Robert Gould Shaw, a proper Bostonian. They had a son, Bobbie, but the marriage did not last. The couple separated in 1902 and divorced the following year. Not long after, on an ocean voyage, she met Waldorf Astor, the heir to one of the world's greatest fortunes. An Englishman despite his American roots, Waldorf coincidentally was born on the same day as her. Apparently that was not all they had in common, for they soon announced their engagement. The marriage took place in London on April 19, 1906. They had four sons and a daughter.
In the early years of their marriage the couple became involved in reformist politics. They were largely under the influence of Lloyd George, who as chancellor of the exchequer in 1909 prepared a social welfare budget that anticipated the welfare institutions of modern England. In 1910 on his second run for office her husband was elected to Parliament from Plymouth. Astor had worked extensively and effectively in his campaign.
Elected to Parliament
In 1919 her husband had to resign his seat in order to accept a peerage (and thus a place in the House of Lords) which he inherited at his father's death. Astor decided to run as a Conservative for her husband's vacated seat in Commons. She did so successfully, advocating policies of social reform—particularly those affecting women and children. Her campaign slogan was: "Vote for Lady Astor and your children will weigh more."
On December 1, 1919, Nancy Astor became the first woman seated in the British Parliament. She considered her success a feminist triumph. Always outspoken, she believed not just in women's equality but in women's superiority. "I married beneath me," she once said. "All women do." Her commitment was, however, really to the moral transformation she believed women could effect in government. "Women," she urged, "must be as brave about peace as the men were about war" (1922).
A pacifist, she also championed temperance, women's rights, and benefits for children. In her early years in Parliament she introduced drinking-age legislation (her first speech on February 24, 1920, was on temperance) and worked on behalf of equal women's suffrage (women over 30 had received the vote in Great Britain in 1918, but not until 1928 was the age for women reduced to 21, the same as men). She also advocated equal opportunities for women in the civil service and the continuation of a women's police force. In addition, she supported the development of nursery schools for London's poor children, a project organized by Scotswoman Margaret McMillan. In the 1930s she campaigned for strict child labor laws and with her husband endorsed an extensive program of educational reform.
In international affairs, though committed to the ideals of peace, she remained a realist. On a trip to the Soviet Union in 1931 she confronted Joseph Stalin directly: "When," she asked, "are you going to stop killing people?" When George Bernard Shaw, also on the trip but more impressed with Stalin, encouraged her to become a Fabian Socialist, she was skeptical: "I would be a socialist," she said, "if I thought it would work."
"Wild Woman of God"
The Astors and their friends—collectively labeled the "Cliveden set" after the name of the Astor estate— erroneously earned a reputation in the 1930s of being pro-Nazi. In fact, both of the Astors mistrusted Hitler. She refused an opportunity to meet the German chancellor, and her husband came away from his only encounter thinking Hitler deranged. He had met with him to discuss the treatment of Christian Scientists (both of the Astors belonged to the sect) in Germany, but the conversation had turned to the treatment of the Jews, at which point Hitler had launched into a mad tirade. Both of the Astors favored, however, a policy of economic "appeasement"—that is, they believed the strict economic sanctions imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I should be eased. By the late 1930s, however, both had come to oppose political appeasement; throughout the period, in any event, they had both voted in favor of increased defense appropriations. She summed up her position as follows: "I am neither a Communist or a Fascist … I loathe all Dictatorships whether of the Russian or the German type—They are all equally cruel."
In November 1939 her husband was elected Lord Mayor of Plymouth, a position he held throughout World War II. Both were active in civic affairs during the period, she especially working to boost public morale during the extensive German bombing of the city. She was often seen visiting air raid shelters and once herself sustained a near miss. Their house in Plymouth was damaged by the bombs. She also acted as an unofficial hostess to the thousands of American troops stationed in Plymouth prior to the Normandy invasion.
She decided—under pressure from her husband—to retire from office in 1945. She continued to travel and to speak publicly on occasion, but her political career was at an end. On May 2, 1964, Astor died, 12 years after her husband's death. They are both buried at Cliveden on the Thames.
Throughout her career Astor had sustained several close friendships. The most important of these was probably with Philip Kerr, like her a Christian Scientist and an active participant in English political life. Other friends included George Bernard Shaw, T.E. Lawrence, and Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt (the former she referred to as "Madam President"). When she met the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, she said, "So this is the wild man of God." He replied, "I have been warned to beware of Lady Astor— perhaps she is a wild woman of God"—a statement that seems to sum up the character of this remarkable woman.
Further Reading on Nancy Langhorne Astor
Nancy herself wrote two books: My Two Countries (1923) and The Astor Story (1951, the latter her memoir. Her son Michael's Tribal Feeling (1963) provides further information about the family. The numerous biographies include Maurice Collis, Nancy Astor and Her Friends (1974), which provides many direct statements made by Astor taken from unpublished as well as published sources, some of which have been included in this article.
Additional Biography Sources
Grigg, John, Nancy Astor, a lady unashamed, Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.
Grigg, John, Nancy Astor, portrait of a pioneer, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1980.
Halperin, John, Eminent Georgians: the lives of King George V, Elizabeth Bowen, St. John Philby, and Nancy Astor, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Harrison, Rosina., Rose: my life in service, New York: Viking Press, 1975.
Masters, Anthony, Nancy Astor, a biography, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
Sykes, Christopher, Nancy: the life of Lady Astor, Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago, 1984, 1972.