Lady Nancy Astor was the first women to take her seat in parliament. She was elected MP for Plymouth Sutton just over 100 years ago, in 1919 and went on to win a further six consecutive elections over 25 years.
Astor was a keen supporter of social reforms for women and children. She supported welfare reforms, equal voting rights and women’s access to the professions. Astor once said:
“I wanted the world to get better and I know that it couldn’t get better if it was going to be ruled by men”.
A Hostile Working Environment
As the only women in parliament for almost 2 years, and one of only a few women thereafter, Nancy Astor had a tough time as Westminster proved to be a hostile working environment for women. In a 1956 interview on the BBC’s Women’s Hour, Astor said of the other MPs:
“they would have rather had a rattlesnake in the house than me at that time, they all felt that way. It was really very alarming.”
Many of the male MPs refused to talk to her, Churchill told her afterwards “we’d hoped to freeze you out”, but Astor said that the efforts of the suffragette movement and the loyalty of the women of England made it possible to stay.
BBC’s Panorama Program 1959
Astor was interviewed by the BBC in 1959 and was asked a number of shocking questions which provides an insight into the extent of the sexism prevalent at the time, for example:
“Do you think looking back that women are as suited mentally to public life as men?”
“A lot of men say women are emotionally rather unstable and that their judgement therefore is a bit subjective.”
A Clip From the Program
Policies for Women
Once in parliament, Astor received 2000 letters a week from female voters and she quickly became a leading figure in the feminist movement. She became the vice president of the feminist organisation, the 6-point Group.
The 6-point Group campaigned for the following 6 points:
- Laws on child assault;
- Help for widowed mothers;
- Help for the unmarried mother and her child;
- Equal rights of guardianship for married parents;
- Equal pay for teachers;
- Equal opportunities for men and women in the civil service.
Astor also campaigned for nursery schools, more women police, and improved maternity services. However, as a Christian Scientist, she opposed equal divorce rights for women (which were introduced in 1923) and the campaign for birth control.
Astor supported voting rights for all women, which they did not receive until ten years after the first women got the vote. In 1928 women received equal suffrage with men, which meant that all women and men over 21 could vote.
Women in The House in 2020
British parliament now has more female MPs than ever before. There are 220 women Members of the House of Commons, which means 34% of all members are women.
Labour and the Lib Dems now have more women MPs than men; 51% of Labour MPs are women, and 64% of Lib Dem MPs are women, while only 24% of Conservative MPs are women.
As of 2019, 23 countries have a women as president or prime minister and 41% of Members of European Parliament are women. Across the globe the UK is in 39th position in the proportion of women representatives in parliament. Rwanda, Cuba and Bolivia occupy the top spots when it comes to equal representation, each having more women than men in parliament.
From Plymouth to Parliament: A Rhetorical History to Nancy Astor’s 1919 Campaign
From Plymouth to Parliament: A Rhetorical History to Nancy Astor’s 1919 Campaign is an insightful account of Nancy Astor’s success in her 1919 campaign to become the first woman in parliament.
Written by Karen Musolf, this book reveals how Astor overcame the obstacles, gained support from women voters and confronted her opponents to become a very successful MP.
Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor
Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor gives a fascinating account of Astor’s life and how she came to be a trailblazer for women in politics.
In many ways an unlikely trailblazer for women, this biography describes the glamour and charm of Nancy Astor along with her power, bravery and principles.
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