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You are in: Devon > Features > Feature Articles > First lady of politics

Nancy Astor

A young Nancy Astor

First lady of politics

Nancy Astor became the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons, when she was elected Plymouth Sutton MP in 1919.

Glamorous, fashionable, generous, witty, clever, and hugely wealthy - Nancy Astor (1879-1964) had it all.

She was born in Virginia, USA, but she became an honorary Plymothian.

Her's is a fantastic story. Born into a rich family in 1879, she moved to England in 1904 after a failed first marriage.

In 1906, she met and married someone else blessed with wealth - politician Waldorf Astor.

In a strange coincidence, he was also born in USA in 1879 and had moved to England, where his father was the owner of the Observer newspaper.

Waldorf became the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1910, but he had to relinquish his seat when his father died, because he inherited his title of Viscount Astor.

With Waldorf having to move 'upstairs' to the House of Lords, his wife decided to stand in Plymouth Sutton in his place.

A newspaper article

How the newspapers reported the historic moment

She won the election in November 1919, beating her main rival, Liberal Isaac Foot - the father of Michael Foot, who of course went on to lead the Labour Party.

She became the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons.

The first woman to be elected was Constance Markievicz in 1918, but as a member of Sinn Fein she had disqualified herself by refusing to take the oath.

Nancy Astor was a master of repartee, and she needed to have all her wits about her to survive in the male dominated world of politics.

Her maiden speech was about the perils of drinking, and in 1923 she introduced a Private Member's Bill which raised to 18 the age qualification for buying alcohol.

She was also a fervent fighter for women's causes and equal rights. In an interview given in 1956, she said: "I knew what kept me going - I was an ardent feminist.

"I always knew we had more moral strength. I once said in the House: 'We've got moral strength and you've got immoral strength'."

In fact, she kept going - to use her term - until the 1945 election, when she decided not to stand. By then she'd been MP for Plymouth Sutton for 26 years.

In the run-up to the WWII, she backed Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy.

But she became critical of his leadership in the early stages of the war and voted against the Government in May 1940 - helping Winston Churchill to become Prime Minister.

The Astors were hugely generous with their wealth. They gave buildings, land and money to the city of Plymouth.

In fact, 3 Elliot Terrace - where the King and Queen stayed in a visit during WWII - was among the gifts and is now the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Plymouth.

Nancy Astor also presented a priceless chain, which is worn by the partner of the incumbent Mayor on six occasions a year.

Waldorf Astor was appointed Lord Mayor of Plymouth in 1939-44 - without even being a member of the city council. This honour had only ever been given before to Sir Francis Drake.

Viscount Astor died at one of the Astors' residences, Cliveden in Berkshire, in 1952.

Nancy died in May 1964, but has relatives who still live in South Devon.

last updated: 29/01/2008 at 15:24
created: 29/01/2008

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