On This Day: Britain’s first serving woman MP is elected

Julian Gavaghan

NOVEMBER 28, 1919: Britain's first woman to serve as a Member of Parliament was elected following a by-election on this day in 1919.

Lady Astor won the Plymouth Sutton constituency for the Tories after her husband, Viscount Waldorf Astor, was forced to resign as an MP after becoming a peer.

A silent British Pathé filmed the then 40-year-old wealthy American-born socialite, who is David Cameron’s wife’s great-grandmother, campaigning in the port city.

The Virginia slave owner’s daughter – who was not the first to be elected; only to sit in the House of Commons – was a surprising pioneer for the feminist cause.

She was said to be haughty, politically ignorant and criticised for not being part of the female suffrage movement, which only gained women the vote a year before.

Irish nationalist Constance Markievicz - who became the first woman to be elected to Westminster in 1918 but refused to take her seat – branded Lady Astor “out of touch”.

And Lady Astor, who left the U.S. in 1905 after divorcing an alleged alcoholic rapist, had long been in favour of prohibition – a generally unpopular policy in Britain.

Yet her Plymouth constituents – including working class men who had also only been given the vote following the First World War – elected her with a majority of 5,203.

She won over sceptics with her easy wit as she turned the table on hecklers – and even befriended some of those who lambasted her.

Lady Astor, who was born Nancy Witcher Langhorne, spoke often as a backbencher and her main achievement was helping to raise the legal drinking age from 14 to 18.

And, despite her hatred of socialism, she befriended several women MPs who went on to sit on the Labour benches, including former Communist “Red Ellen” Wilkinson.

She collaborated with them – and used her considerable private wealth - to increase the availability of nursery care for working mothers.

Yet she was never given a position in any of the Conservative governments of that era, who largely considered her a thorn in their side.

She routinely argued with senior Tories – notably with Winston Churchill, who she once suggested he “come sober” as his disguise to a masquerade ball.

More famously, she is said to have told the Prime Minister: “If you were my husband, I'd poison your tea.”He responded: “Madam, if you were my wife, I'd drink it!”

Her political fortunes began to steadily decline in the 1930s.

The mother-of-six was sucked into a scandal after she failed to help her only son from her first marriage when he was arrested for homosexuality. He later killed himself.

And, later in 1931, she was criticised after delivering a speech in which she blamed alcohol for England’s defeat against the Australian national cricket team.

Lady Astor was also accused of “going soft on communism” after she travelled with her writer friend George Bernard Shaw to the Soviet Union.

The devout Christian Scientist also courted controversy with her anti-Papism after she claimed a Catholic conspiracy was subverting the government.

However, it was her appeasement of Germany– and tacit support of Hitler’s vile regime – that saw her scorned the most.
She and her husband, whose American father had bought the family’s aristocratic title by donating millions to UK charities, often hosted pro-Nazis at their Cliveden estate.

Members of the so-called Cliveden Set included Lord Halifax, who served as Foreign Secretary between 1938 and 1940 and was the chief architect of appeasement.

During World War II, Lady Astor reprised her First World War role of setting up a hospital to treat Canadian soldiers.

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She continued to attend the Commons, although debates with her were said to be "like playing squash with a dish of scrambled eggs” as her rambling speeches became harder to understand with age.

Eventually she was persuaded by her husband to stand down – although this caused a rift between the couple.

Lord Astor, whose father William Waldorf Astor built New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel before bringing his family to Britain, refused to even travel with his wife.

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Although, they were reconciled by the time of his death in 1952.

However, Lady Astor’s racist and anti-Semitic views ensured she increasingly isolated by almost everyone else.

On one trip to her native America, she told black churchgoers that they should be grateful for slavery because it introduced them to Christianity.

Nevertheless, despite this, Lady Astor, who died in 1964 aged 84, will long be remembered for helping to shape Britain and for paving the way for other women to become politicians.