An American Woman in the British House of Commons

The poll declaration for Plymouth Sutton in 1919 (source: Getty Images)

‘Born in Virginia, elected to be in the British House of Commons, I had a sense of gratitude and obligation to the two branches of the Anglo-Saxon peoples’[1]

Lisa Berry-Waite
University of Exeter

This year marks the centenary of Nancy Astor’s election to British Parliament, becoming the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. The landmark occasion is being commemorated with the Astor 100 campaign to celebrate Astor’s achievements and legacy, as well as to shine a spotlight on women in politics today. Astor’s political career spanned almost three decades; looking back at her career in 1956, she referred to herself as an ‘ardent feminist’ and continuously campaigned on women’s issues.[2]

Known for her wit and outspoken nature, Astor was elected as MP for Plymouth Sutton in a by-election in 1919 for the Conservative Party. She was persuaded to stand by her husband Waldorf Astor, who previously held the seat, when he was elevated to the House of Lords following the death of his father. Nancy Astor the pioneering politician has attracted attention from historians and the media alike, but few discuss in detail her American nationality and the influence it had on her British life and politics.

Originally from Virginia, Astor first visited England in 1903 after her divorce from her first husband Robert Shaw. The following year she visited, along with her sister Phyllis, for the hunting season. Astor returned to England again in December 1905, where she met her future husband, Waldorf Astor, on the journey over from New York. Waldorf was the son of Viscount Astor, a wealthy American businessman and newspaper owner who had moved to England in 1891. In 1906, Nancy and Waldorf married, which caught the attention of the American and British press. They were well suited; both were American with similar values and interests. Britain became Astor’s second home; she saw herself as having dual nationality between Britain and America, referring to them as ‘my two countries’[3].

During her 1919 election campaign, Astor was criticised for not being British – one heckler shouted ‘Go back to America’.[4] Nonetheless, Astor portrayed herself as a returning Pilgrim and referred the Pilgrim fathers in her maiden speech.[5] Fittingly, her US roots resonated most with Plymouth, from which the Pilgrims set sail across the Atlantic. It’s also fitting that a statue of Astor will be built this year in Plymouth as part of the centenary celebrations, given the personal connection she had with the city.

Astor referred to Plymouth as her Virginian home in England. When discussing her first visit to the city, she remarked ‘The moment I got there I had the strangest feeling of having come home. It was not like a new place to me. I felt that here was where I belonged.’[6] She spoke of the friendliness of Virginians and Devonians alike, and referred to the Pilgrim fathers that left Plymouth in 1620 to start a new life in the New World, many of which settled in Virginia. The notion that Plymouth was her Virginian England continued throughout Astor’s life, the Astor’s even built a Welfare Work Centre in Plymouth that they named Virginia House.

Owing in no small part to her American roots, although a Conservative Astor often disobeyed her party and had a liberal attitude towards social issues. For example, she championed stricter regulations on alcohol and worked across party to pass legislation, often with other female MPs such as Margaret Wintringham and Ellen Wilkinson. The prohibition movement in America and her alcoholic father and first husband undoubtedly influenced her political views towards alcohol.

Astor’s inherited American upbringing, where class were less rigid, was also evident from her electioneering. She had little respect for British class boundaries and traditions. Astor stated there ‘never were the same class distinctions to make artificial barriers between people’.[7] Her informal electioneering style baffled a British society not used to the political elite acting in such a way. Nancy, with her witty speeches and repartee, demonstrated how different she was to English women. When interrupted in a meeting during her 1919 campaign, she exclaimed ‘Don’t give me any of your sass. I shall come right down there to you.’[8] The British electorate had never seen such behaviour from the political elite, let alone from a Conservative wife. There were different expectations for British and American women, thus Astor was able to get away with her outspoken behaviour due to her American nationality.

Nancy Astor dancing with a sailor on Plymouth Hoe.

So, too, was Astor’s political career in Britain followed closely in the American press. Her ability to deal with lively hecklers during her campaigns was regularly reported in the transatlantic press. American newspapers followed her 1919 election closely, and referred to her as a ‘Virginian belle’[9]. Outlook described Astor as a woman ‘with an American snap and edge which the English lacked’.[10]

Throughout her life, Astor aimed to create a better relationship between America and Britain, and thought US membership in the League of Nations could further it. And so in 1922 Astor went on an American tour with the intention of advancing Anglo-American relations by promoting the League of Nations, with the hope that America would change its mind and join. She was warmly welcomed by the American public and was bombarded with speech requests.[11] America did not want to be drawn into another European war, and thus did not join the League, instead pursuing a unilateralist foreign policy. Nonetheless, after the tour she remarked ‘[e]verywhere I found hundreds and thousands of people eager to help along a league of peace.’[12] Astor’s League tour was seen as a success, particularly by the press; her speeches had been well received, and the American public could relate to her. Throughout her political career Astor continued to advance the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America.

Astor’s American nationality invariably influenced Astor’s life in Britain and enabled her to operate outside Britain’s social constructs. Despite moving to Britain, she remained a ‘proud Virginian’[13] who paved the way for future women MPs. She was an unconventional first woman MP of the Conservative Party – an American divorcee who had not been involved in the suffrage movement but who leaned liberal on many social issues of the day. As a result of her unique Anglo-American outlook, her election to Parliament a century ago helped reshape British democracy.

Lisa Berry-Waite is a second year History PhD student at the University of Exeter and the recipient of the Leverhulme Age of Promises studentship. Her thesis, supervised by Professor Richard Toye and Dr David Thackeray, focuses on female parliamentary candidates in Britain between 1918 and 1931, with a particular emphasis on election addresses. She completed her MA in History and BA in History and Politics at the University of Reading; before starting her PhD she worked as a historical researcher for a Member of Parliament.

———-

[1] Nancy Astor, My Two Countries, (New York, 1923) Forward.

[2] ‘Nancy Astor’, BBC interview, (1956).

[3] Nancy Astor, My Two Countries, (New York, 1923) Forward.

[4] Karen J., Musolf, From Plymouth to Parliament: a rhetorical history of Nancy Astor’s 1919 campaign, (Basingstoke, 1999), 53.

[5] Hansard, HC Deb, 24 February 1920, coll.1624.

[6] Christopher Sykes, Nancy: the life of Lady Astor (London, 1972), 124.

[7] Christopher Sykes, Nancy: the life of Lady Astor (London, 1972), 126.

[8] Adrian Fort, Nancy: the story of Lady Astor (London, 2012), 166.

[9] ‘Lady Astor, From Virginia: Picturesque British Politician Still Clings to Memories of the Days When She Was a Belle in Richmond’, New York Times, 16 Nov. 1919.

[10] ‘Lady Astor’s Campaign’, Outlook, 26 Nov. 1919.

[11] Nancy Astor, My Two Countries, (New York, 1923), 50.

[12] Nancy Astor, My Two Countries, (New York, 1923), 95.

[13] ‘Nancy Astor’, BBC interview, (1956).

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