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Page last updated at 11:59 GMT, Monday, 30 November 2009
When Nancy Astor made history
By Laura Joint
BBC Devon

Nancy Astor at the hustings in Plymouth in 1923
Lady Nancy Astor at the hustings in Plymouth in 1923

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 after making the city her home.

Hers 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.

Nancy Astor on BBC Woman's Hour in 1956
Lady Nancy Astor on BBC Woman's Hour in 1956

She won the election in November 1919, beating her main rival, Labour's WT Gay and third placed 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 on 1 December 1919.

The first woman to be elected was Constance Markievicz in 1918, but the Sinn Fein member was in Holloway Prison at the time of her election. Like all Irish nationalist/SF members elected in 1918, she refused to go to Westminster and instead sat in the Dail in Dublin.

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.

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




SEE ALSO
In pictures: Lady Nancy Astor
30 Nov 09 |  Devon
Memories of Nancy Astor
29 Apr 10 |  History
A-Z of Devon history
08 Oct 09 |  History

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