More on Nancy Astor

Posted by Helen Wednesday, May 03, 2006

It has been pointed out to me that Nancy Astor was not the first woman MP to be elected, merely the first one to take her seat in the House.

The first one was the Irish Republican and socialist Constance Markiewicz, who was elected in December 1918 but refused to swear the oath of allegiance and, therefore, take her seat.

I realized that as I was writing the entry but decided not to correct it after it had been posted. It is good to know that our readers are alert to mistakes by the bloggers.

In the meantime, here is a quotation from a letter Harold Nicolson wrote to his sons in 1943, which contains a slightly spiteful description of Nancy Astor:

“We had a debate on the reform of the Foreign Service. The main idea is to fuse the Diplomatic with the Consular and Commercial Services. I have been in favour of it for thirty years. But the debate went wrong as usual. The women Members felt that their rights were being trampled on, and staged a full-dress attack on the exclusion of women from the Service.

Nancy Astor, as the senior woman Member, insisted on voicing their complaint. She has one of those minds that work from association to association, and therefore spreads sideways with extreme rapidity. Further and further did she diverge from the point while Mrs Tate beside her kept on saying, ‘Get back to the point, Nancy. You were talking about the 1934 Committee.’

‘Well, I come from Virginia’, said Lady Astor, ‘and that reminds me, when I was in Washington ….’
I was annoyed by this, as I knew that I was to be called after her. It was like playing squash with a dish of scrambled eggs. Anyhow I made my speech and it went well enough.”
There is more on his exchange of not very attractive witticisms about women and foreign affairs, which proves that despite his much-publicized unconventional marriage to Vita Sackville-West (who was a stauch conservative, by the way) Nicolson had dull and conventional views on the role of women.

Unfortunately, I cannot lay my hands on my copy of ‘Chips’ Channon’s “Diaries”, where there are other interesting comments about Lady Astor. Perhaps some of our readers could come to my rescue and send in the odd quotation.

2 comments

  1. John Barnes Says:
  2. Although Nicolson's entry is barbed and nancy Astor had a serious point to make about equal rights in the civil service, his account of her rather discursive style is not unfair. As John Grigg observed in his brief sketch of her in the DNB, she had a rather "disorderly mind". She was a frequent interrupter of other's speeches, although many of her interventions are worth recalling for their wit. Grigg recalls the notable comment made when she claimed to have been listening to the debate for hours. "Yes", was the retort: "We heard you listening". But for all that she made a genuine contribution to the House and she opened the way for a series of Conservative women MPs. However, it was not until well after the war that any of them made the Cabinet. Florence Horsbrugh, Churchill's education minister at a time when public spending priorities favoured housing, deserves to be better remembered, and it is perhaps unfortunate that Nancy's personality and charm have so overwhelmed historians that few other Conservative women have received their due. Indeed before Margaret Thatcher, I can recall only one who has had a biography - the Duchess of Atholl.

     
  3. John Barnes Says:
  4. Further to my earlier comment, I am struck by the fact that although 13 Conservative women were elected as MPs in 1931, they formed only 3 per cent of the party. Today 17 Conservative women MPs amount to 8 per cent of the party, a stable percentage figure for the last three elections.

    The second Conservative woman elected to the Commons was Mabel Philipson for Berwick-upon-Tweed (1923-29) and the Duchess of Atholl also entered the Commons in 1923. Obviously the Duchess is as famous as Nancy Astor and, unlike her, achieved office. But does any one know anything of Mabel Philipson.

    The thirteen elected in 1931 include such formidable characters as Florence Horsbrugh, Irene Ward, Mavis Tate, Thelma Cazalet and the Countess of Iveagh, and of course the Duchess of Athholl and nacy Astor; but the remainder deserve documentation. They were Ida Copeland, Marjorie Graves, Mary Pickford, Norah Runge, Helen Shaw and Sally Ward.

    Sally Ward, whom I knew when contesting Walsall North, lost her Cannock seat in 1935, but went on to have a career in local government, serving on the Staffordshire County Council, and becoming an Alderman. She was not very tall, but a feisty character and an excellent platform speaker. She was a farmer's wife, I believe.

    Perhaps others can and should document this early generation for the CHG. They deserve to be remembered.

     
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