Still Can’t Be Arsed To Vote? Nancy Astor Might Convince You Otherwise

Nancy Astor was the first woman to take up a seat in the House of Commons


by Sophie Wilkinson |
Published on

Today is voting day; you can vote for your European representatives (Member of European Parliament or MEP), your mayor and your local councillors. But many of you won't - the turnout last year was 33 per cent - and if 60 per cent of young people won't vote in the 2015 elections, it's hard to see how, especially around the time of finals, people are going to get to the polling station to cast their vote.

However, we're going to remind you of Nancy Astor, who would certainly want you - a young woman - to vote. The UK's first female MP to take her seat was born in 1879, a time when women weren't even allowed to cast a ballot, but that didn't stop her making a career for herself in politics.

Coming from a rich-ish Virginian family (they lost a lot of money because their business had relied on the slave trade) Nancy Langhorn married Robert Gould Shaw II in 1897. Their relationship was doomed, however, due to his drinking problems, and she divorced him after six years of marriage. Nancy then moved with their son to England, where she charmed polite society, marrying Waldorf Astor, another émigré from America to the UK. Through her social connections (isn't that always how it's done?) she became involved in politics and when Waldorf's dad died and he had to move over from the Commons to the Lords, and Nancy decided to give his seat in the Commons a go.

Nancy was criticised for not being part of the women's suffrage movement, for coming from the upper classes, for being anti-alcohol, and for being a bit gaffe-prone. Which, apart from the anti-alcohol bit, sounds a lot like a few of our present day politicians.

However, she met with other women to garner their support, tamed her Prohibitionist views and could give hecklers as good as she got. She took up her seat in parliament in November 1919, as a Unionist (that's what Tories were called back then) MP. Nancy Astor wasn't actually the first woman to be voted into Parliament, but she was the first woman to take her seat there. Constanct Markievicz had been elected in 1918 but she didn't take up her seat as she was an Irish Republican.

By her own admission (listen above) politically, she came up against some very disgruntled male MPs, who would discuss things like STIs (accompanied by gross-out photos) in her presence, would make her clamber over them to get to her seat and would always point her to the toilet furthest away. However, she interrupted them, listened intently and also made friends with the other women in the Commons who followed her. She also visited Stalin withher playwright friend George Bernard Shaw and interrogated him about slaughtering his own people.

Ahead of World War Two, Nancy unfortunately sided a bit too much with Germany, favouring appeasement with Hitler as she was wary of Communism. So after the war, in 1945, Waldorf demanded Nancy step down from her role as he feared she wouldn't get re-elected. But still. A women who might make scrabbling around to find your election form, worth while, right?

Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophwilkinson

Picture: Getty

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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