Nancy Astor: Feminist By Default Rather Than By Design
Julie Gottlieb | 28 November 2018
◇ British History | Gender History | Political History | Modern History
This ‘diablog’ between Dr Jacqui Turner from the University of Reading and Dr Julie V. Gottlieb from the University of Sheffield is a discussion about the life, legacy and varied political career of Lady Nancy Astor. It is published as part of a collaboration between the University of Reading (@uniRdg_history @uniRdg_research) and the University of Sheffield (@UniShefHistory).
A week ago we marked the 100th anniversary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act on 1918, and since its passage 491 women have served as MPs.
Today is the 99th anniversary of Astor’s election to Parliament in a by-election in Plymouth, becoming the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. This milestone is being marked with an ambitious series of public events, learning resources, and the erection of a statue of Astor in her Plymouth constituency, and all part of #Astor100.
As the curator of #Astor100, Jacqui is working closely with the archivists at the University of Reading where Astor’s papers are housed, and with a wide network of politicians, students, scholars, the Astor family and the public to preserve the legacy of the women pioneers in Parliamentary politics.
Nancy Astor has also figured prominently in Julie’s research on women’s politicization in the aftermath of suffrage, and, in particular, on how women politicians engaged with international relations and peace movements. As the hostess of the so-called Cliveden Set, Nancy Astor is one of the key protagonists in Julie’s recent book ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Inter-war Britain (Palgrave, 2015).
In discussion, Jacqui and Julie wanted to tackle these questions: How should Astor be remembered and memorialised? How can historians make sure that Astor is represented in the round, and in all her complexity and with all her contradictions? How can the Astor100 project be about so much more than the glorification of one woman’s political career?
Jacqui: Astor100 is not only about Nancy Astor, it a celebration of the achievement of an individual that will facilitate a wider celebration of what she represented and the avenues she pioneered for women who followed. It also amplifies the demand for continued progress towards political equality – we are not there yet!
The election of Nancy Astor changed British democracy forever. The importance of her election is that, for the first time, a woman was able to directly influence the parliamentary debate and the writing of the laws of her own land – a responsibility she willingly shouldered for all women. Her arrival in Parliament ushered in a new type of politician, a public woman, a new perspective and a reminder that there was a female electorate who increasingly demanded to be satisfied.
The biggest challenges have been in setting the terms of the project, making sure that Astor100 has the right voice and that we engage with a C21st audience. Evaluations of Astor are inevitably androcentric; Astor is a mercurial character most often only understood in reference to her gender, in regard to her husband Waldorf, her deficiencies as a mother and in relation to her intervention into a masculine parliament. Her legacy has inevitably been evaluated and interpreted by male biographers, Astor100 is an opportunity dispel some of the myths and attributions made to her and look at her afresh.
We also need to be conscious of the fact that Nancy Astor herself did not ask to be memorialised; her own views were expressed at her memorial service ‘When I die I don’t want any monuments but I want litter bins, scattered all over the city marked ‘in memory of Lady Astor’’. We need to respect her views and ensure there is a legacy, maybe not litter bins but a strong message to women and girls that whoever they are and whatever their beliefs they can engage in the decisions that shape all of our lives.
What do you find most problematic about Astor?
Julie: It is inevitable that when we search through history for exemplary figures, for figures who will be made to represent their era or a major milestone, that we will be struck by the often huge gulf between their attitudes on a range of things – especially to do with race, sex, and class – and our present-day sensibilities.
This is certainly the case with Nancy Astor. Even in her own time she was highly controversial and often self-contradictory. At once she considered herself a representative of working women and mothers, while she was one of the richest women in the land. Astor aligned herself with women’s peace organizations and regarded women as natural pacifists, while pursuing the aims of Anglo-German understanding by entertaining the Nazi top brass at her Cliveden seat. The American-born Astor was xenophobic and anti-Semitic, and yet she could not imagine a fascist Britain as the Blackshirts were just too ridiculous and laughable.
Jacqui: Today in the 21st century I find many of her opinions problematic but particularly her anti-Semitic statements. To put her into the context of the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the interwar period and within the society in which Nancy lived is not to condone such views. Nancy Astor has almost become more synonymous with the prejudices of her time than the many men who held similar views but escaped similar censure. They have not been subject to the same level of scrutiny. One of our biggest challenges is in representing Astor’s personal paradoxes – her unguarded public statements that rarely reflected private actions and kindnesses to both Jewish people and Catholics. There is much less comment on the appalling misogyny of male contemporaries who are understood in relation to ‘it was just the times’. Many prominent men had a few good years for which they are remembered, whereas Astor’s unpalatable statements were made in the heightened political climate in the run up to World War II. It also strikes me that Nancy Astor is the single most pilloried person in the appeasement and anti-Semitic debate yet she was a back bench female MP with little or no power. She was surrounded by senior, influential men who escape similar scrutiny. It is her gender that belies so much of this comment and is why we judge her by a higher standard.
Julie: It is important too to understand Astor as a feminist by default rather than by design. Her entry into politics had nothing to do with feminism or with the suffrage movement—indeed, of the 36 women who became MPs between the wars, not one had a suffragette pedigree. Nonetheless, Astor quickly grew into her role as first the only and always the first woman MP. Especially during the 1920s, she made many efforts to work with her fellow women, regardless of party affiliation. She could well have steered clear of women’s issues. Some of the other women MPs did among that first generation of women MPs did just that, especially some of her Tory colleagues. It is instructive in this respect to compare her causes and campaigns with that of the Conservative Katherine Duchess of Atholl—and they would find themselves on diametrically opposite sides of the debate about appeasing Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.
Jacqui: When reflecting on her career Astor always claimed that she had been ‘as good a feminist as anyone’. She had never had any longstanding ambition to be a politician and openly expressed that her ‘husband put the idea in my head… and I should get out of it if he got rid of his peerage’ (BBC 1945). Astor was a ‘difference feminist’. She was determined to prove that women were as physically capable of being full participants in the rigours of political life as men. She often expressed that in many ways women were more suited to public life as women had ‘moral courage’ and were ‘not so easily flattered’. The concept of female moral courage was a constant theme throughout her speeches and in the many reflective interviews she gave after she stood down.
Cliveden Visitor Book 1915 (Image From Reading University Special Collections)
However, even before 1919 Astor was not without feminist sympathies. In spring 1915 she had a sustained correspondence with Emmeline Pankhurst who considered Astor a sympathetic route to the press. She was also instrumental in pushing though the 1928 franchise. She held her party and Baldwin’s government to account for promises made regarding the equal franchise. She worked with suffrage organisations facilitating meetings with senior politicians and acting as a conduit between them and the Conservative Party. She was a pioneer of women in the professions lending her support to legislation surrounding women in the workplace and the safety of women when out on the streets.
How then does Astor serve as a fitting representative of women’s political achievements? Is she worthy of being one of the most prominent personifications of the long struggle for women’s emancipation?
Julie: It is in fact despite or rather because of her complexity that I do think that Astor’s story should be given prominence. Astor100 is a very timely project for many reasons, nor should we forget to make the obvious but important point that it is being launched when Britain has its second woman and Conservative woman Prime Minister, Theresa May.
But why Astor, and how can she be made to tell a much more nuanced story about women’s political participation? Let us recall that we don’t talk about men’s political history. Of course not. It is taken for granted that in politics men are divided in myriad ways. There are no “men’s issues” as such, and men would almost never think to group together as men to represent the interests of their own beleaguered sex.
Placing Astor at the centre of the memorialisation of 100 years of women in Parliament is an important reminder that women too do not and should not be assumed to band together as one, or to confine their interest to “women’s issues”. Not all women who enter the political sphere are motivated by feminism, and Britain’s first woman Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is evidence of this point. Astor’s story reminds us that the story of women in politics is distinct from the story of the feminist movement as such, even when there are intersections.
What you are trying to achieve with Astor100?
Jacqui: With Astor100 we are trying to facilitate an informed, nuanced and constructive narrative that includes the debates and criticism surrounding Nancy Astor. As an individual her courage and resilience in standing alone for almost 2 years in a hostile House established a platform on which women continue to build today. In many ways, our discussion is still as relevant today as it was for Astor. To be first is important, some people can do it and others cannot. Astor rose to the challenge and she was necessary. She was pioneer and women in politics today continue to need similar qualities to withstand highly gendered and hate-filled criticism especially on social media. By 2019 we will also have an opportunity to reflect on both Vote100 and Astor100.
Christmas Card 1945. Image From Reading University’s Special Collections
Today, Astor100 kicks off with our digital exhibition ‘An Unconventional MP’ The political life of Nancy Astor in 50 documents, showcasing some of the documents from Nancy Astor’s Papers at the University of Reading. The exhibition will be supported by a series of blogs and downloadable leaflets for schools; all written by historians (including Julie), Nancy’s family, politicians and the people she represented. You can find us at https://research.reading.ac.uk/astor100/ where you can keep up with news, explore the work of our partners and up to date events.
Jacqui Turner is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Reading and Curator of #Astor100.
Julie Gottlieb is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield.
 Lady Astor Memorial Service 12th May 1964 delivered by the Rt Reverend Norman Clarke, Anglican Bishop of Plymouth