On this day in history : 24th February 1920 – Nancy Astor becomes the first woman to speak in the House of Commons – following her election as an MP three months earlier….

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Nancy Astor in 1923 – Public domain

Nancy Witcher Langhorne was born in Virginia, USA and in 1904, at the age of 26, she moved to England…. Two years later she married Waldorf Astor, a wealthy newspaper proprietor, who was to become Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton…. They had five children – four sons and a daughter….

After the death of his father in 1919 Waldorf Astor was to inherit a Peerage, making him 2nd Viscount Astor, which in turn gave Nancy the title of Viscountess…. Waldorf had to give up his seat in Parliament in order to sit in the House of Lords….and so he encouraged and helped to promote Nancy in her stand for his old seat in the following by-election on the 15th of November…. She won – with 51% of the votes, more than her Liberal and Labour opponents put together….although she had to wait until the 28th of November for the results to be announced….

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Viscountess Astor – Public domain

On the 1st of December 1919 Nancy entered the House of Commons to take her oath…. She was sponsored by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour, President of the Council and a former Prime Minister….

The previous year had seen the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act passed…. It is often wrongly thought Viscountess Astor was the first woman to be elected to Parliament…. That honour actually goes to Irish Republican Constance Markievicz in 1918 – she did not take her seat, as she was residing in Holloway at the time as a member of Sinn Fein – and had refused to take her oath….

Nancy Astor, with her American ways, did not always stick to the rules….On her very first day in the Commons she was called to order for chatting with a colleague – she was totally oblivious to the fact that she was the cause of all the commotion going on around her…. She also had to learn to dress in a more appropriate manner – and to avoid areas in the Houses of Parliament frequented by the men, such as the bars and smoking rooms…. Hostility was all around her; many of the men saw her presence as an annoyance – one in particular, MP Horatian Bottomley, had such a problem with her being there that he actively sought to ruin her career….

With her outspoken views, advocating woman’s rights and calling for stricter restrictions on alcohol, Nancy would interrupt speeches in Parliament and heckle…. During her maiden speech, to a House full of over 500 men, many opposed to her, she spoke about the Women’s Vote and the perils of drinking – and the danger it posed to women and children…. She emphasised the negative impact it had on the economy and called for the restrictions on drinking hours introduced in World War One to be tightened even further – something that did not sit well with many of her male counterparts…. Nancy Astor held her Conservative seat for over 25 years….

Nancy Witcher Langhorne, Viscountess Astor CH, MP (1879-1964) by John Singer Sargent, RA (Florence 1856 - London 1925)
Portrait of Nancy Astor by John Singer Sargent, 1909 – Public domain

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