The Viscountess Astor
Nancy Astor in 1923
|Member of Parliament|
for Plymouth Sutton
28 November 1919 - 5 July 1945
Nancy Witcher Langhorne
19 May 1879
Danville, Virginia, U.S.
|Died||2 May 1964 (aged 84)|
Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, England
|Political party||Coalition Conservative|
Robert Gould Shaw II
(m. 1897; div. 1903)
(m. 1906; died 1952)
|Relatives||See Astor family|
|Residence||Cliveden and Grimsthorpe Castle|
Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, Viscountess Astor, CH (19 May 1879 - 2 May 1964) was an American-born British politician and the first female Member of Parliament (MP) to take her seat on 1 December 1919.
Astor was an American citizen who moved to England at age 26 and married Waldorf Astor. He succeeded to the peerage and entered the House of Lords; she then entered politics and won his former seat in Plymouth in 1919, becoming the first woman to sit as an MP in the House of Commons.[Note 1] Her first husband was American Robert Gould Shaw II, and they divorced. She served in Parliament as a member of the Conservative Party for Plymouth Sutton until 1945, when she was persuaded to step down.
Nancy Witcher Langhorne was born at the Langhorne House in Danville, Virginia. She was the eighth of eleven children born to railroad businessman Chiswell Dabney Langhorne and his wife Nancy Witcher Keene. Following the abolition of slavery, Chiswell struggled to make his operations profitable, and with the destruction of the war, the family lived in near-poverty for several years before Nancy was born. After her birth, her father gained a job as a tobacco auctioneer in Danville, the center of bright leaf tobacco and a major marketing and processing center.
In 1874, he won a construction contract with the Chespeake and Ohio Railroad, using former contacts from his service in the Civil War. By 1892, when Nancy was thirteen years old, her father had re-established his wealth and built a sizeable home. Chiswell Langhorne later moved his family to an estate, known as Mirador, in Albemarle County, Virginia.
Nancy Langhorne had four sisters and three brothers who survived childhood. All of the sisters were known for their beauty; Nancy and her sister Irene both attended a finishing school in New York City. There Nancy met her first husband, socialite Robert Gould Shaw II, a first cousin of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first unit in the Union Army to be composed of African Americans. They married in New York City on 27 October 1897, when she was 18.
The marriage was unhappy. Shaw's friends said Nancy became puritanical and rigid after marriage; her friends said that Shaw was an abusive alcoholic. During their four-year marriage, they had one son, Robert Gould Shaw III (called Bobby). Nancy left Shaw numerous times during their marriage, the first during their honeymoon. In 1903, Nancy's mother died; at that time, Nancy Shaw gained a divorce and moved back to Mirador to try to run her father's household, but was unsuccessful.
Nancy Shaw took a tour of England and fell in love with the country. Since she had been so happy there, her father suggested that she move to England. Seeing she was reluctant, her father said this was also her mother's wish; he suggested she take her younger sister Phyllis. Nancy and Phyllis moved together to England in 1905. Their older sister Irene had married the artist Charles Dana Gibson and became a model for his Gibson Girls.
Nancy Shaw had already become known in English society as an interesting and witty American, at a time when numerous wealthy young American women had married into the aristocracy. Her tendency to be saucy in conversation, yet religiously devout and almost prudish in behavior, confused many of the English men but pleased some of the older socialites. Nancy also began to show her skill at winning over critics. She was once asked by an English woman, "Have you come to get our husbands?" Her unexpected response, "If you knew the trouble I had getting rid of mine....." charmed her listeners and displayed the wit for which she became known.
She did marry an Englishman, albeit one born in the United States, Waldorf Astor; when he was twelve, his father, William Waldorf Astor had moved the family to England, raising his children in the English aristocratic style.
The couple were well matched, as they were both American expatriates with similar temperaments. They were of the same age, and born the same day, 19 May 1879. Astor shared some of Nancy's moral attitudes, and had a heart condition that may have contributed to his restraint.
After the marriage, the Astor couple moved into Cliveden, a lavish estate in Buckinghamshire on the River Thames that was a wedding gift from Astor's father. Nancy Astor developed as a prominent hostess for the social elite. [Note 2]
The Astors also owned a grand London house, No. 4 St. James's Square, which is now the premises of the Naval & Military Club. A blue plaque unveiled in 1987 commemorates Astor at St. James's Square. Through her many social connections, Lady Astor became involved in a political circle called Milner's Kindergarten. Considered liberal in their age, the group advocated unity and equality among English-speaking people and a continuance or expansion of British imperialism.
With Milner's Kindergarten, Astor began her friendship with Philip Kerr. The friendship became important in her religious life. The two met shortly after Kerr had suffered a spiritual crisis regarding his once devout Catholicism. The two were each searching for spiritual stability and they were attracted to Christian Science, to which they both eventually converted. After converting, she began to proselytize for that faith and played a role in Kerr's conversion to it. She also tried to convert Hilaire Belloc's daughters to Christian Science, which led to a rift between them.
Despite having Catholic friends such as Belloc for a time, Astor's religious views included a strong vein of Anti-Catholicism.Christopher Sykes argues that Kerr, an ex-Catholic, influenced this, but others argue that Astor's Protestant Virginia origins are a sufficient explanation for her Anti-Catholic views. (Anti-Catholicism was also tied into historic national rivalries.) In 1927 she reportedly told James Louis Garvin that if he hired a Catholic, "bishops would be there within a week."
She disliked Jews and discouraged the hiring of Jews or Catholics to positions at The Observer, a newspaper owned by her husband. This regime persisted at The Observer into the 1960s, although the subsequent owners tried to rescind it. When Kenneth Tynan resigned from the Observer in 1963 to take the post of Literary Manager of the National Theatre, he proposed the Irish playwright Dominic Behan as his preferred replacement. Behan, a well-known atheist, was interviewed for the post. When he told the interview board that he was a Catholic, the offer was withdrawn. Behan later said to Tynan, "I would hope if a Nazi ever asked me my religion I would have the courage to defend my right to be a Jew, Bush Baptist or even a damn Catholic!"
Several elements of Viscountess Astor's life influenced her first campaign, but she became a candidate after her husband succeeded to the peerage and House of Lords. He had enjoyed a promising political career for several years before World War I in the House of Commons; after his father's death, he succeeded to his father's peerage as the 2nd Viscount Astor. He automatically became a member of the House of Lords and consequently had to forfeit his seat of Plymouth Sutton in the House of Commons. With this change, Lady Astor decided to contest the by-election for the vacant Parliamentary seat.
Astor had not been connected with the women's suffrage movement in the British Isles. The first woman elected to the British Parliament, Constance Markievicz, said Lady Astor was "of the upper classes, out of touch". Countess Markiewicz had been in Holloway prison for Sinn Féin activities during her election, and other suffragettes had been imprisoned for arson. However, Astor was met as she arrived at Paddington station on the day after her election by a crowd of suffragettes including unnamed women who had been imprisoned and on hunger strike, one said "This is the beginning of our era. I am glad to have suffered for this."
Astor was hampered in the popular campaign for her published and at times vocal teetotalism and her ignorance of current political issues. Her tendency to say odd or outlandish things sometimes made her appear unstable. On one occasion, while canvassing in Plymouth, she was greeted at a door by a girl whose mother was away. As Astor was unfamiliar with the area, she had been given a naval officer as an escort. The girl said: "...but she [my mother] said if a lady comes with a sailor they're to use the upstairs room and leave ten bob". This is equivalent to £24 in 2018.
Astor appealed to voters on the basis of her earlier work with the Canadian soldiers, allies of the British, charitable work during the war, her financial resources for the campaign and her ability to improvise. Her audiences appreciated her wit and ability to turn the tables on hecklers. Once a man asked her what the Astors had done for him and she responded with, "Why, Charlie, you know,"[Note 3] and later had a picture taken with him. This informal style baffled yet amused the British public. She rallied the supporters of the current government, moderated her Prohibition views, and used women's meetings to gain the support of female voters. A by-election was held on 28 November 1919, and she took up her seat in the House on 1 December as a Unionist (also known as "Tory") Member of Parliament.
Viscountess Astor was not the first woman elected to the Westminster Parliament. That was achieved by Constance Markievicz, who was the first woman MP elected to Westminster in 1918, but as she was an Irish Republican, she did not take her seat. As a result, Lady Astor is sometimes erroneously referred to as the first woman MP, or the first woman elected to the U.K. Parliament, rather than the first woman MP to take her seat in Parliament.
Astor's Parliamentary career was the most public phase of her life. She gained attention as a woman and as someone who did not follow the rules, often attributed to her American upbringing. On her first day in the House of Commons, she was called to order for chatting with a fellow House member, not realising that she was the person who was causing the commotion. She learned to dress more sedately and avoided the bars and smoking rooms frequented by the men.
Early in her first term, MP Horatio Bottomley, who wanted to dominate the "soldier's friend" issue  and thought she was an obstacle, sought to ruin her political career. He capitalised on her opposition to divorce reform and her efforts to maintain wartime alcohol restrictions. He portrayed her as a hypocrite, as she was divorced; he noted that the reform bill she opposed would allow women to have the kind of divorce she had had in America. Bottomley later went to prison for fraud, which Astor used to her advantage in other campaigns.
Astor made friends among women MPs, including members of the other parties. Margaret Wintringham was elected after Astor had been in office for two years. Astor befriended "Red Ellen" Wilkinson, a former Communist then a member in the Labour Party. Astor later proposed creating a "Women's Party", but the female Labour MPs opposed this, as their party was in power and had promised them positions. Over time, political differences separated the women MPs; by 1931 Astor became hostile to female Labour members such as Susan Lawrence.
Nancy Astor's accomplishments in the House of Commons were relatively minor. She never held a position with much influence, and never any post of ministerial rank, although her time in Commons saw four Conservative Prime Ministers in office. The Duchess of Atholl (elected to Parliament in 1923, four years after Lady Astor) rose to higher levels in the Tory Party before Astor did. Astor felt if she had more position in the party, she would be less free to criticise her party's government. She did gain passage of a bill to increase the legal drinking age to eighteen unless the minor has parental approval.
During this period Nancy Astor continued to be active outside government, supporting the development and expansion of nursery schools for children's education. She was introduced to the issue by socialist Margaret McMillan, who believed that her late sister helped guide her in life. Lady Astor was initially skeptical of this aspect, but later the two women became close; Astor used her wealth to aid their social efforts.
Although active in charitable efforts, Astor became noted for a streak of cruelty. On hearing of the death of a political enemy, she expressed her pleasure. When people complained, she did not apologize but said, "I'm a Virginian; we shoot to kill." Angus McDonnell, a Virginia friend, angered her by marrying without consulting her on his choice. She later told him, regarding his maiden speech, that he "really must do better than that." During the course of her adult life, Astor alienated many with her sharp words as well.
During the 1920s, Astor made several effective speeches in Parliament, and gained support for her Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under 18) Bill (nicknamed "Lady Astor's Bill"), raising the legal age for consuming alcohol in a public house from 14 to 18. Her wealth and persona brought attention to women who were serving in government. She worked to recruit women into the civil service, the police force, education reform, and the House of Lords. She remained popular in her constituency and well liked in the United States during the 1920s, but her success is generally believed to have declined in the following decades.
She was concerned about the treatment of juvenile victims of crime: "The work of new MPs, such as Nancy Astor, led to a Departmental Committee on Sexual Offences Against Young People, which reported in 1925."
The 1930s were a decade of personal and professional difficulty for Lady Astor. In 1929 she won a narrow victory over the Labour candidate. In 1931 Bobby Shaw, her son from her first marriage, was arrested for homosexual offences. As her son had previously shown tendencies toward alcoholism and instability, Astor's friend Philip Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian, suggested the arrest might act as a catalyst for him to change his behavior, but he was incorrect.
Astor made a disastrous speech stating that alcohol use was the reason England's national cricket team was defeated by the Australian national cricket team. Both the English and Australian teams objected to this statement. Astor remained oblivious to her growing unpopularity almost to the end of her career.
Astor's friendship with George Bernard Shaw helped her through some of her problems, although his own nonconformity caused friction between them. They held opposing political views and had very different temperaments. However, his own tendency to make controversial statements or put her into awkward situations proved to be a drawback for her political career.
After Bobby Shaw was arrested, Gertrude Ely, a Pennsylvania Railroad heiress from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania offered to provide a guided tour to Moscow for Lady Astor and Bobby. Because of public comments by her and her son during this period, her political career suffered. Her son made many flattering statements about Stalinist Russia, while Astor often disparaged the nation because she did not approve of Communism. In a meeting, she asked Joseph Stalin directly why he had slaughtered so many Russians, but many of her criticisms were translated as less challenging statements. Some of her conservative supporters feared she had "gone soft" on Communism. (Her question to Stalin may have been translated correctly only because he insisted that he be told what she had said.) Tories felt that her son's praise of the USSR served as a coup for Soviet propaganda; they were unhappy with her tour.
Astor was challenged by the rise of Nazism. She criticised them for devaluing the position of women, and was strongly opposed to the idea of another World War. However, several of her friends and associates, especially Lord Lothian, became heavily involved in the German appeasement policy; this group became known as the "Cliveden set". The term was first used in The Week, a newspaper run by the British Communist Claud Cockburn, but over time the allegations became more elaborate. The Cliveden set were a coterie of aristocrats described by one journalist as having subscribed to their own brand of fascism. Its members were depicted by war agitators as the prime movers for peace. Astor believed that Nazism would solve the problems associated with Communism and the Jews. Some claimed that she had hypnotic powers.
Despite her anti-Catholicism, Nancy Astor was friends with US Ambassador to Britain Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. Their correspondence is reportedly filled with anti-Semitic language. Edward J. Renehan, Jr. notes:
As fiercely anti-Communist as they were anti-Semitic, Kennedy and Astor looked upon Adolf Hitler as a welcome solution to both of these "world problems" (Nancy's phrase)..... Kennedy replied that he expected the "Jew media" in the United States to become a problem, that "Jewish pundits in New York and Los Angeles" were already making noises contrived to "set a match to the fuse of the world.
"In the corridor a friend of mine named Alan Graham came up to Nancy and said, 'I do not think you behaved very well' [in a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee]. She turned upon him and said, 'Only a Jew like you would dare to be rude to me.' He replied, 'I should like very much to smack you in your face.' I think she is a little mad."
Although she held anti-Semitic views, Astor has not been documented as influential in anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi policies. At the request of her friend, Felix Frankfurter (future US Supreme Court justice), Astor directly intervened with the Nazis in Vienna and secured the release of Frankfurter's uncle, Solomon. Astor did occasionally meet with Nazi officials in keeping with Neville Chamberlain's policies, and she was known to distrust and dislike British Foreign Secretary (later Prime Minister) Anthony Eden. She told one Nazi official, who later turned out to be working against Nazis from within, that she supported their re-armament, but she supported this policy because, she said that Germany was "surrounded by Catholics." She also told Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Ambassador who later became the Foreign Minister of Germany, that Hitler looked too much like Charlie Chaplin to be taken seriously. These statements are the only documented incidents of her direct expressions to Nazis.
Astor became increasingly harsh in her anti-Catholic and anti-Communist sentiments. After passage of the Munich Agreement, she said that if the Czech refugees fleeing Nazi oppression were Communists, they should seek asylum with the Soviets instead of the British. Even supporters of appeasement felt that this was out of line, but Lord Lothian encouraged her comments. He criticised the Pope for opposing Hitler's annexation of Austria. Lord Lothian influenced Lady Astor in many ways.
When war did come, Astor admitted that she had made mistakes, and voted against Chamberlain, but left-wing hostility to her politics remained. In a 1939 speech, the pro-Soviet Labour MP Stafford Cripps called her "The Member for Berlin".
Her fear of Catholics increased and she made a speech saying that a Catholic conspiracy was subverting the foreign office. Based on her opposition to Communists, she insulted Stalin's role (from 1941) as an ally of the Western nations during the war. Her speeches became rambling and incomprehensible; an opponent said that debating her had become "like playing squash with a dish of scrambled eggs". On one occasion she accosted a young American soldier outside the Houses of Parliament. "Would you like to go in?" she asked. The GI replied: "You are the sort of woman my mother told me to avoid".
The period from 1937 to the end of the war was personally difficult for her: from 1937-38 Astor lost both her sister Phyllis and her only surviving brother. In 1940 Lord Lothian died. He had been her closest Christian Scientist friend even after her husband converted. George Bernard Shaw's wife died three years later. During the war, Astor's husband had a heart attack. After this, their marriage grew cold, likely due to her subsequent discomfort with his health problems. She ran a hospital for Canadian soldiers as she had during the First World War, but openly expressed a preference for the earlier soldiers.
It was generally believed that it was Lady Astor who, during a World War II speech, first referred to the men of the 8th Army who were fighting in the Italian campaign as the "D-Day Dodgers". Observers thought she was suggesting they were avoiding the "real war" in France and the future invasion. The Allied soldiers in Italy were so incensed that Major Hamish Henderson of the 51st Highland Division composed a bitingly sarcastic song to the tune of the popular German song "Lili Marleen" (popularised in English by Marlene Dietrich), called "The Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers". This song has also been attributed to Lance-Sergeant Harry Pynn of the Tank Rescue Section, 19 Army Fire Brigade.
When told she was one of the people listed to be arrested, imprisoned and face possible execution in "The Black Book" under a German invasion of Britain, Lady Astor commented: "It is the complete answer to the terrible lie that the so-called 'Cliveden Set' was pro-Fascist."
Lady Astor did not acknowledge her loss of popularity. She believed her party and her husband caused her retirement in 1945. As the Tories believed she had become a political liability in the final years of World War II, her husband said that if she ran for office again the family would not support her. She conceded but, according to contemporary reports, was both irritated and angry about this.
Lady Astor struggled in retirement, which put more strain on her marriage. In a speech commemorating her 25 years in parliament, she stated that her retirement was forced on her and that it should please the men of Britain. The couple began travelling separately and soon were living apart. Lord Astor also began moving toward left-wing politics in his last years, and that exacerbated their differences. However, the couple reconciled before his death on 30 September 1952.
Lady Astor's public image suffered, as her ethnic and religious views were increasingly out of touch with cultural changes in Britain. She expressed a growing paranoia regarding ethnic minorities. In one instance she stated that the President of the United States had become too dependent on New York City. To her this city represented "Jewish and foreign" influences that she feared. During a US tour, she told a group of African-American students that they should aspire to be like the black servants she remembered from her youth. On a later trip she told African-American church members that they should be grateful for slavery because it had allowed them to be introduced to Christianity. In Rhodesia she proudly told the white minority government leaders that she was the daughter of a slave owner.
After 1956, Nancy Astor became increasingly isolated. In 1959, she was honored by receiving the Freedom of City of Plymouth. By this time, she had lost all her sisters and brothers, her colleague "Red Ellen" Wilkinson died in 1947, George Bernard Shaw died in 1950, and she did not take well to widowhood. Her son Bobby Shaw became increasingly combative and after her death he committed suicide. Her son, Jakie, married a prominent Catholic woman, which hurt his relationship with his mother. She and her other children became estranged. Gradually she began to accept Catholics as friends. However, she said that her final years were lonely.
She was noted for exchanges with Winston Churchill, though most of these are not well documented. Churchill told Lady Astor that having a woman in Parliament was like having one intrude on him in the bathroom, to which she retorted, "You're not handsome enough to have such fears."
Lady Astor is also said to have responded to a question from Churchill about what disguise he should wear to a masquerade ball by saying, "Why don't you come sober, Prime Minister?" In another recounted exchange, Lady Astor said to Churchill, "If you were my husband, I'd poison your tea," to which he responded, "Madam, if you were my wife, I'd drink it." The retort has been documented as being by Churchill's friend F. E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead.