The final installment for the Women and Parliament blog series in 2018 is rather appropriately written by Linda Gilroy, former MP for Plymouth Sutton (1997-2010). Linda tells us about an exciting project to raise a statue of the first woman to take her seat in Parliament, Lady Nancy Astor, which is part of the #Astor100 project that will be taking place throughout 2019…
Celebrating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 with UK Parliament’s Vote 100 project (#Vote100) started for me just over a year ago in October 2017. Plymouth University hosted an event to mark the build-up to Vote 100 and to give some Plymouth school students the chance to explore what the project was all about. I was invited to be on a panel with other women and Plymouth Sutton’s current MP, Luke Pollard to share our experiences about life in parliament and reflections on the first woman in parliament, Lady Nancy Astor who represented the Plymouth Sutton constituency, 1919-1945.
This event also brought the unmissable chance to hear from international Astor scholar Dr Jacqui Turner, who is leading the Astor 100 project in 2019. I had often wondered what it must have been like for Lady Astor to take on that undented bastion of male privilege, the 1919 House of Commons. Elected in a by-election in November 1919 after her husband was elevated to the House of Lords she was completely alone in facing this challenge. There was no hiding place for her in the hustle and bustle that follows a general election for a whole new parliament.
Dr Turner detailed how, once elected, Astor set about the task of being an MP with a mixture of common sense and humility as well as fearlessness in the wake of the First World War. As Nan Sloane says in her mini biography of Nancy in The Honourable Ladies Volume 1,
‘As the first woman MP in parliament people had massive expectations of her, as much in terms of failure as success … Sensibly she made it her business to build bridges and did so by asking women’s organisations to advise her, and engaging with a variety of groups and individuals.’
She regularly received 2000 letters a week – the resources that came with her privileged personal situation allowed her to ensure that each one received a reply at a time when there were no allowances to employ people to help with casework and other parliamentary duties, which was quite different by the time I became an MP.
Lady Astor also had years of experience gaining the attention of influential people at the
many receptions and dinner parties she had hosted with her husband, Viscount Astor. Once elected she set about using these skills to enable the voices of her constituents, of women and women’s organisations and other early women MPs to command the attention of government at the highest levels. Despite the sexist environment and the stubbornness she faced from many of her colleagues she championed legislation that changed the lives of women and children.
Although Nancy and I come from different political traditions there is much that I respect and admire in what she did. A Conservative MP, she worked on campaigns cross-party with Labour MPs and socialist women, as well as Liberals inside and outside parliament. She supported welfare reforms, equal voting rights and ensured her party passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Bill of 1928 which allowed women to vote on the same terms as men. She advocated on behalf of women nurses and civil servants and defended women’s place in the workforce. She cared deeply about children and families and introduced a private members bill – the first ever by a woman – concerning crucial legislation to protect young people under 18 from alcohol abuse, something which persists in law to this day.
Nancy was a break from the old tradition and by the time she stood down 24 more women had taken their seat in the House of Commons. As Dr Turner points out before Nancy there was no female voice or point of view; she showed what was possible and opened the door. She showed that a woman could represent people just as well as her male colleagues, who until 1918 had alone in law been deemed fit for the task. Lady Astor on her last day in Westminster in 1945 she was told by a fellow member that the House would miss her. She replied,
‘I will miss the House; the House won’t miss me. It never misses anybody. I have seen ’em all go – Lloyd George, Asquith, Baldwin, Snowden, MacDonald – and not one of them is missed. The House is like a sea. MP’s are like little ships that sail across it and disappear over the horizon. Some of ’em carry a light. Others don’t. That’s the only difference.’
Nancy Astor did not merely carry a light, she carried a blazing torch.
A good start has been made to write early women MPs into the history books in the way that they deserve with the publication in October 2018 of mini biographies of the first 168 women to be elected to parliament – Volume 1 of The Honourable Ladies. There has been a flurry of other books and academic papers this year about suffragists and suffragettes, about early women candidates and MPs with more on the way! But we also have much to do to make this history visible to young women today and an excellent way to do this is by raising more statues of women pioneers. This is a big job as there are apparently currently more statues of goats than of women in the UK! But 2019 is an appropriate time to start redressing this deficit with a statue to mark the hundredth anniversary of the ground-breaking role of the first woman MP. The campaign to raise funds for a statue of Lady Astor has begun. The ‘Lady Astor Statue’ project, which is led by local women and supported by Luke Pollard MP, is based in Plymouth but we need help from far and wide to share and donate to ensure that we reach our fund raising goal.
If you have enjoyed celebrating our feminist democratic and parliamentary history through #Vote100 and #VoiceandVote and would like to learn more about how we plan to carry that torch forward see: