Nancy Astor, Maiden Speech in Parliament, 1920

Nancy Astor

First Female MP to Sit in the British House of Commons (1919–45)

For two years, Nancy Astor, a vivacious and sharp-tongued American from Virginia, was the sole woman to serve as a Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons. Although she was not the first woman to be elected a Member of Parliament (that distinction belongs to Countess Markievicz; see here), she was the first to take her seat. Years later, she recalled her discomfort walking into the building on 24 February 1920, to make her maiden speech before her all-male colleagues (they would rather have greeted a rattlesnake, she said). Adding to her stress that day must have been the knowledge that her topic, while a favourite cause of her own, was in general deeply unpopular: temperance.

Yet Astor knew how to hold a room. After marrying Waldorf Astor, in 1906, she spent years as a socialite, entertaining at their grand estate, Cliveden, honing connections and becoming well-known for her wit. When her husband vacated the Commons in order to take his father’s place in the House of Lords, Astor decided to make a bold run for his seat. Once she got it, she stayed in office for twenty-five years, championing social reform causes and recruiting women into government work (she considered herself a feminist). She was not always on the right side of history – she made some troubling anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic statements in her later years – but she created space for women in a place where previously there was none. ‘I do not want you to look on your lady Member as a fanatic or a lunatic,’ she told her male audience in her maiden speech. ‘I am simply trying to speak for hundreds of women and children throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves.’

Maiden Speech in Parliament 1920

I shall not begin by craving the indulgence of the House. I am only too conscious of the indulgence and the courtesy of the House. I know that it was very difficult for some hon. Members to receive the first Lady M.P. into the House. It was almost as difficult for some of them as it was for the lady M.P. herself to come in. Hon. Members, however, should not be frightened of what Plymouth sends out into the world. After all, I suppose when Drake and Raleigh wanted to set out on their venturesome careers some cautious person said, “Do not do it; it has never been tried before. Stay at home, cruising in home waters.” I have no doubt that the same thing occurred when the Pilgrim Fathers set out. I have no doubt that there were cautious Christian brethren who did not understand their going into the wide seas to worship God in their own way. But, on the whole, the world is all the better for those venturesome and courageous West Country people, and I would like to say that I am quite certain that the women of the whole world will not forget that it was the fighting men of Devon who dared to send the first woman to the Mother of Parliaments. It is only right that she should show some courage, and I am perfectly aware that it needs courage to address the House on that vexed question, Drink. However, I dare do it.

… I do not think the country is ripe for Prohibition, but I am certain it is ripe for drastic drink reforms. (Hon. Members: “No!”) I know what I am talking about, and you must remember that women have got votes now and we mean to use them, and use them wisely, not for the benefit of any section, but for the benefit of the whole of society.