She was elected to Parliament for Plymouth Sutton in November 1919, replacing her husband who had previously been the MP. Astor was elected following a by-election on 15 November 1919, although she had to wait until 28 November for the results to be announced, where it turned out she received more votes than the Labour and Liberal candidates combined. She entered the House of Commons on 1 December 1919 to take her oath, sponsored by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Lord President of the Council and former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour.
Nancy Witcher Langhorne was born in Danville, Virginia in 1879, the eighth of eleven children born to railroad businessman Chiswell Dabney Langhorne and his wife Nancy Witcher Keene. The first years of her life were impoverished, as her father struggled to make his operations profitable following the abolition of slavery and the destruction of the American Civil War. Yet, by the time she reached her teenage years Nancy's father had become a wealthy businessman, making a fortune in construction, rail and tobacco and the family moved to an estate, Mirador, in Albemarle County, Virginia.
In the 1890s Nancy and her sister Irene were enrolled in a finishing school in New York City where they were taught etiquette in preparation for entering high society. It was there that Nancy met her first husband, socialite Robert Gould Shaw II. The pair married on 27 October 1897 in New York when Nancy was 18 and in August 1898 they welcomed the birth of their son, Robert Gould Shaw III (called Bobby). However, the marriage was unhappy and the couple divorced in 1903. Around the same time Nancy’s mother died, so Nancy moved back to Mirador to try and help run her father’s household, but this proved unsuccessful.
After falling in love with England following a tour she took there, Nancy’s father suggested she move there permanently as it made her so happy and in 1905 Nancy, her son and younger sister Phyllis moved to England.
Witty, beautiful, glamorous, clever, fashionable, generous – Nancy became known amongst the aristocracy upon arrival in England and moved in high social circles. She soon caught the eye of Waldorf Astor – the son of Viscount Astor, owner of The Independent newspaper – and within six months the couple were married. The couple were well-matched; both were American expatriates with similar temperaments and in a strange coincidence were of the same age, born on the same day 19 May 1879. After the marriage the Astors moved into Cliveden, a lavish Buckinghamshire estate (a wedding gift from Waldorf’s father), and Nancy became a prominent hostess amongst the English elite.
The couple had five children – four boys: William Waldorf Astor II, Francis David Langhorne Astor, Michael Langhorne Astor and John Jacob Astor VII – and one girl: Nancy Phyllis Louise Astor.
Through his wife, Waldorf Astor developed an interest in social reform. Encouraged by Nancy to launch a career in politics, Waldorf was defeated in an initial attempt to win election to the House of Commons in the January 1910 general election. However, he won election as a Unionist for the borough of Plymouth in the December 1910 general election. Nancy too had political interests; through her many social connections she had become involved in a political circle called ‘Milner’s Kindergarten’, a group considered liberal at the time, which advocated unity and equality among English-speaking people and a continuance or expansion of British imperialism.
Waldorf enjoyed a promising political career for some years and in 1918, when his constituency was dissolved, became MP for Plymouth Sutton, a position he held until 1919. After his father’s death in October 1919, Waldorf succeeded to his father’s peerage, inheriting the title 2nd Viscount Astor (making Nancy ‘Viscountess Astor’) and automatically becoming a member of the House of Lords. Consequently he had to relinquish his seat of Plymouth Sutton in the House of Commons, triggering a by-election.
With Waldorf having to move ‘upstairs’ to the House of Lords, his wife decided to contest the vacant Parliamentary seat as the previous year had seen the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act passed, which allowed women to become MPs. Nancy stood as a Unionist candidate (now the Conservative Party), although many had reservations, including the Unionist Party Chairman Sir George Younger, who said:
‘...the worst of it is, the woman is sure to get in.’
Nancy was at her best during electioneering. Her natural wit and charm endeared her to voters of all classes, although she was hampered in the popular campaign for her known opposition to alcohol consumption and ignorance of current political issues. Her informal style baffled yet amused the British public and by rallying the supporters of the current government, moderating her prohibition views and using women’s meetings to gain the support of female voters, Nancy won the election, beating her main rival Liberal Isaac Foot (father of Michael Foot, who went on to lead the Labour party). Interestingly, after World War I Plymouth Sutton had a majority of women voters.
The result was announced on 28 November 1919 and she took up her seat in the House on 1 December as a Unionist Member of Parliament.
Although Nancy was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, she was not the first elected. That was achieved in 1918 by Constance Markievicz, an Irish Republican who was detained in Holloway Prison at the time and, as a member of Sinn Fein, disqualified herself by refusing to take the oath.
A master of repartee, Nancy Astor needed to have all her wits about her to survive in the male dominated arena of politics. She gained attention as someone who did not follow the rules – for example, when David Lloyd George was called to swear her in he set off before the others and was pulled back and scolded by Nancy. On another occasion, her first day in the House of Commons, she was called to order for chatting with a fellow House member, not realising she was who was causing the commotion.
Nancy quickly became known for her outspoken views of specific issues, including advocating women’s rights and stricter restrictions on alcohol. Yet, despite claiming to be an ardent feminist, suffrage campaigners were initially dismayed that the first female MP had never had ties to their movement.
On 24 February 1920, Nancy stood alone amongst an audience of over 500, mostly hostile, male MPs to deliver her maiden speech. In her speech she referred to the fact that some women over the age of 30 could now vote in Britain: ‘You must remember that women have got a vote now and we mean to use it, and use it wisely’ and also spoke about the perils of drinking, emphasising the damage it caused to women and children, as well as the economic cost to the country, and appealing for stricter restrictions on the drinking hours that had come into effect during the First World War.
During the initial years of her political career Nancy supported lowering the voting age of women to 21 (an Act that was later passed in 1928) and proposed raising the age of alcohol to 18 (it was set at 14 in 1901), an Act that was passed in a 1923 Private Member’s Bill and which remains to this day.
Nancy spent almost two years as the only woman in the House of Commons against a backdrop of sexism and, often, outright resentment. Active both inside and outside of government she supported welfare reforms and equal voting rights and was also supportive of other female MPs, regardless of political party. During this period Nancy also advocated the development and expansion of nursery schools for children’s education and she worked to recruit women into the civil service, the police force, education reform and the House of Lords. She was also concerned about the treatment of juvenile victims of crime.
In the 1930s both Nancy and her husband Waldorf objected to engaging in the Second World War. They and several friends and associates backed Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy in reducing the threat of entering into a war with Germany and became known as the ‘Cliveden set’, although there is some dispute over the set's allegiances to fascism and Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, Nancy became critical of Chamberlain’s leadership in the early stages of the war and voted against the Government in May 1940, helping Winston Churchill to become Prime Minister. It was around this time that Nancy started to lose popularity among her fellow MPs, as she became increasingly erratic and made a number of long-winded speeches, including one in which she said that a Catholic conspiracy was subverting the foreign office and another disastrous one in which she stated that alcohol was the reason England’s national cricket team was defeated by the Australians.
Despite her opposition to the war, Nancy contributed to the war effort by running a hospital for Canadian soldiers. The Astors were also hugely generous with their wealth, giving buildings, land and money to the city of Plymouth, including 3 Elliot Terrace, which became the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Plymouth (now accommodation for official visitors).
Nancy won seven elections between 1919 and 1935 and was MP for Plymouth Sutton for 26 years until the 1945 election when she decided not to stand on the advice of both the Conservative Party (who felt she had become a political liability) and her husband who refused to support her running for office again. In the same year that she retired, 24 women became MPs and took their seats in parliament. Nancy’s retirement put increasing strain upon her marriage to Waldorf and before long the couple were living apart. They were separated for a number of years, before reconciling shortly before Waldorf’s death in September 1952.
Waldorf Astor was appointed Lord Mayor of Plymouth in 1939, despite not being a member of the city council – an honour which had been given only once before to Sir Francis Drake. Representing Plymouth as an MP and as Lady Mayoress during the Second World War, Nancy Astor’s life and work were closely identified with the city and in 1959 she was made an honorary Freeman of the City of Plymouth. The same year Viscountess Astor performed the launching ceremony for HMS Plymouth, the first ship for 250 years to bear the name, and presented a diamond and sapphire necklace to be worn by Lady Mayoress of Plymouth. She was made CH (Order of the Companions of Honour) in 1937.
Nancy died at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire on 2 May 1964, aged 84.