Astor is a mercurial character most often only understood in reference to her gender, in regard to her husband Waldorf, her deficiencies as a mother and in relation to her intervention into a masculine parliament. Her legacy has inevitably been evaluated and interpreted by male biographers, Astor100 is an opportunity dispel some of the myths and attributions made to her and look at her afresh.
Even in her own time Nancy was highly controversial and often self-contradictory. At once she considered herself a representative of working women and mothers, while she was one of the richest women in the land. Astor aligned herself with women’s peace organizations and regarded women as natural pacifists, while pursuing the aims of Anglo-German understanding by entertaining the Nazi top brass at her Cliveden seat. The American-born Astor was xenophobic and anti-Semitic, and yet she could not imagine a fascist Britain as the Blackshirts were just too ridiculous and laughable.
Nancy Astor has almost become more synonymous with the prejudices of her time than the many men who held similar views but escaped similar censure. They have not been subject to the same level of scrutiny. One of our biggest challenges is in representing Astor’s personal paradoxes – her unguarded public statements that rarely reflected private actions and kindnesses to both Jewish people and Catholics.
There is much less comment on the appalling misogyny of male contemporaries who are understood in relation to ‘it was just the times’. Many prominent men had a few good years for which they are remembered, whereas Astor’s unpalatable statements were made in the heightened political climate in the run up to World War II.
It’s possible that Nancy Astor is the single most pilloried person in the appeasement and anti-Semitic debate yet she was a back bench female MP with little or no power. She was surrounded by senior, influential men who escape similar scrutiny. It is her gender that belies so much of this comment and is why we judge her by a higher standard.
It is important too to understand Astor as a feminist by default rather than by design. Her entry into politics had nothing to do with feminism or with the suffrage movement—indeed, of the 36 women who became MPs between the wars, not one had a suffragette pedigree.
Nonetheless, Astor quickly grew into her role as first the only and always the first woman MP. Especially during the 1920s, she made many efforts to work with her fellow women, regardless of party affiliation. She could well have steered clear of women’s issues. Some among that first generation of women MPs did just that, especially some of her Tory colleagues. It is instructive in this respect to compare her causes and campaigns with that of the Conservative Katherine Duchess of Atholl—and they would find themselves on diametrically opposite sides of the debate about appeasing Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.
In spring 1915 she had a sustained correspondence with Emmeline Pankhurst, who considered Astor a sympathetic route to the press. She was also instrumental in pushing though the 1928 franchise. She held her party and Baldwin’s government to account for promises made regarding the equal franchise. She worked with suffrage organisations facilitating meetings with senior politicians and acting as a conduit between them and the Conservative Party. She was a pioneer of women in the professions lending her support to legislation surrounding women in the workplace and the safety of women when out on the streets.
How then does Astor serve as a fitting representative of women’s political achievements? Is she worthy of being one of the most prominent personifications of the long struggle for women’s emancipation?
It is in fact despite or rather because of her complexity that I do think that Astor’s story should be given prominence. Astor100 is a very timely project for many reasons, nor should we forget to make the obvious but important point that it is being launched when Britain has its second woman and Conservative woman Prime Minister, Theresa May.
But why Astor, and how can she be made to tell a much more nuanced story about women’s political participation? Let us recall that we don’t talk about men’s political history. Of course not. It is taken for granted that in politics men are divided in myriad ways. There are no “men’s issues” as such, and men would almost never think to group together as men to represent the interests of their own beleaguered sex.
Placing Astor at the centre of the memorialisation of 100 years of women in Parliament is an important reminder that women too do not and should not be assumed to band together as one, or to confine their interest to “women’s issues”. Not all women who enter the political sphere are motivated by feminism, and Britain’s first woman Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is evidence of this point.
Astor’s story reminds us that the story of women in politics is distinct from the story of the feminist movement as such, even when there are intersections.
Extracted from a blog co-written as part of a collaboration between the University of Reading (@Jacqui1918, @uniRdg_history @uniRdg_research) and the University of Sheffield (@UniShefHistory) and is also available on the University of Sheffield’s History Matters blog.