What about Constance Markievticz?
We are very careful in our use of the words ‘first woman to take her seat’ when describing Nancy Astor. This is done to respect the achievement of Constance Markievticz in being the first woman elected to Parliament almost a year earlier in the general election of 1918 though she did not take her seat and was not active in the House of Commons.
The General Election on 14th December 1918 was the first election in which some women could vote and all women could stand for election. With just 6 weeks to campaign, 17 women stood as candidates (nine Liberal, Labour or Conservative, two Sinn Fein; the other six stood as independent candidates). Constance Markievticz of Sin Fein was the only woman to be elected but did not take her seat as she was in Holloway Prison at that time and refused to take the oath. For more information an excellent starting point from can be found here Women’s History Month: Constance Markievicz and the Feminist-Republican Dilemma – Women’s History Network (womenshistorynetwork.org)
She was a controversial figure: anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and a Nazi sympathiser
The most controversial thing about Nancy Astor was the fact that she was a woman. Her beliefs were not much different than many people of her time, especially the upper classes who saw fascism as the only real alternative to the threat of communism, she even stated this in her election address.
Astor was anti-Catholic and there is plenty of archival evidence for this including her refusal to employ Roman Catholics as staff, though her position softened as she got older and there are many anecdotal stories of kindnesses towards Catholics she later employed. But evidence that she was strongly anti-Semitic is often circumstantial. As is common with Nancy, she often made statements off the cuff but they are markedly different to her responses to Jewish individuals who contacted her directly in the late 1930s asking for help and who she did help. Undoubtedly, by modern standards Nancy held some views that today are difficult to swallow, Stafford Cripps referred to her in Parliament as ‘The Member for Berlin’. She did feel that she was being made victim of ‘Jewish Communistic propaganda’ and without wishing in any way to defend her statements it is interesting that a female back bench MP with no real political power and no position in the Conservative Party is presented as such an influential ringleader.
Nancy’s own response in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on 24th March 1938:
‘A controversy over Lady Nancy Astor’s attitude toward Jews reached an acute stage today when the American-born peeress angrily denied an allegation in the London News-Chronicle that she had become “fanatically anti-Jewish.”
In a letter to the News-Chronicle, Lady Astor declared: “I must refute your accusation that i am anti-Jewish. It is quite untrue and has caused pain not only to me but to many of my very good friends who themselves are Jews.”
The News-Chronicle published Lady Astor’s reply with a note declaring: “While Lady Astor denies she is anti-Jewish she does not deny precise statements.”’
She was an appeaser though?
Initially she was, as were many people at that time, especially the upper classes who saw fascism as the only real alternative to the threat of communism, she even stated this in her election address. However, she was whole-hearted in her support for the war effort, especially within her naval constituency of Plymouth Sutton. Despite her initial support for appeasement by 1940 she believed her patriotic duty was to vote to install Churchill as Prime Minister. Astor remained in her constituency during the Plymouth Blitz which razed much of the city, holding steadfast with her constituents and servicemen. She organised the evacuation of children, arranged and attended tea dances on the Hoe to boost morale.
In March 1941, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Plymouth to view the bombing damage. Only hours later, Plymouth suffered one of the worst air raids of the war. When Winston Churchill visited in May 1941 she told him “It’s no good crying Winston, you’ve got to do something!” Astor also supported a hospital for Canadian soldiers at Cliveden, her family’s house in Berkshire. Moreover, by the end of the war, all four of her sons were on active service abroad.
What is interesting is that a back-bench MP, with no formal office or position in her party and thus very little power is pilloried and represented in the press as the leader of the ‘Cliveden Set’.
Who were the ‘Cliveden Set’?
Many of the Astor’s social circle were supporters of appeasement and were accused of influencing foreign policy. In 1936 the communist journalist Claude Cockburn published an article in his anti-fascist journal, The Week alleging the existence of a ‘Cliveden Set’, a group of influential people who used their wealth, connections and ownership of newspapers to subvert government policy. This was a claim which Nancy called a ‘terrible lie’. However, her reputation was irretrievably damaged. In reality the Astors’ attitudes were little different than many of their class and social standing who saw fascism as a bulwark against communism.
Like many people at that time Waldorf and Nancy were appeasers in that they thought that Germany had been treated harshly at the end of World War I by the treaty of Versailles. She also had connections with influential people such as Philip Kerr who was an emissary to Hitler. However, the idea of Cliveden as the centre of an upper class conspiracy to impose appeasement has been discredited. Nancy Astor and Ribbentrop got on so badly that she ended up on a Nazi list of people to be arrested in the event of a German invasion.
The term ‘Cliveden Set’ was first used by Reynolds News on 28th November, 1937.
Wasn’t this more about her notorious parties at Cliveden House? Didn’t she host Ribbentrop and other senior Nazi officials?
Nancy Astor was a society and political hostess of some repute before her election, something she never quite gave up. There is absolutely no evidence however that this group attempted to distort foreign policy and the idea of Cliveden as the centre of an upper class conspiracy to impose appeasement has been discredited. Nancy Astor and Ribbentrop got on so badly that she ended up on a Nazi list of people to be arrested in the event of a German invasion.
She called men serving in Italy during World War II ‘D-Day Dodgers’
This is a legend that persists but is not true. Nancy did receive a letter from frustrated servicemen serving in Italy who signed the letter ‘from the D-day Dodgers’, she responded with ‘Dear D-Day Dodgers…’ but their commanding officer, who had not read the original, read Nancy’s reply (as was policy with all letters to serving men) and was horrified. He escalated the comment to servicemen’s journals and the rest is a legend that will not go away.
Morale among troops was low in Italy, during the run up to and progress of D Day they felt that they had been forgotten by the British public who thought they were on a ‘Mediterranean holiday’. Nancy Astor was supported in her denial even by Montgomery but the legend persists.