By Shira Kilgallon, Lauren Rhydderch and Jacqui Turner
In July 1945 Nancy Astor left parliament under a cloud of personal and professional regret. Her exit was fraught, blighted the remainder of her life and her relationship with her husband, Waldorf. For the first female MP to take her seat in the House, her exit was unceremonious and a personal disappointment. What was increasingly clear to Waldorf, her family and her Party was not clear to Nancy.
Nancy had become increasingly erratic towards the end of her parliamentary career and avoided policies she was uninterested in exhibiting an ignorance of current affairs and in particular foreign affairs. Strategic political thinking had never been her strength and she often made decisions based on instinct, she was more influenced by anecdotal evidence and the deluge of personal letters that she received daily rather than following a carefully crafted political message. Material from the archive illustrates how her emotions often influenced decision making. She found it difficult to maintain a parliamentary performance and tended to mirror the attitudes of others when she did not have a formulated opinion of her own.
Arguably the onset of the decline in her political career came in the 1930s and criticism of the Cliveden Set and her close personal friendship with Phillip Kerr, an ambassador to Hitler. The elite group was believed to be meeting at Cliveden, the Astor’s country residence, and creating governmental policy outside of the democratic state. The Astors were easy targets for the press due to their elite connections, which were seen to be superseding governmental administration. The group were accused of supporting appeasement and even disarmament and were branded fascists and Nazi sympathisers. It was not uncommon for the upper classes to perceive fascism as a bulwark against communism but he Astors were linked to fascism via the plausibility of the Cliveden Set.
The Cliveden Set may have initiated damage, but Nancy’s career deteriorated beyond repair during World War II when she made a series of insensitive and ill-advised statements. In a House of Commons debate in 1942 Nancy condemned Catholicism and its presence in the Foreign Office. Her exasperating display was senseless and as a result of her incomprehensible babble she was embarrassingly asked to leave the House debate. Harold Nicolson wrote in his memoirs “I suppose her rambling is amusing, but it rather saddens me, as I like her, and I wish that she would not make quite such an idiot of herself in public.” Her performance was fragile and the wit and humour that had aided her public speaking was deteriorating into farce. She referred to servicemen fighting in Italy as “D-Day dodgers” and accused them of avoiding the Normandy Conflict, a statement that she denied, but from which her reputation never recovered. World War II exposed Nancy politically.
By the end of the war she was left with more critics than supporters. Her husband, Waldorf acknowledged this and persuaded her, with the support of friends and family that she should stand down as an MP. What her family could see was that Nancy had become unelectable. She could not keep up with the changing political environment, her outspoken character and tendency to heckle indiscriminately became inappropriate and ineffectual. The post war transition was difficult for many male and female MP’s however Nancy lacked involvement in many issues of importance particularly Foreign Policy. Other women within parliament were keeping up and developing with the changing political climate. Nancy’s work on women’s careers, home and welfare policy across party was no longer sustainable. Ultimately Waldorf wanted her to avoid humiliation and stated he would not support her at the next election. He was aware that it was probable that she would not be adopted as a candidate and recognised that Nancy’s critics may have had a point and as such he determined that she should not humiliated by attempting to stand. Their personal relationship never fully recovered and Nancy viewed it as an appalling betrayal.
Ultimately Nancy did not contest her seat. An announcement to Plymouth stated:
Lady Astor and [Waldorf] have fought seven elections together, and including the period when he was MP for Plymouth, have supported each other closely in the political arena for thirty-five years. It would be difficult for Lady Astor to stand again without his help.
Nancy did not leave Parliament gracefully, in her parting speech asked “is that not a triumph for men?” It was clear from her statement she felt deeply betrayed and blamed Waldorf’s ill-health for him asking her to leave parliament, rather than face the reality of her political situation.
Nancy’s epitaph is always difficult to define and her status as the first MP is her arguably her greatest legacy, but it was also her ability to work and support other female MPs in a hostile and male dominated House. They worked together, across party and often despite party, which was key to the success of inter-war feminist politics and Nancy Astor was an integral part of that success. Margaret MacMillan, a devout Christian Socialist, encapsulated her contribution, she dedicated her biography of her late sister to her friend Nancy:
Finally, we would like to leave you with a short fact that we have stolen from Amanda Vickery’s recent TV series ‘Suffragettes Forever: The Story of Women and Power’: there are currently more men sitting in the House of Commons than the total number of women since the election of Nancy Astor in 1919.
*Speeches: Material 1949-1950, Nancy Astor Papers, MS1416/1/1/1693, Special Collections, MERL, Reading
 Grigg, Nancy Astor, p. 137.
 Antony Masters, Nancy Astor: A Life, (London, 1981), p. 209.
 Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters 1939-1945, (London, 1945).
 Plymouth Sutton Division 7 1944-1945, Nancy Astor Papers, MS1416/2/30, Special Collections, MERL, Reading.
 Langhorne, Nancy Astor and her Friends, p. 246.
A really interesting blog depicting the difficulties faced by Nancy’s transition from socialite to politician. It definitely offers food for thought regarding the position of women in politics, past and present. Excellent read!
Very proud of my dissertation students Shira Kilgallon and Lauren Rhydderch for their work on Nancy Astor