1st December 1919: ‘Insidious Sexism’, Nancy Astor MP #MeToo

by Dr Jacqui Turner  [1]

On the day that Nancy Astor took her seat in parliament, rather than blog about an anniversary, and inspired by the recent visit of outspoken feminist MP Jess Phillips to the University of Reading, I would like to look back at on a current topic that is daily reported in the press and characterised online by #MeToo.

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Nancy Astor via BBC News

On 1st December 1919, three days after her election victory at Plymouth Sutton, Lady Nancy Astor, stood at the Bar of the House of Commons, waiting to take the oath that would make her Britain’s first woman MP.[2]  Astor sensed an undercurrent of nervousness and may have thought she understood why: ‘I was deeply conscious of representing a Cause, whereas I think they were a little nervous of having let down the House of Commons by escorting the Cause into it’.[3]  Astor’s presence in the House had been commented on in The Times the day after her election. A woman MP, was a ‘tremendous breach in Parliamentary tradition’.[4]  The language used by The Times strongly suggested that Astor was an unwanted intrusion, an illegal intrusion and she was forcibly overcoming a bastion of male dominance.  The notion of a woman had been ‘almost inconceivable’.

The perceived ‘safety net’, that the previous holder of the seat had been her husband Waldorf, was reassuring and a measure of proxy or male equivalence may have settled jangled nerves.  Yet despite her class and social standing Astor had to cope with a constant and insidious sexism that undermined her attempts to be taken seriously.  She avoided comments on her clothing, by adopting a uniform of dark coat and skirt, white blouse and tricorn hat but she was less successful in evading the patronizingly flirtatious and ribald comments of her male colleagues.

Astor’s maiden speech in 1920 was in opposition to a proposal to relax wartime restrictions on opening hours.  Sir John Rees, who was well aware of Astor’s abstentionist politics, concluded his speech by looking directly at her, and archly remarked:

I do not doubt that a rod is in pickle for me when I sit down, but I will accept the chastisement with resignation and am indeed ready to kiss the rod.

Astor wittily demurred, replying that Rees had gone ‘a bit too far. However, I will consider his proposal if I can convert him’.  No such witticism is recorded for the occasion on which an inebriated Jack Jones, Labour MP for Silvertown, interrupted Astor.  Refusing to give way, Astor told Jones he was drinking too much and should think of his stomach, to which he answered to loud guffaws, he would push his stomach up against hers any time she liked.[5]  Churchill famously refused to speak to her in her early years in Parliament, despite knowing her privately and despite having partaken of the Astors’ celebrated hospitality ‘we hoped to freeze you out’.

Within six months of becoming an MP, Astor suffered from a press exposé under the headline ‘Lady Astor’s Divorce: A Hypocrite of the First Water’.  The headline came upon her speech against the second reading of the Divorce Bill, which would have extended grounds for divorce beyond adultery.  Horatio Bottomley, the MP for Hackney South and proprietor of the John Bull newspaper, had already taken against Astor, and seized on the fact that she was listed in Who’s Who as a widow, rather than her true status as a divorcee.  For Astor, the hint of sexual scandal was particularly painful.  The House, on this occasion, behaved admirably, greeting Astor with supportive applause when she arrived in the chamber on the day the story was published yet the question remains whether such scrutiny would have been applied to a male MP, I think we can confidently reach the conclusion that it would not.

Possibly all of this may have been considered ‘understandable’ in the context of the interwar period and that the House should have been congratulated for restraint during the divorce scandal BUT the insidious sexism that Astor experienced remains, overlooked and sniggered at, almost a century later.  It might best be equated to the statement made by comedian Jo Brand on BBC One’s Have I Got News For You.

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Jo Brand via Metro

In the wake of a series of resignations over what Sir Michael Fallon described as behaviour that had “fallen short” of expectations, the all-male panel discussed the issues raised.  With a smirk, regular team captain Ian Hislop described some claims of harassment as “not high-level crime … compared to say Putin or Trump”. Brand’s response measured but spoke volumes:

If I can just say, as the only representative of the female gender here today, I know it’s not high level, but it doesn’t have to be high level for women to feel under siege in somewhere like the House of Commons.

And actually, for women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.

And of course, this came on the hot on the heels of the Hollywood scandal centred on the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein.  While his was unavoidably considered “high level crime”, BBC Newsnight, interviewing Emma Thompson asked whether many other Hollywood producers have harassed as many women as Harvey, she said:

Does it only count if you have done it to loads and loads of women, or does it count if you have done it to one woman, once? I think the latter.

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Emma Thompson via RadioTimes

Questions of severity and degree are, for most of us, an ‘insidious’ undermining of sexual harassment which will never change until we have an equal power balance in society and in Parliament.  In sad agreement with Jess Phillips MP, true equality is something I fear will not be achieved in my lifetime but which I will never give up striving for.  It is time to engage whole heatedly with #AskHerToStand and @5050AHTS


[1] With huge thanks to Professor David Stack for agreeing to the expedient ransacking of his article ‘The First Lady’ in Total Politics (2010).  Opinions expressed here are my own and not those of anyone else.

[2] While Constance Markowitz of Sinn Fein was the first woman elected in the general election 1918 she did not take her seat. Astor was the first to take her seat in the Commons in 1919.

[3] Nancy Astor, BBC, October 1943

[4] The Times, 2nd December 1920

[5] David Stack, ‘First Lady’, Total Politics (December, 2010). A fuller account of the debate is available in Hansard 24th February 1920.

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