Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Lady is a Member of Parliament

On November 28, 1919, Nancy Astor became the first woman to serve as a member of Parliament in the British House of Commons. She was a member of the Conservative party and was married to Waldorf Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor. What's interesting about Lady Astor in terms of American history is that she was born and raised in the United States.

Nancy Witcher Langhorne was born in 1879 to parents Charles Dabney Langhorne and Nancy Witcher Keene. One of eight children, her father was a former slaveowner whose business prospects plummeted during the war. He was eventually able to rebuild the family fortune using former business contacts, and the family moved into an estate called Mirador in Albemarle County, Virginia. All of the Langhorne girls were known for their beauty. Nancy's sister Irene later married the artist Charles Dana Gibson and became the model for the Gibson girl. Nancy's first marriage was to Robert Gould Shaw II, the cousin of the Robert Gould Shaw who commanded the 54th Massachusetts volunteer infantry. Their marriage was troubled from the start, and they divorced in 1903.

In the following years, Nancy traveled to England and became enamored with the country. She moved there permanently and married Waldorf Astor, an English aristocrat who had also been born in the United States. His father was a member of the House of Lords, and Waldorf Astor held a seat in the House of Commons. When his father died, Waldorf Astor succeeded to his father's peerage and automatically gained a seat in the House of Lords. With her husband's seat in the House of Commons now vacant, Lady Astor decided to campaign for the seat herself. She was elected on November 28, 1919. While other women had been elected to Parliament before her, Lady Astor was the first to actually take up her seat in the House of Commons on December 1, 1919.

Lady Astor served in Parliament from 1919 until her retirement in 1945. Nancy Astor supported women’s rights and boosted morale on the home front during both world wars. During World War I, she converted her estate, Cliveden, into an army hospital. Her years in Parliament were not without controversy. She was known for her razor sharp wit, and her inability to hold her tongue when she disagreed with others. One of her most notable adversaries was Winston Churchill. Supposedly, after a series of disagreements, Lady Astor told Winston Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” to which he replied, “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

[Image via ScandalousWomen and visitthames]

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