To mark the anniversary of Nancy Astor MP’s maiden speech here is our blog on the first two women to be elected to the House of Commons and how even today we are influenced by Astor’s political achievements.
The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 allowed women to become MPs in the House of Commons for the first time. Constance Markievicz and Nancy Astor were the first women to be elected. Both came from a privileged background, and while they held contrasting political beliefs, they both fought for change. “If you want an MP who will be a repetition of the 600 other MPs,” said Astor at her 1919 election, “don’t vote for me.” “I am pledged as a rebel,” said Irish nationalist Markievicz in 1922, “an unconvertible rebel, to the one thing—a free and independent Republic.”
Constance Markievicz (1868-1927) was elected as MP for Dublin St Patrick’s in 1918 while she was imprisoned in Holloway prison. Seventeen women stood as candidates in the 1918 election, but she was the only one to win a seat. As a member of Sinn Féin, she followed party policy and did not take her seat because she refused to swear the oath of allegiance to the British monarch.
Markievicz came from a well-to-do Anglo-Irish family, and trained to be an artist in London and Paris before returning to Ireland, where she became involved in Irish republican politics and joined Sinn Féin. She was also active in Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the Irish suffragette movement.
Markievicz took part in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. She was the only woman to be court-martialled for doing so. Her sentence of death was commuted to a lifetime of penal servitude, but she was later freed under amnesty.
Markievicz was a Member of the first Dáil Éireann, the Parliament of the revolutionary Irish Republic, in 1919, and went on to become Ireland’s first woman Cabinet Minister, serving as Minister for Labour. She gave away most of her wealth and spent her final years doing charitable work in Dublin. She died in a public ward in Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital in 1927. Thousands of people lined the streets on the day of her funeral, and the future president of Ireland, Éamon de Valera, gave the eulogy.
Nancy Astor (1879-1964) was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. It was a tough job. In 1928, she recalled: “I had the privilege of being the first woman in the House of Commons, and sometimes I used to doubt whether it was a privilege. When I stood up and asked questions affecting women and children, social and moral questions, I used to be shouted at for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. That was when they thought that I was rather a freak, a voice crying in the wilderness”.
Astor was born in Virginia. After divorcing her first husband, an abusive alcoholic, she moved to England in 1905. In 1906, she married Waldorf Astor, an aristocrat who became the MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1910. He inherited a peerage on his father’s death in 1919, triggering a by-election in which she was persuaded to stand as the Conservative candidate. She beat her Liberal opponent, Isaac Foot—father of future Labour leader, Michael Foot—and held the seat at seven elections, standing down in 1945.
Astor’s political outlook owed much to her conversion to Christian Science. She was a lifelong campaigner for the temperance movement, and a major parliamentary success was introducing the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under Eighteen) Bill, which was nicknamed “Lady Astor’s Bill”. The principle that alcohol should not be sold to people under 18 still holds today.
Astor was devoted to her constituents. In the second world war, she stayed in Plymouth throughout the bombing, visiting shelters, arranging accommodation and canteens for the homeless, and appealing for and channelling donations from Canada and the USA.
Astor campaigned for women’s issues in Parliament, including equal employment rights, and for women to join the police and the civil service. She was a prominent member of the Cliveden set—named after her country residence in Buckinghamshire—and her later life was overshadowed by allegations that it sought to appease the Nazi regime and held antisemitic views. Appeasement was the first instinct of the majority of Conservative MPs at the time and, as a result, her legacy is contested.
This blog was produced by the Hansard, and is the first in a series of Vote100 blogs on the early women MPs, do follow us to read the forthcoming blogs. You can find out more about Hansard and its work here .
Just in case you had any issues with our embedded links:
Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/parliamentary-collections/nancy-astor/parliament-qualification-of-women-act/
Pathé footage of Markievicz after her election: https://www.britishpathe.com/video/countess-markievicz-sinn-fein-only-woman-returned
Question in Hansard about Markievicz in jail: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1919-07-03/debates/1eddc2f2-ba5b-490f-8b27-6b3195f25086/CountessMarkievicz
Youtube film about Nancy Astor:
Astor introducing the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under Eighteen) Bill in Hansard:
Astor asking a question about women police in Hansard: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/written-answers/1921/jun/15/women-police
Hansard blog https://commonshansard.blog.parliament.uk/