Women of History: Nancy Astor

President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and Nancy Astor attend church services at Hyde Park, N.Y., Nov. 20, 1932. She and her husband, Viscount Waldorf Astor, were overnight guests of the Roosevelts in their home. (AP Photo)

 

Nancy Langhorne Astor (1879–1964) was the first woman to sit in Great Britain’s House of Commons, in December 1919. She was outspoken, deeply religious, and a champion of women’s rights. Her story is a captivating one.

Lady Astor was an American, born in Virginia. By the time she was in her twenties, she was moving in the highest echelons of society, for her father (a former Confederate officer) had gained considerable wealth. Her first marriage failed, and she decided to move to England. On an ocean voyage she met Waldorf Astor, heir to one of the world’s greatest fortunes. They married in 1906, and this marked the beginning of a highly public life.

The Astors were politically active. Their connection in the 1930s to the “Cliveden Set”—a group of prominent politicians and journalists that often met at the Astor country estate—is controversial. Even today it’s not clear whether the group entirely espoused the appeasement of Nazi Germany, or more importantly whether it influenced Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his isolationist policies.

Because she was a viscountess and lived a life of privilege, Astor’s social activities garnered as much attention as her legislative accomplishments. Open dedication to Christian Science earned her some hostility as well. Her testimony in the Christian Science Sentinel appeared shortly before she became a Member of Parliament. In it she mentions her work with wounded soldiers in the First World War. (Her charitable work would expand during the Second World War, when she aided soldiers and those living in her home district of Plymouth, which was extensively bombed.)

In the spring of 1914 I was told by one of the best medical men in London that it would be many years before I could ever lead a normal life, that my spirit and vitality would wear me out. At that time I had been in bed more or less for eight months and tired for eight years. I got my healing in Christian Science, and when the war came on in August I started a life of activity which has gone on without ceasing, for five years. We have had a military hospital on our place and twenty-four hundred wounded have passed through it. The chief surgeon told me before sailing for Canada that in all of his experience he had never seen a woman able to do more…. The joy of knowing that God is good, and the spiritual knowledge, are of course far greater than any physical healings. Above all is that wonderful sense of knowing that through our understanding of Christian Science we can help the whole world….1

Astor was one of the very small group of women involved in post-World War I British politics (see our profile of MP Thelma Cazalet-Keir). When her husband inherited his father’s title, he had to relinquish his seat in the House of Commons. She succeeded him, representing the Sutton Division of Plymouth, from 1919 to 1945. Women were new on the scene as voters (and elected office holders), Great Britain having just extended them the vote in 1918. Many politicians, as well as the press, did not take her seriously, viewing her only as a society lady rather than as committed to the service of her adopted country.

But some of Astor’s statements are as timely as they are historical. For example, in 1932 The Christian Science Monitor asked her this question: “Should Women Organize Apart From Men?” She answered, “Yes,” and explained:

If this were the year 2000, I think the answer to this question would be No—for, on general principles, it would seem a foolish waste of effort to have men’s societies and women’s societies for any purpose whatever. But this is not the year 2000….

 

I do not believe that men themselves realize how much sex prejudice they still have about women. Economically, women have equality in name only, and I think we can almost say that in politics too, though no one can blame the men entirely for it, since women are likewise prejudiced against their own sex, a majority of them still feeling, I believe, that they would rather have a man “do the job.”…

 

In summing up we get this paradox: That separate women’s organizations must go on existing in order to hasten the time when separate women’s organizations need not exist. I am afraid, however, that that time is still far off; and indeed I believe that women are only just at the beginning of their fight for equality. I do not think we shall get real equality for a long time yet. Some women may never get it—for they do not want it. But those who care for moral, social and spiritual progress must work and not grow weary, even if the goal is not to be won in their lifetime.2

Another example of Astor’s candor is evident in her encounter with United States Senator Joseph McCarthy, who orchestrated the “Red Scares” of the early 1950s. Astor correctly predicted his downfall, which came in 1954, when the Senate censured him. According to The New York Times:

Viscountess Astor sailed for home yesterday on the Cunard liner Queen Mary, with a parting shot for Senator Joseph R. McCarthy Wisconsin Republican ….

 

In an interview that began in her main deck cabin and continued sporadically in a corridor, an elevator and on the sports deck, the frail-appearing but vibrant Viscountess tartly declared:

 

“I didn’t want to poison Mr. McCarthy. I think he will hang himself.”….

 

The Virginia-born peeress had reference to a comment she made as Senator McCarthy sipped a drink at a party in Washington, given by Senator Robert A. Taft, Ohio Republican, and his wife, on March 25, in honor of Mrs. Eisenhower (Mamie Eisenhower, wife of US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, inaugurated in January 1953).

 

“Too bad it isn’t poison,” she was quoted as having said—a quip “that got me into a lot of trouble,” she conceded yesterday.

 

Lady Astor said that she didn’t want to advertise Senator McCarthy and added: “You give him too much publicity. The whole world is rocking while he is talking….”3

For those interested in hearing more from Nancy Astor, online newspaper archives may be the best resource for all she had to say during her many years of public service. As a sample of the treasures to be found, click here for a 1931 interview with Astor from the Monitor.4

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  1. Mrs. Nancy Langhorne Astor, “I wish to testify…,” Christian Science Sentinel, October 11, 1919, https://sentinel.christianscience.com/shared/view/2jv94q035c4?s=t.
  2. “Should Women Organize Apart From Men?,” The Christian Science Monitor, October 15, 1932.
  3. “Lady Astor Fires Parthian Volley,” The New York Times, April 16, 1953.
  4. “Lady Astor Evaluates Russia In Terms of What It Once Was,” The Christian Science Monitor, September 3, 1931.