One always has to be careful answering the question ‘who was the first woman MP?’ as there are two answers. First there was Constance Markievicz, who was the first woman to be elected at the general election of 1918, but as a Sinn Fein MP who was in prison at the time, she never took her seat in the House of Commons. And secondly there was Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat.
Astor was elected for Plymouth Sutton in a by-election on 28 November 1919. Her husband, Waldorf Astor, was previously the MP there but had to give up his seat on becoming a peer. Pictured are her election address, held in the Parliamentary Archives, and a bust of her held in the Parliamentary Art collection.
In the election address she talks about how she had ‘no personal ambition to go to Parliament’, but had been encouraged by others to do so. She declares,
I intend to work for the Peace, Progress and Prosperity of the country. I shall, at the same time, have due regard to National Efficiency and Economy which women above all understand.
Parliament is full of Nancy Astor experts, right from the top – the Clerk of the Parliaments David Beamish won Mastermind in 1988 with her as a special subject. Last year I went to hear Baroness Shirley Williams deliver a most interesting lecture on Nancy Astor in the Speaker’s House.
I gave a little interview to Radio Oxford this week on Nancy Astor, you can Listen Again here but only for the next few days (I’m on at about the 37 minute mark). Among other things I talk about how she was introduced to the House of Commons by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and the former Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour. You can see a picture of this at the BBC’s Your Paintings website – Lloyd George is the short one, Balfour is the tall one – and you can see Astor’s plain black and white outfit. She generally wore sombre clothes in the Commons, in order not to stand out too much. The Museum of London has a similarly plain outfit of hers on display.
Astor was an MP until 1945, and most of that time there were few other women in the House of Commons. Despite this, there were major achievements in Parliament by female MPs and by male MPs sympathetic to women’s causes in the inter-war period, especially through the 1920s when there was a large raft of legislation passed affecting women and children’s lives and gender equality. One of Astor’s personal contributions was the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under Eighteen) Act 1923, the first piece of legislation resulting from a private members’ bill brought by a woman MP.