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Parliamentary Pioneer

Britain gave the lead in the beginning by having the first woman Member of Parliament (Nancy Astor, 1879-1964) but subsequently has lagged behind. The United Kingdom is in the 39th position among 193 countries in the Inter-Parliamentary Union rankings as on 1 February 2019 in terms of women‘s representation in the national Parliament. Improving that rank would be the best way to honour the legacy bequeathed by Astor.



The comment is by Nancy Astor (1879-1964), the first woman to accept her position as a Member of the British Parliament in 1919. She was elected from Plymouth Sutton on a Conservative party ticket. She was the only woman member till 1921 in the all-male House of Commons of 706 men. She won 51 per cent of the votes, having secured more votes than the combined votes of Labour and Liberal parties’ candidates. The result was announced on 28 November and Astor took her seat on 1 December 1919. She retained her seat till 1945. She contested the by-election because her husband, Waldrof, moved to the House of Lords on account of inheriting the title of Viscount following the death of his father in 1919.

Constance Markievticz (1868-1927), an Irish Republican, was the first to be elected in 1918 but could not take her seat as she was in detention in Holloway Prison at that time and, as a member of Sinn Féin, disqualified herself by refusing to take the oath. Both Markievticz and Astor could run for elections following the passage of the Parliament Qualification Act in 1918 that gave women over 21 years to stand for elections.

Despite hailing from a wealthy aristocratic family, Astor championed compassionately the cause of women, children and the underprivileged. She realised that though women had gained the right to vote after decades of arduous struggle they have yet to achieve equality in all walks of life. In her maiden speech delivered on 24 February 1920, she advised women to use their recently acquired right to vote judiciously. She pushed for the 1928 franchise that lowered the voting age for women from 30 to 21, bringing them on par with men. She supported women’s peace organisations as she considered women to be natural pacifists. She contended that women were more suited to public life as they were morally more courageous and never easily flattered. She wanted “women to go on being mothers, wives, inspiration to men” and women “must make them (men) know we are just as necessary in their public lives as in their private lives”.

She fought for equal pay and opportunities for women, widow pension, elimination of venereal diseases, appointment of women to public board inspectorates, training for women in domestic work, legislation for women in the workplace and women’s safety. She stressed the need for healthy motherhood by providing for sufficient food, reasonable domestic comfort, no undue burden of household or industrial work, medical and nursing services and adequate treatment and care during the time of confinement with maternity benefits. She encouraged women to join the civil services, diplomatic services and the police force. She wanted more women in the House of Lords. As a staunch Christian Scientist, she opposed equal divorce rights for women, introduced in 1923 and the vigorous campaign for birth control.

Astor’s seminal contribution, more than any other elected politician in England since 1920s, was in providing nursery education particularly for the underprivileged children. She also wanted a raise in the school-leaving age. She inspired pioneers in this field, pre-eminently McMillan sisters Rachel (1859-1917) and Margaret (1860-1931), by supporting their campaigns and initiatives to develop nursery education in England.

Astor spoke of the perils of drinking, emphasising the damage it caused to women and children, as well as the economic cost to the country. She appealed for stricter restrictions on the drinking hours that had come into effect during the First World War, but did not advocate prohibition. She worked hardest on the Intoxicating Liquor Act which was passed in 1923 and which came to be referred as Lady Astor’s Bill. It restricted the sale of alcohol to those above 18 and rather than 14, and remains in place till date. She demanded the setting up of juvenile unemployment centres, prison reforms and benefits to the needy

In 1931, Astor along with George Bernard Shaw (1859- 1950) visited the Soviet Union. She did not overlook the terror and atrocities in Stalinist Russia unlike the other British public figures, the Webbs, Sidney (1859-1947) and Beatrice (1858-1943). She asked Stalin, “When are you going to stop killing people”? She supported Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement wanting to avoid any future war. But when Hitler invaded Prague she abandoned appeasement.

She was critical of Hitler’s treatment of women and was on the Nazi Black List for arrest when they invaded Britain. She was also among the Conservatives who forced Chamberlain to demit office. She remained in Parliament throughout the war years continuing with her advocacy of women’s rights.

Women’s political participation was restricted despite the increase in women’s employment from 23.6 per cent in 1914 to 46.7 per cent, (of which 40 per cent of all women workers were married women) in 1918. Their contributions to the war effort and their demonstration of abilities to do jobs that till then were regarded as men’s work was one of the predominant reasons for women to secure the right to vote. Despite that, the imagery of man as the breadwinner and women as private citizens continued to be the dominant one. Astor was not the likely candidate to break the gender barrier but her entry into Parliament, which was all-men only, was a defining one. The emergence of a public woman in Astor busted the notion of virtual representation that believed that a man could represent a woman’s interest and/or perspective. There was no denying the fact that she faced hostility and sexism from her male counterparts within her own party as well, as nearly all regarded Westminster as “a place that should remain free from feminist politics”. But she “changed British politics for the better” as pointed by Theresa May, former British Prime Minister, while unveiling Astor’s bronze statue outside her home in Plymouth Hoe on 28 November 2019.

Mrs May also observed that “her (Astor) arrival in Parliament ushered in a new era, finally giving a voice to a huge swathe of the population who for too long had been missing from our politics and our law-making. It was the culmination of many generations of campaigning, protest, suffering and struggle.” Ironically, Astor was not a product of the suffragist movement or the women’s movement though she advocated women’s rights. In fact, all women Members of Parliament till 1945, 24 in all, did not cut their teeth in the suffrage movement. Gottlieb labels Astor a “feminist by default rather than design” and observes that Astor as MP reminds us “that women too do not and should not be assumed to band together as one or to confine their interests to ‘women’s issues. Not all women who enter the political sphere are motivated by feminism and that women in politics is distinct from the story of feminist movement”. This is true of Margaret Thatcher, the first woman Prime Minister of Britain.

From 1918 till date there have been 497 women Members of Parliament and two of these became Prime Ministers. In the outgoing Parliament, women MPs represented 32 per cent of the members. Britain gave the lead in the beginning by having the first woman Member of Parliament but subsequently has lagged behind. She is in the 39th position among 193 countries in the Inter-Parliamentary Union rankings as on 1 February 2019 in terms of women’s representation in the national Parliament. Improving that rank would be the best way to honour the legacy bequeathed by Astor.