Lifetime Learning‘s UVA at Oxford Seminar (sold out) will take place at Trinity College, University of Oxford from September 14-20, 2019. Andrew O’Shaughnessy and Jeanie Grant Moore will lead an in-depth exploration of “The Old World and the New: Britain and America.” In the article below, Mr. O’Shaughnessy gives a glimpse of the unconventional Nancy Astor, who had ties to both countries with roots in Virginia. Mr. O’Shaughnessy is a professor in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia. He serves as Vice President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello.
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The American-born Nancy Astor was the first woman to sit in the British House of Commons. She is an example of the enduring ties and interrelated histories of Britain and America. At the age of 26, she moved to Britain and married Waldorf Astor. When her husband inherited a peerage and entered the House of Lords, she successfully contested his seat in the House of Commons and entered as a Conservative member for Plymouth Sutton which she represented until after the Second World War in 1945. A friend of George Bernard Shaw, she is reputed to have had several famous exchanges with Winston Churchill. On one occasion, Churchill told Lady Astor that having a woman in Parliament was like having one intrude on him in the bathroom, to which she retorted, “You’re not handsome enough to have such fears.”
Nancy had close ties to Virginia having been born at Langhorne House in Danville. After her father revived the family fortunes with the C&O Railroad Company, the family moved to Albemarle County (Charlottesville) which led to her having a lifelong affection for the University of Virginia. Her brother-in-law was also an alumnus of the University. She gave numerous gifts to the University over the course of her life. In 1937, she donated the Native American Collection from the Hotel Astor in Times Square, New York, to UVA. Also that year, the Cavalier Daily mentioned “Lady Astor and allowances for married officers.” She donated $500 for the establishment of an Institute of Public Affairs. Her biggest gifts were the squash, handball and tennis courts near the gymnasium in 1930. These courts were known in the University community as the “Lady Astor Courts.”
In 1959, this interview with Nancy Astor was shown on the BBC’s Panorama. She spoke about what it was like to be the only woman in the House of Commons.
Nancy Astor was not the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons but was the first to take a seat. Countess Markievicz was the first woman to be elected, but she was unable to take her seat because she was in Holloway Prison owing to her role in Sinn Fein and the IRA. Because of her anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism, Nancy Astor never became a symbol for the women’s movement or progressive politics.