Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ninety years ago

December 1, 1919 saw the introduction of the first woman MP to the House of Commons. Needless to say, she was a Conservative. Nancy Astor was not the first woman to be elected to the House - that had happened in 1918, when Constance Markiewicz was elected as a Sinn Féin MP for one of the Dublin constituencies but, in line with party policy, refused to take the oath and was not allowed to sit in the House of Commons. [Both Wiki links need to be read with great care as there are inaccuracies and omissions but the outline of the two stories are useful.]

That was the first election, held in December 1918, after the Representation of People Act, passed in March 1918 that widened the franchise to all men over 21 and women over 30 as long as they were "either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register". Women had been allowed the vote in various local elections since the late 1880s.

Nancy Astor's candidacy and election was not, in the first place, an achievement for feminists though, obviously, it could not have happened without years of campaigning by both suffragettes (whose contribution was often counter-productive) and the suffragists, many of whom had been Conservatives. It was all a deal put together by the local Conservative Association but something of a political risk, nevertheless.

Early in October 1919 the first Viscount Astor (by birth American but a long-time resident of Britain where the entire Astor family assimilated very quickly) died of a heart attack. This made his son, Waldorf, until then MP for Plymouth Sutton, the second Viscount and he had to resign from the Commons. The Association then had the brilliant idea of putting up his wife who had been closely involved in his political career. The assumption was that there would soon be legislation that would allow those who inherit a title to reject it through various legal methods. In fact, the Peerage Act was not passed till 1963 and Nancy Astor remained an MP till 1945.

The picture above is the proclamation of her victory. Naturally, there are no pictures of her being introduced into the House by David Lloyd George and A. J. Balfour.


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