On 1 December 1919, Nancy Astor took her seat as the first female Member of Parliament. Charles Henry Sims painted her introduction to the House of Commons alongside her two sponsors. The Nancy Astor painting, on loan from The Box, Plymouth, is now on display in Member’s Dining Room in the Palace of Westminster to mark the centenary of Astor taking her seat.
The introduction of Lady Astor as the first woman Member of Parliament in 1919 was commissioned by Lord Astor from British painter Charles Henry Sims (1873-1928). In the painting Astor is standing between her two sponsors, then Prime Minster David Lloyd George and Lord President of the Council Arthur Balfour.
A version of the Nancy Astor painting was originally given to the Houses of Parliament in 1924 to mark the historical occasion and was designed to hang on the grand staircase leading to the Committee Rooms. It was defaced when it was first hung. The painting was covered with a dustsheet while an enquiry about its suitability took place. It was eventually removed as it is not common practice to display paintings of living politicians.
Now the painting has returned to Houses of Parliament to take pride of place in Member’s Dining Room.
Nancy Astor’s political influence
Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, Viscountess Astor (19 May 1879 – 2 May 1964), was the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat and was a passionate advocate for women’s causes and equal rights. She supported welfare reforms, equal voting rights and access to the professions for women. She stood as a Unionist candidate (now the Conservative Party) and was known as a champion for other female MPs no matter their party affiliation.
She was responsible for the first Private Member’s Bill ever passed by a woman, the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under Eighteen) Bill. The Bill passed in 1923, and the principle that anyone under the age of 18 are not allowed to buy alcohol still stands today.
Astor served as a Member of Parliament for 26 years (1919-1945) and won seven consecutive elections in that time. When she stepped down, she was replaced by another woman, Lucy Middleton MP.
A true pioneer
Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, told ArtsCulure: “Nancy Astor was a true pioneer in British politics. I’m really pleased that the Speaker’s Committee on Works of Art agreed to my request of moving her portrait in Parliament to a more prominent location. There are enough paintings of old men in wigs in Westminster and it is time we celebrated our brilliant female MPs more.
“It may seem odd a Labour MP calling for a Conservative MP to be remembered but Nancy Astor literally broke the glass ceiling as the first woman to take her seat and as the current MP for her seat in Plymouth this anniversary is bigger than party politics.”
‘Being the first is never easy’
Victoria Prentis, MP for Banbury, said: “Being the first is never easy, neither was Nancy Astor’s time in Parliament. She paved the way for women in politics by standing firm when she was contradicted and worse. She dealt with the backlash of doing something out of the ordinary. She inspires me and I hope she will inspire many women to fight for what they believe in.”
A place in history
Nicola Moyle, head of Heritage, Art and Film for The Box, Plymouth said: “When Nancy Astor arrived at the House of Commons on 1 December 1919 she not only secured her place in Parliamentary history, she secured Plymouth’s too. As we approach the centenary of her becoming the first female MP to take her seat we’re really pleased that such an iconic artwork from our collections has been placed in a location where it can be seen by all of today’s MPs.”
A series of events linked to the centenary of Nancy Astor taking her seat in Parliament are currently being planned for Plymouth and full details will be announced.