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 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 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.
Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, said:
“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.”
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.”
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 in due course.
About Nancy Astor
Nancy Astor was born in Virginia, USA, in 1879 to a wealthy family and moved to England in 1904 after her first marriage failed. In 1906, she met and married politician Waldorf Astor who became the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1910. He relinquished his seat when his father died, and he inherited the title of Viscount Astor and a place in the House of Lords. Nancy Astor then stood for Plymouth Sutton in his place.
She won the election in November 1919 beating her main rival, Liberal Isaac Foot, father of 1980s Labour leader Michael Foot. The first woman to be elected to Parliament was Constance Markievicz in 1918, but as a member of Sinn Fein she did not take her seat as she refused to take the oath. Viscountess Astor was a passionate advocate for women’s causes and equal rights. She kept the seat until the 1945 election when she decided not to stand. She died in 1964.
About the painting
Artist Charles Henry Sims was commissioned by Viscount Astor to produce a large scale portrait of Nancy Astor’s introduction into the House of Commons. The painting was meant for the House of Commons to mark the momentous event of the first women taking her seat as an MP.
Viscount Astor also commissioned Sims to produce a smaller, though still large, version of the painting which was gifted to the City of Plymouth. The original version gifted to the Commons was eventually rejected and returned to Viscount Astor. It is now in corporate ownership in the USA.
Parliament is extremely grateful to The Box (Plymouth Museum, Galleries and Archives) for the loan of the painting.
About Member’s Dining Room
As well as providing catering for MPs, Member’s Dining Room hosts a large variety of functions and events each year. The paintings on display in the dining room include portraits of leading politicians including radicals John Wilkes MP and John Bright MP, and abolitionist William Wilberforce MP. There is also a portrait of Margot, Lady Asquith, the influential political hostess and wife of Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.
The painting of The Introduction of Lady Astor as the First Woman Member of Parliament in 1919 is part of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee of Works of Art ongoing initiative to increase diversity of sitters in artworks on display in Parliament, and part of their contribution to the Astor100 celebrations.