March is Women’s History Month and I’ve been reading about the accomplishments of some amazing women from the past. The characters in the Countess of Harleigh series are more likely to make headlines in the society pages than the front page of the papers. They tend to be wealthy, part of the highest layers of the upper crust, and of course, they’re from the Victorian era, a time where a woman’s activities and interests were highly restricted. But it would be a mistake to underestimate them or write them off as rich, spoiled, social butterflies.
Many of these women volunteered their time and talent in various areas. They ran charities, raised huge amounts for hospitals, and organized groups to demand change from their politicians. One in particular made her mark in politics by serving as the first female member in the House of Commons.
Nancy Langhorne Shaw was an heiress from Virginia and a divorcee when she, her son, and her sister, Phyllis moved to London in 1905. Nancy was beautiful, witty, and glamorous and was soon accepted in the elevated social circles of the aristocracy where she met Waldorf Astor, son of Viscount Astor and also an American ex-patriate. They married six months later. Both were interested in social reform and with his wife’s encouragement, Waldorf ran for a seat in the House of Commons. He lost his first election but won a second in 1910.
While Waldorf enjoyed a promising political career, Nancy maintained her political interests too. In 1919 Waldorf’s father died, making him Viscount Astor and granting him a seat in the House of Lords.
That left a vacancy in the House of Commons and Nancy, now Viscountess Astor, decided to run for it. Her charm and wit made her a wonderful campaigner. Nancy won the election and took up her seat in December of 1919. Surrounded by mostly hostile, male MPs, Nancy had to keep her wits about her to survive. She served for 26 years, the first two of which she was the only female MP. She supported welfare reforms, equal voting rights, and other female MPs, regardless of party. She advocated for the development of nursery schools, children’s education, and worked to recruit women into the civil service and police force. Nancy Astor may have been a pampered American heiress, but she also understood the concept of public service.
“Nancy was quoted frequently. Here are a few of her notable quips.”
“I married beneath me. All women do.”
“The only thing I like about rich people is their money.”
“In passing, also, I would like to say that the first time Adam had a chance, he laid the blame on a woman.”
“We are not asking for superiority for we have always had that; all we ask is equality.”