This Day In History: November 28

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American-born Nancy Astor, the first woman ever to sit in the House of Commons, is elected to Parliament with a substantial majority. Lady Astor took the Unionist seat of her husband, Waldorf Astor, who was moving up to an inherited seat in the House of Lords.

Born in Danville, Virginia, in 1879, she was the daughter of a former Confederate officer who became a wealthy tobacco auctioneer. She married Robert Gould Shaw II, a Bostonian, in 1897, and they had one son before divorcing in 1903. Soon after, she visited England, where she met and fell in love with Waldorf Astor, the great-great-grandson of the American fur trader John Jacob Astor. In 1906, they married. Nancy Astor became an influential society hostess, presiding at the Astor country estate of Cliveden. The “Cliveden set,” as the Astors’ social clique became known, came to exercise considerable political influence in a number of fields, especially foreign affairs.

In 1910, Waldorf Astor was elected to the House of Commons as a conservative, and the Astors moved to his constituency of Plymouth. Nine years later, Waldorf’s father died, and he succeeded to his viscountcy and seat in the House of Lords. Nancy Astor decided to campaign for his vacant seat in the House of Commons and ran a flamboyant campaign that attracted international attention. On November 28, 1919, she won a resounding victory in the election and subsequently became the first woman ever to sit in the House of Commons. (She was not, however, the first woman to be elected to the Commons; in 1918 the Irish nationalist Constance Markiewicz was elected as an MP for a Dublin constituency but refused to go to London as a protest against the British government.)

Although regarded as a conservative, Lady Astor took an individual approach to politics, saying, “If you want a party hack, don’t elect me.” Her impassioned speeches on women’s and children’s rights, her modest black attire, and her occasional irreverence won her a significant following. Repeatedly reelected by her constituency in Plymouth, she sat in the House of Commons until her retirement in 1945.

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