Nancy Astor, 1st female MP, fought for temperance in England
This story is part of a series written as part of Women's History Month.
Ninety-five years ago March 10, Americans read in their morning papers about a law forbidding minors from drinking in public houses in Great Britain. This was big news because the measure's sponsor was American-born Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit in Parliament, Carl M. Cannon wrote in "Churchill, Lady Astor and the Sisters Langhorne," March 10, 2015.
Lady Astor's name is now largely forgotten in America, except when she appears as the foil in stories showcasing Winston Churchill's great wit. However, those exchanges never took place, Cannon wrote. Worse, they obscure the memory of a lady who stood as a symbol to women all over the world.
Known in England as "Our Nancy," she gave hope to women in the United States during their struggle for women's rights as well as to the women of England. Never before had so many of them attended political meetings, wrote Courtney Wilson, in "Our Nancy The Story of Nancy Astor and Her Gift to The University of Virginia," from the Langhorne family archives.
Grimly opposed to England's favorite pastime of drinking, Nancy made her maiden speech to Parliament on the immorality of the brewing trade, and declared her hope that Britain would join America in Prohibition. Her horror of drunkenness was rooted in a childhood marred by the alcoholic excesses of her father, brothers, and first husband.
Nancy's story began May 19, 1879, in Danville, Va., where her family, the Langhornes, had settled after they lost everything during the Civil War. By the time she was a teenager Nancy's father, Chillie Langhorne, had made a fortune in construction, railroads and tobacco and the family moved to an estate named Mirador, in Albemarle County, Va., stated "History Press UK in "Nancy Aster: First Lady of British Politics."
Nancy was one of five sisters who became famous in America, but it was Irene who first emerged in 1890 as the last great Southern Belle. She was 17. In 1895, she married the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson Girl, into whose image Irene merged. She thus achieved celebrity comparable to movie stars or supermodels, wrote James Fox, in "Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia."
Nancy, and soon afterward, Phyllis, barely out of their teens, and both beauties, followed Irene north. Both made disastrous marriages to idle, hard-drinking northern millionaires. Nancy married Robert Gould Shaw, the nephew of Robert Gould Shaw who commanded the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Although handsome and charming, Shaw was an alcoholic and an adulterer. Nancy left him two weeks after they married, but she was convinced to return by his family. They had a son Bobbie in 1898 and Nancy tried to stick it out. She finally left Shaw and divorced him when she discovered his continued adultery.
Nancy and Phyllis retreated from this humiliation across the Atlantic to England, where Irene and Dana, on a tour, had already joined Edwardian royal circles. Nancy and Phyllis, both brilliant and fearless riders, shipped their horses from Virginia and first made their mark on English society on the hunting fields of Leicestershire. Within two years, after turning down many titled suitors, Nancy in 1906 married Waldorf Astor, whose father, William Waldorf Astor, had settled in England. Phyllis later married Bob Brand, Oxford scholar, economic expert, and intellectual. Many believed that Nancy and Waldorf truly fell in love with each other. Waldorf was known to be "a genuine and eminently sensible young man," comforting traits to a lady who had divorced an alcoholic.