On December 1st 1919 Lady Astor took her seat in the House of Commons having been elected three days earlier. She is sometimes erroneously described as being the first woman to be elected to the Chamber. But that accolade belongs to Constance Markievicz (née Gore-Booth), an Irish nationalist, socialist and suffragette who was elected almost a year earlier in December 1918. Markievicz, a Countess by marriage, was in Holloway prison when elected but due to the Republican tradition of abstention did not take her seat in Parliament on release. The policy which remains to this day was a result of the entirely understandable principle of refusing to swear the oath of allegiance to the monarch.
The American-born Lady Astor herself was a colourful and controversial character. Ironically for an American she was a believer in British Imperialism and held religious prejudices – dissuading the employment of Jews and Catholics at The Observer newspaper which was owned by her husband Waldorf Astor. Flirting with groups with Nazi sympathies during the 1930s, Astor possessed a great gift of wit which she used effectively to put down male hecklers both on hustings and in the Commons.
While Lady Astor is a significant person in the development of our democracy, her politics would not have appealed to me and I would not have voted for her. This reveals something about the nature of representation. To avoid tokenism it is crucial that all groups in society are properly represented and we have a choice of opinions from whatever the race, gender or background of the candidates.
Shamefully if Lady Astor is not very well known today, Constance Markievicz is virtually forgotten. It seems that for ‘official’ history there is only one thing worse than a successful woman, and that is a successful rebellious woman!