While Nancy Astor's 1919 victory at the polls—making her the first female member of British Parliament—figures prominently in narratives of women's political progress in Britain, the taunt thrown at her while she was campaigning at the Barbican earlier that year, “It's your face that is carrying you through!” figures nowhere in discussions of women's entry into formal political life there. Astor's rejoinder, “No, it's the heart behind it,” points to a tension in her candidacy and subsequent political career that is characteristic of modern celebrity: between the superficial and the genuine, the artificial and the authentic. This text describes how a “film star” and “a personality,” rarely seen by contemporaries as a politician in any masculine sense, successfully publicized the democratic elements of her persona in order to make privilege more palatable in the age of universal suffrage.

December 1, 1919, was a momentous day in the lower house of the British Parliament, for that was when its first female member, Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, took her seat as Coalition Unionist member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth. Astor's introduction to the House of Commons followed weeks of press speculation on questions of national significance: If she were elected, what would she wear? Would she wear a hat? If so, would she remove it as required of male members? And would she bow or curtsy as she approached the Bar?1 These and many other pressing issues would be addressed in the ink spilt in the British and American press describing Astor's introduction into the House. Much copy was expended on descriptions of her “neat black tailor-made costume and white silk blouse, with the collar turned outside,” and her “crown-shaped toque of black velvet,” described by the correspondent for the Manchester Guardian as “quite Portia-like.”2 

Her introduction itself was analyzed in great detail. Much was made of the fact that she was introduced to the House by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, head of the Coalition and formerly Liberal prime minister, and the former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. It was lost on no one that “the first woman in the Mother of Parliaments” was noticeably calmer than either of the men introducing her. “The rule,” noted the Times, “is to bow to the Speaker at the bar, again half-way up the floor, and a third time at the table. Mr. Lloyd George nearly forgot the bow at the bar, and of the three Lady Astor seemed the most self-possessed.”3 From today's vantage point, every press account of Astor's introduction describes Lloyd George and Balfour in highly sexualized language. Either they had “all the ingenuous shyness of boys at their first dance,” or they had the self-consciousness of the male of the species walking down another aisle altogether, as in the Daily Express's extended metaphor of the “disheveled” and “confused” bridegroom(s) facing the composed bride.4 The Saturday Review carried the implications of this sexually charged language further, characterizing Astor's “entrance to the House of Commons [as] an undignified affair [where] the men swarmed round her like flies round an appetizing morsel.”5 The satirical magazine Punch characterized Astor's triumph as a Cinderella story, with Lloyd George and Balfour cast as her fairy godmothers (figure 1).


“Cinderella and Her Fairy Godmothers,” Punch, December 10, 1919. Courtesy Punch Ltd.


“Cinderella and Her Fairy Godmothers,” Punch, December 10, 1919. Courtesy Punch Ltd.

These press accounts of Nancy Astor's introduction into the House of Commons underwrite the primary historiographical emphasis given to her political career: Astor is important, we are told, because she was the First Woman to Take Her Seat in Parliament. The historian Brian Harrison sees her as one of the interwar period's “prudent revolutionaries” whose “career draws together both halves of the fractured Edwardian feminist legacy,” as she worked with former militants and nonmilitants alike on a range of issues during her two and a half decades in office.6 Harrison's is the most compelling analysis of Astor's accomplishment, but it, along with many others, emphasizes the significance of her as a “first,” a woman worthy, placing her in a trajectory of liberal reform leading from the Married Women's Property Acts of the nineteenth century to the enfranchisement of women in the twentieth.

That particular woman worthy, however, already had a media presence in both the United States and Britain when she ran for Parliament in 1919. Astor was known widely as a society figure and as one of a number of American women who had married into the English aristocracy in the late Victorian and Edwardian years.7 Unlike many of the American heiresses on the British marriage market in that period, however, she did not bring great wealth to her marriage to Waldorf Astor, eldest son of the real estate magnate and financier William Waldorf Astor. William Waldorf Astor had courted controversy in Britain and America in the 1890s when, disappointed after a failed attempt to gain a congressional seat for the state of New York, he left the United States for England, becoming a naturalized British citizen in 1899. There he pursued the political respect he believed his due. He actively sought honors from the British Crown, successfully attaining those during World War I as a consequence of his largesse to the war effort as well as his financial support of innumerable institutions of British life over the previous quarter century.8 He was granted a barony in January 1916; the following year he was promoted to the rank of viscount, making his title hereditary.9 Meanwhile, his son Waldorf (also a naturalized British citizen) entered British politics in earnest when he was elected as Conservative Member of Parliament for Plymouth in the General Election of December 1910. Waldorf's politics combined his class interests with a genuine enthusiasm for social reform. He joined the Unionist Social Reform Committee in 1911 and voted with the Liberal Government on Lloyd George's Health and Unemployment Insurance Bill that same year.10 

Nancy Astor brought a similar desire for unity between oppositions to her life as a society hostess. From their marriage in 1906, Nancy and Waldorf graced the society pages largely on account of the entertaining she did at Cliveden, the Astor country estate in Buckinghamshire given to the couple by William Waldorf Astor upon their marriage.11 Astor's most recent biographer, Adrian Fort, has noted that marrying Waldorf vaulted Nancy into a realm where social networking had political implications.12 At Cliveden she saw herself as creating a place where Britons and Americans could meet socially, thereby improving Anglo-American relations.13 When Waldorf was selected as the Conservative candidate for Plymouth in 1908, the couple purchased a large house at 3 Elliot Terrace, which they used as a base for campaigning in the constituency.14 They expanded their entertaining to London in 1911 when they purchased a house at 4 St. James’ Square, between Piccadilly and Pall Mall, an area known as “clubland” due to its dense population of gentlemen's clubs, perhaps the most important informal institutions of elite masculine political power in the capital.15 

In addition to her fame as a hostess, Nancy Astor also figured in the public imagination of the first decade of the twentieth century on account of her beauty. It was widely reported that she and her sister, Irene Langhorne, had served as models for the Gibson Girl, Dana Gibson's idealized beauty of the 1890s (Irene was in fact married to Gibson).16 John Singer Sargent's portrait of Astor was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1909, and numerous reproductions of it appeared in the press following (figure 2). Newspaper accounts of her in these years focused on her unflinching support of her husband's political career while indulging in what we might call “society coverage” of her appearance. One such account, printed in the Western Independent Devon Post following a reception held in honor of Waldorf's success at the polls, described her as “exceedingly attractive, fair, with a figure of the ‘petite’ order, and … most tastefully gowned in a frock of black crepe de chine, with a tiny transparent yoke of white lace at the neck. Her cloak was of turquoise blue cloth, a color repeated in the long ostrich feather in her hat … and she had a stole of exquisite sables and a necklace of beautiful pearls.”17 


John Singer Sargent, Nancy, Viscountess Astor, 1908–9. Courtesy the Athenaeum, public domain.


John Singer Sargent, Nancy, Viscountess Astor, 1908–9. Courtesy the Athenaeum, public domain.

Throughout Waldorf Astor's tenure in Parliament, Nancy worked tirelessly on behalf of his constituency. She canvassed for him, visiting as many as thirty thousand houses over the years he sat in and ran for office, and sometimes spoke publicly on his behalf.18 Christopher Sykes, Astor's first biographer, has noted that unlike many members of Parliament in the early twentieth century, Waldorf Astor resolved to work not just for, but also in, the constituency he represented.19 To a large extent that involvement resembled an earlier form of aristocratic political engagement—noblesse oblige—as the Astors privately endowed day nurseries, children's homes, and a boys’ and girls’ club in Plymouth.20 During World War I they converted the covered tennis court and bowling alley at Cliveden to a hospital for use by the Canadian army, and the ballroom in their house at 4 St. James’ Square, London, served as a dormitory for an estimated five thousand American servicemen.21 

In October 1919, William Waldorf Astor died. Waldorf inherited his father's title and found himself an unenthusiastic member of the upper house. He went so far as to fight his accession, persuading Labour member J. H. Thomas to introduce legislation in the House of Commons in November 1919 allowing a peer to give up his title, to no avail.22 Nancy Astor's candidacy in 1919, then, was initially conceived as a way of holding onto the seat while her husband fought his promotion. She spoke frankly of this on the stump, asserting at a Unionist meeting in early November that she “did not come as a warming-pan although she hoped by the next General Election he would once more be free to enter the House of Commons. Some people found it hard to get titles. Lord Astor was finding it even harder to get rid of his.”23 This may account partially for the tone the papers took toward her in 1919. Described as the “beautiful wife of Lord Astor,” the Tatler noted that “being very popular in Plymouth [she stands] more than a sporting chance at the polls.”24 She had to fight to be taken seriously, as suggested by Waldorf Astor's plea at a public meeting in early November: “His Lordship would be glad if more prominence could be given to those portions of his wife's political utterance in which her principles are set forth and a little less devoted to those which are, on the whole, more lively and diverting but perhaps less informing.”25 

Arguably, however, it was Astor's style of campaigning that garnered her press attention. Her “running fire of chaff and banter” with crowds spawned what became known as “Astorisms,” defined by the Edinburgh Weekly Dispatch as her “habit of saying novel and epigrammatic things that are highly stimulating in these days of solemn electioneering.”26 Placed in the context of early-twentieth-century British elections, the heckling Astor received at constituency talks was unexceptional.27 What was extraordinary was the virtuosity with which she responded to the hecklers present at her every public event. Rhetorician Karen Musolf has argued that hecklers gave Astor the opportunity to perform a “tour de force of rhetorical invention”; she goes on to list and elaborate upon the forms that invention took, including “norm development, evasion, positive identification, entrapment, repartee, persona transformation, refutation, insults, disassociation, silencing, bravado, admonishment, and resolution.”28 And indeed, the provincial and national press rushed to print accounts of her engagements with audiences once she entered the race in November 1919. The press coverage was most extensive when she demonstrated the ability to think on her feet, even if her response to the heckling was itself a form of abuse. One example has become legendary, recounted here by historian A. L. Rowse: “A countryman in her constituency thought to floor her with ‘Missus, How many toes have a pig got?’ I'm sure Nancy wouldn't know, but what he got was: ‘Take off your boot, man, and count them for yourself.’”29 Not long after her election to Parliament, the American Literary Digest described Astor as “undoubtedly a bright, beautiful, brilliant, and vivacious, virile, virtuous woman, who can hold her own in any fish-market.”30 

Examination of the voluminous press clippings held in the Astor archive, alongside analysis of press coverage of the same events in national papers such as the Manchester Guardian, the Times, and the Daily Telegraph, and American papers such as the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times, reveals the unusual extent to which this campaign was covered by the national, even international, press. This remarkable level of attention was noteworthy since Nancy Astor stood in 1919 as a Coalition candidate for a by-election in Plymouth for a seat held by her husband since 1910. This was, in short, a quintessentially local election, not a national one with international ramifications. Contemporaries were struck by the press attention her candidacy and subsequent actions in Parliament received. The Boston Herald asked its readers in early November if “Lady Astor's campaign for that seat in the House of Commons [was] being reported as fully in the English papers as it is in the papers over here?”31 None of the seventeen women who had run for Parliament in 1918, the first general election in which women were allowed to vote, received anything like the press attention Astor received just a year later. This was due to a number of factors, including the entertaining copy her meetings provided, but it was also fueled by her already-established profile as a member of Britain's ruling elite. When she stood for Parliament in 1919, the American news digest Current Opinion noted that Astor had been a staple of English society papers for years, and her “peculiarity and charm reside chiefly in her manner of knowing everybody and being known by everybody.”32 

Astor's interest for the public, then, lay not primarily in her sex but in the multifaceted persona she had developed in Anglo-American print culture since her marriage in 1906.33 That persona would reach further audiences following her election via newsreels and, eventually, radio broadcasts, but it had been shaped originally in a transatlantic print culture that increasingly conflated news with entertainment. An American, an aristocrat, a woman, and a society figure whose repartee was “sassy,” Astor—and her first decade in Parliament—demonstrates precisely how the culture of celebrity was shaping the interaction between political actors and their audiences, and the unease with which that was being met. Astor's significance to British politics lies not merely in her having been the first woman to sit in Parliament, but instead in the convergence of that “first” with a number of other significant changes in British politics following World War I. Because she was a “film star” and “a personality,” rarely a politician in any traditionally masculine sense, Astor in her 1919 campaign allows us to see how the seeming democratization of British politics at that time in fact put an entertaining face on traditional class and racial hierarchies. The expansion of the electorate following the Reform Act of 1918 meant that politicians in the interwar years needed to appeal to a broader constituency than ever before; in this respect, Astor successfully publicized the democratic elements of her persona in order to make her privilege more palatable.34 This plainspoken, pretty American who could hold her own on the stump proudly claimed as her heritage an established Anglo-Saxon family whose race, wealth, and connections entitled her to rule.35 

Astor's origins in the United States arose repeatedly in press coverage of the campaign. Her American upbringing was seen by many as introducing novel elements into the contest, namely plainspokenness: “Lady Astor, who has all the vivacity and charm that one expects in an American lady, does not profess to be a politician; she is bent rather on ‘telling the truth,’ and on ‘getting things done.’”36 Astor herself made much of her American identity, but linked it to her family's origins in England. In one well-reported incident, she commented on the large numbers of hecklers she faced: “‘They are trying to break my spirit,’ she added, ‘but they won't do it. I come from Virginia, and I am full of good old English fighting stock’ (cheers).”37 The Chicago Post quoted her from the stump: “With my Virginia birth and my Devonshire residence I am just the woman to be first in parliament. I'll bring to the task all the spirit of the Pilgrim fathers!”38 A variation on this theme was quoted in the Daily Telegraph a few days later, when she quieted a heckler with her claim, “I am of Virginia blood and come of good old Anglo-Saxon fighting stock.”39 For Astor, the Anglo-Saxon connection had clear racial implications that spoke to her qualifications to govern. The Chicago Post captured the full implications of Astor's racialized understanding of her national identification when it quoted her as saying, “What mattered it if she was an American, she was an English-speaking woman, strained full and rich in English blood, and though not nationally, yet by the laws of race she was of the English family.”40 

An integral part of her “Americanness”—from the British perspective—was her facility with publicity.41 Much of the language used in the British press to describe her borrowed heavily from that of contemporary celebrity, with its emphasis on “personality” rather than character.42 For many, the suspicion was that her candidature was a publicity “stunt,” and that crowds were attracted to her events for the entertainment they offered, as she “scores very freely over her interrupters, though not, as a rule, by answering the points which they raise.”43 At stake here were fundamental issues of substance versus image, authentic versus inauthentic.44 Astor fought this opposition when articulated by her opponents, as in a meeting at the quayside early in her campaign. When a voice from the crowd called out: “It's your face that is carrying you through!” Astor replied, “No, it's the heart behind it.”45 

Astor's campaign of 1919 suggests how the culture of celebrity—specifically that of the American film star—was shaping how the press approached the advent of women in politics.46 It also revealed an emerging sense of media savvy on the part of Astor's staff. Led by her husband, Waldorf, that staff understood that she was best when beleaguered, as she loved the give-and-take of repartee with crowds. In the early days of her candidacy, however, her staff was uncertain about how to handle the press's focus on her image, particularly the recurring references to her as an American film star. This ambivalence is seen in her reaction to the numerous requests for photographs of the candidate (figure 3). Her initial response, reported in a number of press accounts, was to accede while scolding them that “she was not a kinema actress, and suggested they should go back to London and leave her alone.”47 Other accounts of the same event went on to report that her initial unwillingness was followed by a snappy comment: “Well! How do you want me to stand this time?”48 


Filming Lady Astor, 1926. Courtesy Fox Photos / Hulton Archives / Getty Images.


Filming Lady Astor, 1926. Courtesy Fox Photos / Hulton Archives / Getty Images.

The dominant concern articulated about Astor's candidacy became apparent once results from the November 15, 1919, election were reported on November 28. Astor had won by a majority of 5,203.49 Concern over the implications of these returns, and of this American aristocratic female celebrity taking a seat in the Mother of All Parliaments, reached a crescendo. By and large, initial critiques were couched in the language of celebrity, specifically of film. Her supporters were cast as “ignorant and superficial people” snared by her “vivacity, good looks and repartee.”50 The Bystander observed that some suffragists “roundly declare that Lady Astor was only elected because she appealed to emotions which are usually satisfied by American films,” a slur so obvious to the columnist that the emotions thus satisfied remained unnamed.51 A number of papers speculated that interest in her introduction into the House of Commons would rival that paid to the return of the Prince of Wales from his successful North American tour. The prediction was that “her next step up the ladder of fame is that she will be ‘screened’ in nearly all the London picture houses.”52 In early 1920, her “waxen bust” was labeled “a historical celebrity” in Madame Tussaud's Museum in London, alongside historical, literary, and criminal figures of the period.53 

By 1921 the New York Sunday Times observed of that bust that “the Viscountess Astor, formerly Nancy Langhorne of Virginia, has now achieved a permanent place in the ranks of the famous.”54 One anecdote, recounted in the British press after Astor had made her first speech in Parliament, summarizes contemporary concern with her place in the House of Commons. The story goes:

The teacher had read Lady Astor's maiden speech, and decided to test her scholars’ knowledge of the Lady M.P. “Now, boys,” she said, “you all read the papers that your father brings home. Who is that lady, with M.P. to her name, that all the papers talk about?” There was silence for a moment, and then Tommy Green's face beamed and his hand shot up. “Please teacher, I know,” he said. “It's Mary Pickford.”55 

Clearly at issue was a conflation of the feminine with the frivolous—and potentially the vulgar—for in 1919, cinemagoing in Britain was largely a working-class pastime, and consequently considered a lower cultural form.56 The great majority of films viewed in Britain were American in origin, adding a fear of economic competition to concern over the introduction of an American emphasis on consumer values. An intriguing contradiction emerges, then, in the language around Nancy's Astor's candidacy: alternately she could be depicted as “Lady Bountiful,” condescending to the working classes, or she could be submitted as proof that the expansion of the franchise to include women risked debasing the value of the vote. But the larger concern here was that admitting women into politics risked making politics entertaining rather than edifying. Suffragists had battled the notion that women's sexual difference constrained their abilities to think rationally and govern responsibly, and that argument certainly appeared in the press following Astor's election.57 

But far more prevalent in the interwar period was concern that allowing women to serve in Parliament—and, indeed, the expansion of suffrage more generally—would reduce politics to spectacle. This concern is articulated clearly in a piece published by Jeanette Eaton in the North American Review in 1929, “Nancy Astor: Myth and Woman,” billed as “An intimate friend's word picture of the Viscountess.” It is worth quoting at length:

I always came away from a political meeting at which she had appeared feeling enormously proud of her. She had the gift of speaking in head-lines. She was dashingly informal. Always more than equal to the hecklers, always dominating her audience, she delighted her hearers by her own obvious enjoyment, her readiness and—one must always add—by “that damned charm.” True, one received little enough information about the issues at stake. And next day Nancy's speech in cold print revealed in brutal fashion that she had neither the brilliance for wit nor the pungent penetration for true humor. Nevertheless, with her great mimetic gift, her gaiety, her casualness, Lady Astor gives her audience an awfully good time.58 

Notably absent from this description is the Victorian sense of politics as “that noble science”; instead it suggests that politics had become a spectacle in which candidates competed for the attention of entertainment-seeking crowds.59 

Ray Strachey, biographer of the suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Nancy Astor's political secretary throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, explicitly invoked the image of the spectacle of the circus in an unpublished piece she wrote about the 1919 campaign:

I was down working for her at the time, and I remember very well the look on their faces: how they'd crowd round her car, and swarm into the halls when she was to speak, looking always as if they expected some fun: as if they were going to the circus. And she didn't disappoint them. She gave them plenty of jokes, and plenty to laugh at. The way she answered questions was a real joy, and the less she knew what the official answer ought to be[,] the better repartee she invented.60 

Astor herself refuted the notion that her candidacy contributed to the degradation of politics to spectacle, and especially refused the analogy with the circus and its implication that she, then, was the clown.61 Intentionally humorous and pugnacious, Astor cast herself as a champion of women and children, acting on behalf of those who could not act for themselves, a point she made in the opening speech of her campaign.62 

Astor's success at the polls, and her prominence in print culture, were linked inextricably to her class position. Contemporaries’—and historians’—focus on the disruptions of sex and nationality have obscured the very real continuity Astor's election portended: the historic role of the aristocracy in governing the nation. This may be accounted for partially by the long-standing historical consensus that the British aristocracy was a spent force by the interwar period, a consensus that has been challenged recently by a number of historians.63 On the day of her introduction to the House of Commons, the Manchester Guardian editorialized that “in a country where social position counts for so much, it is just as well that the first woman member should be referred to as ‘the honorable Viscountess,’ and should the forms of Parliament perplex her she has the signal advantage of having in another place within call a husband who understands the procedure of the Commons.”64 This comment both acknowledged the continuing importance of the aristocracy in governance and alluded to the long tradition of upper-middle-class and aristocratic women's political involvement through their family connections. It also suggests that British political culture of the interwar years retained more of its traditional locus in aristocratic power than a narrative championing the irresistible march toward democracy would suggest.

And in fact, Nancy Astor MP emerged from a long tradition of the exercise of aristocratic female political power.65 Even before they could vote in local or national elections, aristocratic (and some upper-middle-class) women exercised political power within a realm Kathryn Gleadle has called “the parochial.” In this arena, she argues, British women could “accrue considerable authority as individual agents through philanthropy, economic status, local print culture, family connections, and their own political efforts,” which meant, she argues further, that in the nineteenth century “social status and educational privilege were … often more important than gender in structuring the contours of female opportunity.”66 Women's acquisition of formal political power via the parliamentary franchise in the early twentieth century did not radically transform this dynamic. Hanneke Hoekstra, the first historian to analyze in any depth the significance of Nancy Astor's class to her political success, has recently argued that Astor's election in 1919, and her subsequent reelection over the following two decades, “highlights the persistence of a gendered aristocratic culture of power, through its main vehicle, the Conservative Party, in the transition to democracy.” Astor, she notes, maintained her role as aristocratic political hostess while serving as a member of Parliament.67 Indeed, some contemporaries predicted that her influence as a political hostess would outstrip that of her parliamentary career.68 And, as the Manchester Guardian editorial quoted above indicates, Astor's relationship to politics was understood by many to be mediated through her relationship to her husband.69 This issue became more pointed in 1921 when another woman, Margaret Wintringham, elected to her husband's seat in Louth, Lincolnshire, upon his death, joined Astor in Parliament.70 P. W. Wilson offered an American critique of this practice in the New York Times the following year, when he asserted, “It almost looks as if England were adopting a new hereditary principle, whereby politics ascends, from the husband to his wife or widow. This doubtless is one of the more occult advantages of the unwritten Constitution.”71 

Astor's class had further resonances in interwar political culture. As Bill Schwarz has argued, interwar Conservatism's “very particular idea of mass democracy—‘English Constitutionalism’—came to define the domain of the political.”72 The class to which Astor belonged, the aristocracy, like the monarchy, was cast as representing the timeless values upon which the nation was constituted. Astor's rhetoric on the stump consistently represented her class as encompassing the nation, as in a November 1919 speech where she asserted: “It was going to take all classes and parties. She wanted to see people who talked about brotherhood and Christianity practice it and snobs, humbugs, and hypocrites wiped out…. Had they ever noticed that snobbishness was not entirely confined to dukes?”73 Members of her party took pains to frame her candidacy in terms of her class's service to the nation, as F. G. Kellaway, MP, parliamentary secretary and deputy minister of munitions, did in November 1919: “The Labour candidate stands for a class, the Liberal candidate for a party, and Lady Astor stands for the nation’ (cheers).”74 The irony here, of course, is that the Conservative Party in the nineteenth century had argued that landowners’ qualification to rule arose from their (class) interests; in the early twentieth century, that same party argued that class interests made the Labour Party unqualified to rule. Property and privilege thus served the nation; class threatened to tear it apart.

At the same time that Astor's class represented the nation, her celebrity emerged from her class, indicating the new ways that the aristocracy had to be refashioned in order to stay politically relevant and powerful. In the British mainstream press, and to a large extent the American press as well, her class was consistently folded into her celebrity, so that her aristocratic identity was glamorous in the way that a Hollywood film star was glamorous—not anti-democratic, but intriguing and somewhat mysterious. Like many aristocratic women before World War I, Astor was newsworthy in terms of her entertaining and her role as a political hostess; she became even more newsworthy as a member of Parliament. The press's treatment of her, however, should be seen as part of a larger phenomenon of the fin de siècle wherein the British aristocracy assumed new significance in print culture, both in the United States and in Britain. A little-noted feature of the well-documented demise of the British aristocracy's political and economic power starting in the 1870s was its growing dominance within print culture. As print culture grew exponentially, aristocrats came to occupy a privileged place within it, becoming celebrity commodities marketed in mass-market magazines and newspapers, and in popular fiction. In short, the explosion of newsprint in the late nineteenth century and the rapid expansion of print culture created new opportunities for aristocrats even as their traditional bases of power—property, position, and privilege—eroded. Aristocrats had always dominated British political life; in the 1880s and 1890s, as their economic and political power was challenged, they emerged as celebrity commodities, maintaining political authority through evolving media-nourished forms of cultural capital.

These aristocratic commodities became available as opportunities for their consumers to make meanings of their own. A number of scholars have argued that consumers of celebrity culture actively appropriated its texts for their own purposes.75 This may partially explain the production of a text by an American woman, Ruby Vaughan Bigger, published in 1924 in Macon, Georgia, and reprinted in 1925 and 1926. It is surpassingly strange, yet provides from an American perspective a surprising affirmation of the continuing necessity of aristocratic governance, through an idiom more frequently used in the States, the racial. My Miss Nancy, subtitled Nancy Astor's Virginia ‘Mammy’ tells why ‘her littl’ mistis ain't neber gwine lose her 'sition ober dar in Inglan’, made the case for Nancy Astor's continuing relevance to the British Parliament on the grounds of her family's long history of slave owning.76 

The author, Ruby Vaughan Bigger, belonged to Richmond, Virginia, society; she had been a Richmond debutante in 1921, and featured on the Richmond social register throughout the 1920s.77 The book itself is curious: published in paperback (a relatively rare practice in the 1920s) housed in a small box, and described in some reviews as wrapped in a bandanna. It is, in the words of the literary critic Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, a racist fantasy.78 The 1924 edition has, as its frontispiece, a reproduction of a typed letter signed from Nancy Astor to the author, attesting: “I loved reading your little story and appreciate it very highly. It made me weep copiously, especially the part about my dear Aunt Veenie. It is charming! You know perfectly well I am just like hundreds of other women in Virginia. Believe me, Ever yours, Nancy Astor.” The 1926 edition lacks Astor's endorsement, but includes a glossary, and an explanation of the word “mammy.”

The book purports to be an account of an interview with Lady Astor's “Mammy,” her Aunt Veenie, who provides—in the most caricatured Negro dialect—a narrative of her long and happy relationship with Nancy Astor and the Langhorne family. Mammy Veenie is proud to have belonged to the Langhorne family, at one point reminding her grandchildren, gathered around her to hear their favorite stories about Nannie (which they'd chosen over that of the Tar Baby or Br'er Rabbit), that they should always remember that their Mammy belonged to the Langhornes, and they too belonged to the Langhornes, “an’ yawl's home whar yawl's raise is Albermarle, whar nobody lib 'cep'n 'ristocrats laik us, you heah?”79 

What follows is a text making the case that the basis of Nancy Astor's legitimacy as a political actor in the British Parliament is her class—and her whiteness. Into Aunt Veenie's mouth is placed a justification for slavery—God made masters and slaves, and used race to distinguish one from the other—and a belief that having been owned by the Langhorne family conferred a special status upon her descendants. The text makes the case that Nancy Astor was fit to rule in Britain because she came from a family fit to govern slaves in the United States.

Lady Astor's political celebrity in the Anglo-American context suggests that the passage of universal suffrage in the British case had contradictory effects. Her election in 1919 marked the moment when women could be, and were, endorsed by the voting public as representatives of communities. But it also suggests that as many hierarchies were sustained as were challenged by the inclusion of this particular woman (and, later, others). Bigger's text presented Astor's fitness to govern the working classes in Britain as analogous to her family's fitness to own slaves in the United States, and that in both cases Astor's fitness for governing derived from her aristocratic background.

The meaning of that aristocratic background, however, was in the process of being reformulated. In the wake of universal suffrage, the conflation of nobility and celebrity allowed historically dominant groups to redefine themselves, incorporating traditional ideas about the governing class's fitness to govern into a changing and expanding understanding of the political nation. The inclusion of women and other previously un-enfranchised groups into that nation should not obscure the extent to which traditional hierarchies remained intact.


This article has benefited from conversations with many people in a number of venues, including the North American Conference on British Studies; “After Suffrage” at Sheffield University; the history department colloquium at Stanford University; and “Transnational, Imperial and Post-Imperial Histories: Metropolitan Britain in Context” at the University of North Carolina / National Humanities Center. It has also benefited from the editorial assistance of Hilary A. Hallett and an anonymous reader for the journal. Figure 1 appears courtesy of Punch Ltd., and figure 3 courtesy Fox Photos / Hulton Archives / Getty Images.
“Procedure and Etiquette,” Times, November 29, 1919. See also “Hats On, Ladies!,” Liverpool Courier, December 2, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/34; and “Will Lady Astor Keep Her Hat on in Parliament?,” Boston Post, November 9, 1919, in Nancy Astor Papers, University of Reading (hereafter NAP), MS 1416/1/7/34.
[turned outside]: Daily Telegraph, December 2, 1919, 11; [Portia-like]: “Our London Correspondence,” Manchester Guardian, December 2, 1919, 8.
“Lady Astor in the Commons,” Times, December 2, 1919, 14.
[first dance]: The Graphic, December 6, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/34; [composed bride]: Daily Express, December 2, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/33.
Saturday Review, December 6, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/34.
Brian Harrison, Prudent Revolutionaries: Portraits of British Feminists between the Wars (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 73.
See Maureen Montgomery, “Gilded Prostitution”: Status, Money, and Transatlantic Marriages, 1870–1914 (London: Routledge, 1989), and Richard W. Davis, “‘We Are All Americans Now!’: Anglo-American Marriages in the Later Nineteenth Century,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 135, no. 2 (1991): 140–99.
Harvey O'Connor documents William Waldorf Astor's largesse to the nation, both before and during World War I, in The Astors (New York: Knopf, 1941), 382.
Lucy Kavaler, The Astors: A Family Chronicle of Pomp and Power (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966), 198.
David Sinclair, Dynasty: The Astors and Their Times (London: J. M. Dent, 1983), 292–93.
For example the “Court Circular” in the Times, July 20, 1909, 13, describes a garden party she hosted.
Adrian Fort, Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2012), 87–88.
Karen Musolf, From Plymouth to Parliament: A Rhetorical History of Nancy Astor's 1919 Campaign (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), 9.
Fort, Nancy, 116.
On the move to London, see Fort, Nancy, 127–28. On the location of the London residence, see Amy Milne-Smith, London Clubland: A Cultural History of Gender and Class in Late Victorian Britain (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
Western Morning News, May 15, 1909, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/18. See also the Tatler, November 1919, NAP, MS1416/1/7/31.
Western Independent Devon Post, November 8, 1908, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/18.
Fort, Nancy, 118.
Christopher Sykes, Nancy: The Life of Lady Astor (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 123.
Fort, Nancy, 118. See also “Mr. Fisher on Play Centres,” Times, May 7, 1917, which describes the Astors’ donation of a playing field to the Plymouth Education Authority.
Sykes, Nancy, 175, 206.
Musolf, From Plymouth to Parliament, 136–37; Sykes, Nancy, 227–28.
“The Plymouth Vacancy,” Times, November 4, 1919.
“Lady Astor—M.P. (?),” Tatler, November 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31.
“Final Week at Plymouth Campaign, Illustrated Western Weekly News, November 8, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31.
[chaff and banter]: Western Morning News, November 8, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31; [solemn electioneering]: “Lady Astor's Candidature,” Edinburgh Weekly Dispatch, November 8, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31.
Jon Lawrence, “Contesting the Male Polity: the Suffragettes and the Politics of Disruption in Edwardian Britain,” in Women, Privilege and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present, ed. Amanda Vickery (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 201–26.
Musolf, From Plymouth to Parliament, 92.
A. L. Rowse, “Nancy Astor,” in Memories of Men and Women: American and British (London: Eyre Methuen, 1980), 29.
“Personal Glimpses: Lady Astor, from Virginia, First Woman M.P.,” Literary Digest, December 13, 1919, 54.
Boston Herald, November 8, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/2.
Quoted in Musolf, From Plymouth to Parliament, 104, 109.
I emphasize print culture here because in the British context, radio, film, and newspapers did not constitute mass media in any integrated sense until the 1930s. News circulated largely through print: newspapers, magazines, and to a lesser extent books. Ann Ardis and Patrick Collier, ed., Transatlantic Print Culture, 1880–1940: Emerging Media, Emerging Modernisms (Houndmills, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). See also Jon Lawrence, “War, Women, and the ‘Silent Majority,’” in his Electing Our Masters: The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 96–129.
A classic articulation of an interwar attempt to address this wider electorate is David Jarvis, “Mrs. Maggs and Betty: The Conservative Appeal to Women Voters in the 1920s,” Twentieth Century British History 5, no. 2 (1994): 129–52.
My thanks to Hilary A. Hallett and an anonymous reviewer for the journal for helping me refine this point.
“Lady Astor's Candidature,” Edinburgh Weekly Dispatch, November 8, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31.
Western Daily Mercury, November 11, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31.
Chicago Post, November 6, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/1.
Daily Telegraph, November 12, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31.
Chicago Post, November 29, 1919; NAP, MS 1416/1/7/1.
See Laura E. Nym Mayhall, “The Prince of Wales versus Clark Gable: Anglophone Celebrity and Citizenship between the Wars,” Cultural and Social History 4, no. 4 (2007): 529–43.
For example, “Lady Astor's Wit. A Piquant Personality,” Liverpool and Express, November 28, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/33; “Lady Astor Jokes with Fishermen,” New York Times, November 4, 1919.
[publicity “stunt”]: “Pleasantries of Nomination Day,” Liverpool Courier, November 8, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31; [points which they raise]: Manchester Guardian, November 11, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31.
Chris Rojek argues that “celebrity status always implies a split between a private self and a public self,” in Celebrity (London: Reaktion, 2001), 11.
Sunday Pictorial, November 9, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31.
Laura Beers sees this shaping the press coverage of Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson in the 1920s; see her “A Model MP? Ellen Wilkinson, Gender, Politics and Celebrity Culture in Interwar Britain,” Cultural and Social History 10, no. 2 (2013): 232.
Western Morning News, November 8, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31.
Emphasis mine. Liverpool Courier, November 8, 1919; repeated verbatim in Northampton Telegraph, November 11, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31.
“First Woman M.P.,” Times, November 29, 1919, 13.
“Stunt Candidates,” Yorkshire Herald, November 29, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/33.
Bystander, December 10, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/33.
“London Letter,” Western Daily Mercury, December 2, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/33.
“Lady Astor Is Now British Celebrity,” New York Tribune, January 9, 1920, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/36. The historian Pamela Pilbeam argues that the waxwork displays pioneered by Madame Tussaud's “played a major role in the emergence of popular entertainment and the cult of celebrity,” in Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).
Caption under photograph of Madame Tussaud's figure of Nancy Astor, in the New York Sunday Times, March 1, 1921, NAP, MS 1416/1/7.
Unattributed newspaper clipping, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/37.
Peter Miles and Malcolm Smith, eds., Cinema, Literature and Society: Elite and Mass Culture in Interwar Britain (London: Croom Helm, 1987), 165.
See Lord Hugh Cecil, “Presence of Lady Astor Jars Members of Commons,” Washington Post, January 25, 1920; and “Hats On, Ladies!”
Jeanette Eaton, “Nancy Astor: Myth and Woman,” North American Review 227, no. 4 (1929): 385–91.
For elaboration on the status of politics in the previous century, see Stefan Collini, Donald Winch, and John Burrow, That Noble Science of Politics: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Intellectual History (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
Ray Strachey, “Lady Astor M.P. and Her Constituency,” typescript, Ray Strachey papers, Women's Library (now held at the London School of Economics), 7BSH/5/1/1/20 (1 of 2).
Nancy Astor, “Notes from My Political Diary,” typescript, in both NAP, MS 1416/1/1/1069, and Ray Strachey's papers, 7 BSH/1/1/01.
Astor argued that her “children [were] among the fortunate ones, and it is that that steels [her] to go to the House of Commons.” Quoted in Sykes, Nancy, 219.
David Cannadine made the case for the end of aristocratic influence in The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990). Reassessments of his conclusions are made by Jon Lawrence, “Class, Paternalism and the British Path to Modernity,” in Peculiarities of Liberal Modernity in Imperial Britain, ed. Simon Gunn and James Vernon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 147–64; and Nancy Ellenberger, Balfour's World: Aristocracy and Political Culture at the Fin de Siècle (Woodbridge, England: Boydell and Brewer, 2015).
Manchester Guardian, December 1, 1919, 8.
See K. D. Reynolds, Aristocratic Women and Political Society in Victorian Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Vickery, Women, Privilege and Power; Elaine Chalus, Elite Women in English Political Life, c. 1754–1790 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Kathryn Gleadle, Borderline Citizens: Women, Gender and Political Culture in Britain, 1815–1867 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Gleadle, Borderline Citizens, 17–18.
Hanneke Hoekstra, “A Dollar Princess in the House of Commons: Aristocracy, Democracy and Nancy Astor's Unexpected Road to Power,” in Lady Macbeth's Sisters: Women's Power in Political Elites in the Transition from Monarchy to Democracy, ed. Hanneke Hoekstra and Jantine Oldersma (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2011), 87112.
Herbert Sidebotham, Political Profiles from British Public Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921), 188.
For the long history of this issue, see Marilyn Yalom, A History of the Wife (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).
Elaine Harrison, “Wintringham, Margaret (18791955),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.oxforddnb.com/index/50/10105005/ (DNB subscription required).
P. W. Wilson, “The American Girl in England,” New York Times, April 30, 1922, 49.
Bill Schwarz, “Politics and Rhetoric in the Age of Mass Culture,” History Workshop Journal 46 (1998): 152.
“Lady Astor on ‘Class,’” Western Evening Herald, November 13, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31.
Evening Standard, November 15, 1919, NAP, MS 1416/1/7/31.
See the articles by Cheryl Wanko, Corin Throsby, and Judith Pascoe in Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750–1850, ed. Tom Mole (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Ruby Vaughan Bigger, My Miss Nancy (Macon, GA: J. W. Burke, 1924).
Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 11, 1921, 59.
Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 102.
Bigger, My Miss Nancy, 21.