Lady Astor 100 Statue Campaign

Nancy Astor – the Anti-Nazi Peace Campaigner

It has erroneously been claimed that Lady Astor was pro-Nazi and pro-Hitler. Professor Judith Rowbotham, a visiting research professor at University of Plymouth writes about Nancy Astor – the real, story – using history and documented evidence…

This is fake news that can readily be contradicted by an examination of the historical record of her own words and actions.

On 1 June 1933, under the headline ‘Nazi Treatment of Women: Lady Astor’s Resolution’, an anonymous woman reporter for the Western Morning News reported that the previous day, an all-party meeting of women politicians and women’s organisations had been chaired by Eleanor Rathbone, Labour, on behalf of the National Council for Equal Citizenship.

Its purpose was to discuss the position of women under the Nazi regime. At that meeting ‘Viscountess Astor MP moved the following resolution: this conference of women’s organisations and of women members of parliament in Great Britain desires to put on record the feelings of dismay with which they have learned of the dismissal of many German women from public service….the conference holds that any injury done to the women of one nation must be deeply felt by the women of all nations and must prove an obstacle to the increase of goodwill and the maintenance of peace among nations’.

The unanimously-passed resolution was a representation of Nancy Astor’s hostility to Nazism from the start.

Its emphasis on ‘kinder, kirche, kuche’ was one to which she was implacably opposed.

Lady Nancy Astor in Plymouth, England, in November of 1923
Lady Nancy Astor in Plymouth, England, in November of 1923. Credit: Time.com

Nor was she a conventional Conservative MP. Despite being so officially, Lady Astor was delighted that in 1933, she was serving in a National Government, rather than a party government, a position she explained to her Plymouth constituents in October that year. She hoped that it meant the end of party politics! In that same speech, she and her husband explained their hostility to government by dictatorship, referring to both Germany and Russia in their condemnations. But – above all – she was an activist for peace, believing it was a key women’s cause and responsibility. In 1934, she spoke at the League of Nations Union conference, chaired by Lord Cecil (it is important to remember that activism for peace was something supported by men as well as women).

From 1935 on, however, Lady Astor was also a strong supporter of rearmament in the UK, believing it was essential for the country to be strong if it was to maintain peace – and was regularly irritated when money was not voted for defence projects.

On 1 May 1937, she said ‘I don’t like any of the Dictator Governments – Fascist, Nazi or Communist’ but added that because she saw Germany as the greatest threat, she believed that – ‘because we are not living in a world of angels’ – it was important ‘to reach an agreement with Germany’ in order to preserve world peace.

Though she supported the Munich Agreement initially, it was almost as a forlorn hope – and in the confidence that at least the UK re-armament process would now face less opposition and be able to go ahead. By March 1939, she was no longer supportive of Neville Chamberlain in her speeches to Plymouth constituents, and during the late spring and summer was indicating that she no longer believed that war was avoidable. As she said, the key thing was to defeat Hitlerism, and that had to be achieved, whether the war was long or short.

There has been criticism levelled against her since the statue unveiling, including that she was pro-fascist (because she knew Oswald Moseley) and anti-Semitic. In brief, on the former point, Nancy was close to Moseley’s first wife, Cynthia – but she blamed him (and Diana Mitford) for Cynthia’s death and never forgave him. On the latter, Her great weakness was a tendency to jump to conclusions based on generalised stereotypes about issues and topics and not to think with clarity based on her own experience and knowledge.

From that perspective, she could be alarmed by the widely-purveyed idea that a global Jewish conspiracy existed while having close Jewish friends, notably Rufus Isaacs, Lord Reading – the Lord Chief Justice and British Ambassador to Washington 1918-1919, a practising Jew. Nor were Lord and Lady Reading her only Jewish friends.

She got on well and often worked closely with Lesley Hore-Belisha, MP for Devonport. In other words, her views and attitudes could be said to be broadly typical of the general British views of the interwar period – except she was rather less prejudiced than most! That in the 1930s, she had no comprehension that Hitler’s ill-treatment of Jews was a precursor to the Holocaust proves only that she was not prophetic. We would today find her views distasteful and ill-founded, but to condemn the past for not having our values is ahistorical and inappropriate.

1st November 1919: American-born British politician Nancy Witcher Langhorne, Viscountess Astor (1879 – 1964), Conservative candidate at the Plymouth election sitting at a worktable. She won the election and became the first woman member of parliament. (Photo by G. Adams/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Nancy Astor’s reputation has suffered from a range of accusations, often made simplistically, and substantially inspired by misogyny. Undoubtedly, she could be rude, sarcastic and difficult.

Her talent for quick wit and repartee could, especially in later years, result in unwise and careless comments which did not represent her genuine beliefs and are belied by her actions. She was prone to make over-hasty judgments on some issues where she was not well informed.

But her views and values were, in general, based in a commitment to social service and in tolerance – so long as individual freedoms were not threatened.

She was beloved by so many in Plymouth who knew her because they recognised that in her. It is my judgment also that one reason she was so consistently re-elected by Plymothians was because she was never a believer in party politicking – one key reason why many male politicians at the time were hostile to her.

On that basis it was entirely fitting that it was a cross-party campaign which engaged with the fund-raising enterprise to erect the statue, involving people of all political allegiances and none. It was also appropriate that the one living UK former woman prime minister (who incidentally happened to be Conservative) unveiled the statue in Plymouth to mark the centenary of the election, by an electorate of predominantly women voters, of the first woman to take her seat at Westminster and who opened the door for others.

  • Written by Professor Judith Rowbotham, FRSA, FRHistS
  • Visiting Research Professor in Law, School of Law, Criminology and Government
  • University of Plymouth