Whenever anything positive is written and placed in the public domain about Nancy Astor, there is usually a rapid response in the shape of accusations intended to denigrate her and downplay her achievements, even to eradicate her from the historical record as a figure not worthy of being remembered. It is regularly claimed that she was anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi and pro-fascist. Now Nancy was not a perfect character – she was a difficult woman, with many character flaws. She made unwise decisions and mistakes, and was a conviction politician who tended to go with her gut rather than coming to conclusions based on careful accumulation of data. But assertions like these are more about the misogyny that, throughout her political career, she had to face than they are about the reality of Nancy and her beliefs and attitudes.
Starting with one regularly made claim, Nancy was never pro-Nazi. She was far too much of a feminist to be anything but hostile to Nazism from the start – she was implacably opposed to the emphasis on ‘kinder, kirche, kuche’ and the removal of women from the public sphere. 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. 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’. Like Rathbone, Nancy Astor refused to visit Nazi Germany to be ‘reassured’ about Hitler’s ‘peaceful’ intentions. So where did the claim of being a Nazi sympathiser come from? One charge is that she entertained Joachim von Ribbentrop at her London home. Well, it is true that she did – but not as a personal friend, and only in his capacity as German Ambassador-at-large. She was a leading political hostess, and regularly hosted such diplomatic events for the government. But Nancy was not very respectful to van Ribbentrop, even telling him that no one could take Hitler seriously because of his silly little moustache. Her failure to take Hitler seriously was certainly a mistake – and her lack of respect led to her being on the Nazi black-list of those to be arrested immediately in the wake of a successful invasion.
Nancy has also been called an appeaser – but that is a problematic term. A more accurate label is that she was a peace activist, like the majority of the interwar feminists she interacted with across Europe and America including Sylvia Pankhurst and Eleanor Rathbone. For Nancy and her feminist peers, war was something started by men but a phenomenon which affected women, and their children, far more than those men. These women also believed in the power of women’s influence to end conflict. From the end of the war in 1918, and particularly after her election as MP, she worked for what she saw as the cause of international peace. In the UK, Nancy was one of the early movers and shakers (along with Millicent Fawcett and Gertrude Bell) in the establishment of the Institute of International Affairs, now known as Chatham House (unlike them, though, she did not have a sound knowledge of foreign affairs and relied heavily on hers and Waldorf’s friends for information and ideas). She believed it to be women’s responsibility, globally, to promote peace by any reasonable means, which – for her – included dialogue to promote understanding between nations and peoples. Originally, she put high hopes on international organisations like the IIA, and the League of Nations as channels through which peace could be promoted (interestingly, though, she herself was never an enthusiast for disarmament as part of any peace package, as she argued it was necessary to retain a high quality national defence capacity, given that foreign powers were ‘not angels’). But though she initially supported Chamberlain’s attempts in 1937 to achieve peace with Germany, producing the Munich Agreement, she privately increasingly began to doubt Hitler’s positive intentions by the end of 1938 and, during 1939, to move away from support for Chamberlain. In fact, she voted against Chamberlain in 1940, and supported Churchill as the new leader, despite her knowledge of his personal dislike for her presence in the Commons. In that, she was courageous, supporting him out of patriotic conviction that he was the best man for the job of fighting to the end to defeat the Nazis, which she saw as the essential thing.
This shift to supporting Churchill, and the war, was, however, not always believed even by contemporaries sadly, because of the effective media character assassination of Nancy launched by the brilliant left-wing journalist Claud Cockburn – a man who rarely let facts get in the way of a vitriolic attack. Cockburn was an unlikely ally of Churchill’s, because both were more accurate in estimating Hitler’s aggressive intentions than the Astors. But as part of the attempt to undermine Chamberlain and his supporters, Cockburn evolved the enduring myth of the Cliveden Set. His attacks were supported by his personal dislike of both Nancy and Waldorf, and his hatred of capitalism. In labelling Nancy in particular as being a Nazi sympathiser, his journalism had an increasing effect on a populace which was beginning to take alarm about a resurgent Germany; and to be fair, Nancy did not help herself. Her failure to take seriously the threat posed by Hitler, meant that she did not realise the damage being done to her reputation by Cockburn’s pernicious presentation of the Cliveden Set which was also picked up by many in the popular press. She and Waldorf went on record denying the inaccurate claims, but made no real concerted attempt to refute them because they saw no need. It was their greatest mistake, and has had a long-term distorting effect. It explains why subsequently, and mainly in post-war assessments of her, she also became associated with a having a sympathy for fascism, which is frankly untrue. The grounds used are that in the 1920s, she had been on friendly terms with Oswald Mosely – indeed as a young Conservative MP, he had campaigned for her in Plymouth in 1922. But Nancy hated Fascism, along with Communism. She also loathed Mosely himself when he came out as a fascist himself and launched his Brownshirt movement in the UK and for personal as well as political reasons. Nancy was close to Cynthia, Mosely’s first wife – and never forgave either Oswald or Diana Mosely for causing Cynthia pain and misery before the latter’s early death in 1933.
Things are, it has to be said, a bit more complex (certainly from the modern perspective) when it comes to the accusations of anti-Semitism. In terms of her personal friendships and sympathies, Nancy was not anti-Semitic – amongst her closest and dearest friends were Lord and Lady Reading, Rufus Isaacs, 1st Marquess of Reading, was the first practising Jew to become Lord Chief Justice. He and both his first wife Alice, and his second, Stella, were frequent guests of Nancy and Waldorf in Plymouth. Indeed, using their friendship, she recruited him to be a leading figure in Plymouth’s Mayflower 300 celebrations. She was also good friends with the Liberal MP for Devonport, Leslie Hore-Belisha, who, like her, was something of a maverick. The two worked together successfully to lobby for Plymouth to have a Lord Mayor. Globally, she was what would now be described as passively anti-Semitic in that while not personally hostile, she did not understand the threat faced by Jewish communities and so was overly ready to believe figures like Lord Lothian when he claimed the Jews were exaggerating their treatment in Germany and that there was a global Jewish conspiracy of some kind (she was never clear on any detail here, and always hedged any personal comment around with caveats and later qualifications). A lack of experience of something was always a problem when it came to Nancy engaging thoroughly with an issue. For instance, while broadly sympathetic in the abstract, she had not seen the need to campaign actively for women’s suffrage until her experiences in the Plymouth Barbican, and encounters there with Plymothian suffragettes like Bessie LeCras (later her political agend) convinced her of the importance. Subsequently she had actively lobbied for the vote in 1918 and later for equalisation of the franchise in 1928. Lacking personal knowledge of the impact of hate-driven anti-Semitism, she did not understand and so failed to take it seriously (unlike her fellow opponent of Nazism, Eleanor Rathbone). This has made it easy for accusers to label her anti-Semitic, something which upset her and she refuted. As with appeasement, as an individual, she was never good at comprehending foreign affairs, and relied on the views of others, like Lord Lothian, for an understanding of events and developments. Certainly, she was not sympathetic to Zionism, but that cannot be automatically conflated with being anti-Semitic, and certainly not in the understanding of the time, in the interwar years. That in the 1930s, she had no comprehension that Hitler’s early treatment of Jews was a precursor to the Holocaust proves only that she was not prophetic. We would today find many of her political views ill-founded and ill-informed, even distasteful, but to condemn the past for not having our values is ahistorical and inappropriate.
As a feminist myself, as someone who loathes anti-Semitism in its historic and modern manifestations, and has seen with anger and concern its negative effects in today’s world, I am a scholar who set out to research Nancy Astor with, frankly, low expectations of her worth and significance. I was interested mainly because of what I then saw only as the local significance of her election as MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1919. After close and sustained research, I have now to acknowledge that I have changed my opinion radically. She was not always wise: she had little insight into great abstract ideas of justice, of the importance of global balance in efforts to maintain peace. She could be rude, and temperamental as well as unfair BUT she does not deserve to be labelled as anti-Semitic or a fascist or above all, as a Nazi sympathiser. To emphasise the negatives as a way of shutting down debate or publicity about her is deeply unfair, especially within the Plymouth context. Without the efforts of the Astors. both Plymouth and the University of Plymouth would be poorer places than they are today. More, without her – Mayflower 300 would not have taken off in Plymouth as it did in 1920 – and with the celebrations for Mayflower 400 ramping up, we owe it to this extraordinary woman to appreciate her properly – not as a saint, but not the sinner she is sometimes claimed to be. This is why I put my head above the parapet – she deserves her statue, and to be appreciated as the great Plymothian she was.