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We need more statues of women – starting with Nancy Astor

6 min read

When we fail to publicly recognise the achievements of women, we deny their rightful place in history. Raising a statue of Nancy Astor would be an important milestone in commemorating the role of women in politics, write Luke Pollard and Linda Gilroy

One thing that strikes both new and old Members of Parliament is the lack of female artwork and female statues in the Palace of Westminster. Men in wigs, men with long hair, men in tights, men in dark suits but very, very few women and little mention of the role of women in our politics other than those who were sitting on the throne.

When it comes to paying tribute to the UK’s historical figures, too often the achievements of women are overlooked. Of the 828 statues we have across the country, only 80 of them honour women by name. For every 10 male statues, there is just one female statue. And the 80 includes 38 royals and 15 fictional characters like nymphs and fairies.

This needs to change. When we fail to publicly recognise the achievements of women, we deny their rightful place in history. As a society, we must understand the message we are sending out to young aspiring girls when women and their achievements are made invisible. This is why we believe raising a statue of Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in Parliament, in her home constituency of Plymouth would be an important milestone in commemorating the role of women in politics.

Both of us have followed in Nancy Astor’s footsteps and although we are both Labour and Nancy Astor was a proud Conservative, valuing our heritage and history should not be partisan especially when Nancy Astor broke the glass ceiling for women when she entered the Commons in 1919.

The story of Nancy Astor’s rise to political stardom was not inevitable, it was hard fought, crossing an ocean in the process. Born in Virginia, USA, in 1879, she moved to England where she married Waldorf Astor, the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton. Relinquishing his seat to inherit the title of Viscount, Nancy put herself forward to stand in his place and in November 1919 she defeated her rival, Liberal Isaac Foot, father of the 1980s Labour leader (and also Plymouth MP) Michael.

Her election sent shockwaves through the establishment and she faced resistance from the outset. The day after her election, The Times described her victory as a “tremendous breach in Parliamentary tradition”. For the first two years of her parliamentary career, Nancy Astor was the only woman in the House of Commons.

The challenges she faced a hundred years ago still echo the difficulties women face today in male dominated professions. But through her work she laid the foundations for progress. As Dr Jacqui Turner from the University of Reading, a specialist researcher on Nancy Astor said, “it must have been intimidating, but she wasn’t intimidated, she sat there and she provided that platform for women to build on today”.

Despite the incredibly sexist environment and the stubbornness she faced from many of her colleagues, she championed legislation that changed the lives of women and children. Though we come from different political traditions, with different views, there is much that we do agree on.

Often defying her own Tory whip, she consistently worked cross-party with Labour MPs and Socialist women inside and outside Parliament. She supported welfare reforms, equal voting rights and ensured her party passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Bill of 1928 – the one which effectively enfranchised working-class women.

She went on to provide significant support to other women MPs and was highly influential in getting women into the police force. She advocated on behalf of women nurses and civil servants and more broadly, defended women’s place in the workforce. She cared deeply about children and families - pioneering crucial legislation to protect minors under 18 from alcohol abuse.

While her opponents saw her as a break from the old tradition, she was determined to start a newer, more progressive one. In the year she stood down, 24 more women had taken their seat in the House of Commons. As Dr Turner rightly points out, “Before (her) there was no female voice and no female point of view”. She showed what was possible and opened the door.

Next year will mark a hundred years since she was elected. Progress for equal representation in Parliament is being made but is not fast enough. In 2017, 208 women were elected, a record high of 32% of the Commons. But we cannot be satisfied until we get to 50:50. That’s why more women need to stand, and more women need to feel empowered to stand. Raising the statue to Nancy Astor not only recognises her personal achievements but will show to women and young girls today what is possible.

She could not have picked a more difficult period to be an MP than just after the First World War. She put our city on the political map and remained committed to the people of Plymouth well beyond her 26 years representing them in Parliament. She was known for door-to-door campaigning and thrived at husting events where she engaged directly with the people of Plymouth. She was tireless in fighting for Plymothians who had lost their homes in the war. She remained with them during the Blitz, dancing on the Hoe with the sailors and soldiers. She was a titan at the ballot box, winning seven elections. She was loved in Plymouth, given the freedom of the city in 1959. She went on to be the Lady Mayoress and later an honorary Freeman of the City of Plymouth.

It would be special to unveil Nancy Astor’s statue on Plymouth Hoe in 2019, where we can tell future generations of her contribution to Plymouth and British politics. By making her story known and her successes visible, we can inspire more women and girls that their future can be in public service. With your support, we can make this happen. 

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