Nancy Astor outfit on mannequin © Plymouth City Council (Museums Galleries Archives)Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, Viscountess Astor, (19 May 1879-2 May 1964) was the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat and was a passionate advocate for women’s causes and equal rights.

The outfit consists of an early 20th century black skirt suit, cream/off-white blouse and black hat and was affectionately referred to by Nancy as her ‘parliamentary uniform.’ She apparently deliberately chose an outfit that would look demure and business-like.

It’s on show for the first time in the capital in ‘Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament’ which is on display at Westminster Hall until 6 October 2018.

In the year that the UK Parliament marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act (1918), this major exhibition in Westminster Hall uses interactive features and historic exhibits to tell the hidden “her-story” of the UK Parliament: the campaigning, the protests and the achievements. It also examines where we are today and how you can make change happen.

Nancy Astor Outfit on displayAmong the items in this ground-breaking exhibition are re-creations of lost historical spaces of the Palace of Westminster, rare and previously unseen historic objects, pictures and archives from the Parliamentary Voice and Vote exhibition - Nancy Astor outfitcollections and elsewhere.

An image of Viscountess Astor wearing the outfit with her two sponsors – showing David Lloyd George, Prime Minister on her right and Arthur Balfour, Lord President of the Council and former Prime Minister on her left – is also displayed in the exhibition.

Melanie Unwin, Co-curator of the Voice and Vote exhibition, said: “We are delighted that we are able to display this important loan of the ‘parliamentary uniform’ of the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat. Nancy Astor was a pioneering champion of women’s rights and it is fitting that she is represented in this ground-breaking exhibition. The story behind her outfit shows the subject of how women dress was as vexed a subject then, as it today, and we are very grateful to Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives for making this possible.

This exciting exhibition should really give the public a sense of the barriers that women had to overcome to participate in democracy. For the first time, we are recreating the sounds and atmosphere of those spaces which women were confined to – it is incredible to see how much campaigners and early women MPs achieved despite the limitations placed on them.”

Nicola Moyle, Head of Heritage, Art and Film for Plymouth City Council said: “In the centenary year for the Representation of the People Act, we are thrilled to be able to lend such an iconic outfit from our permanent collections to Westminster. Nancy Astor’s role as the first woman to take a seat in the House of Commons means that Plymouth will forever be connected with the history of Parliament and women’s suffrage.”

About Nancy Astor

Nancy Astor was born in Virginia, USA, in 1879 to a wealthy family and moved to England in 1904 after her first marriage failed. In 1906, she met and married politician Waldorf Astor who became the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1910. He relinquished his seat when his father died, when he inherited his title of Viscount Astor and his place in the House of Lords. She then stood for Plymouth Sutton in his place.

She won the election in November 1919 beating her main rival, Liberal Isaac Foot, father of 1980s Labour leader Michael Foot. The first woman to be elected to Parliament was Constance Markievicz in 1918, but as a member of Sinn Fein she did not take her seat as she refused to take the oath. A picture of Markievicz is also being shown in the exhibition. Viscountess Astor was a passionate advocate for women’s causes and equal rights. She kept the seat until the 1945 election when she decided not to stand. She died in 1964.

Voice and Vote poster - Nancy Astor outfit releaseFour significant milestones in the fight for universal suffrage in 2018 are:

  • Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave all men over 21 and women over 30 who met a property qualification the right to vote. (100 years)
  • Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 – allowing women to be MPs (100 years)
  • Equal Franchise Act 1928 – giving women the vote on the same terms as men (90 years)
  • Life Peerages Act 1958 – allowing women to sit in the House of Lords as life peers (60 years)

These acts followed years of campaigning, with the first petition to Parliament asking for votes for women presented to the House of Commons on 3 August 1832.

About women in Parliament today

Earlier this year The House of Commons Library published new research and statistics on women in Parliament and politics. The research shows that:

  • 208 women were elected to the UK Parliament in 2017, a record high of 32%. In January 2018 there were 206 female peers, 26% of Members of the House of Lords
  • There are currently six women in Cabinet including the Prime Minister, 26% of the total 23 permanent Cabinet posts
  • Just over one-third (36%) of members in the Scottish Parliament are women, compared to just over two-fifths (42%) of members of National Assembly for Wales and 30% of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Following the 2014 European Parliament elections, 41% of UK MEPs are women