I’m on the Nancy Astor Express.
We’re whizzing west out of Paddington station; west through Reading, Exeter and Newton Abbott, to the unveiling of a statue in Plymouth, Devon. On the train with me are Astors, female MPs, 50:50 campaigners, sculptors and donors. We’re excited. This is a crowd-funded statue, and we’ve all played a part. In one year, a thousand supporters raised over £125,000.
Nancy Astor was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, on 28 November, 1919. This bronze statue is the first and only statue of a female Member of Parliament erected in a public space. It is a hugely significant monument – and not just for Plymouth Sutton, Nancy’s constituency for 26 years, or for today’s female MPs.
It is significant because this isn’t a statue of a nymph, or a goddess, or the Virgin Mary. It’s not a fictional character, or an Everywoman. It’s a real woman – someone complicated, flawed, inventive and determined. A statue of a woman commemorated for her historic role in British politics. Nancy the iconoclast. The door breaker.
So where does this monument fit in? There are 65 statues of MPs in Britain: all male. Of the 828 statues recorded last year by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 174 are of women. Of these, almost half are fictional figures, 14 are of the Virgin Mary and 46 of royalty (mostly Queen Victoria). That means just 9 per cent of Britain’s statues are of named, real women.
Like all real women, Nancy Astor is a complicated heroine. She was a wealthy socialite. A temperance fanatic. Conservative. An American divorcee who flirted with Fascism and appeasement. A self-confessed ‘ardent feminist’, driven by her commitment to women, yet one who played no part in the suffrage movement. She fought tooth and nail to step into her husband’s constituency at a bi-election for Plymouth Sutton, Devon, when he inherited his father’s viscountcy. She stood down in 1945, seven general elections later, aged 66.
Nancy’s place in history was galling in the extreme to militant suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, since she had played no part in ‘the cause’.
As for the men… Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War and Air, was not alone in finding the intrusion of a female into the men’s club discomforting in the extreme. He reportedly complained to her face that having a woman in parliament was like having a woman burst in on him in the bathroom, when he had nothing to defend himself with but a sponge. ‘Nonsense, Winston,’ came Nancy’s quick riposte. ‘You’re not good looking enough to have fears of this sort.’
Nancy Astor is of particular interest to me as the only MP determined enough to push the Plumage Bill through the House of Commons in 1921. Five times since 1908 this Bill had been passed in the House of Lords then shelved by the House of Commons. Five times MPs had dragged their feet, listened to the plumage merchants and put commercial interest in front of bird protection. Species the world over were being brought, slowly but surely, to extinction.
The campaign to save the world’s birdlife from plumed fashion was fought for 30 long years. It was a campaign run by women: the female founders of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). ‘But what do men care?’ cried RSPB supporter Virginia Woolf in a furious article about male inertia in the Commons. ‘The Plumage Bill is for all practical purposes dead.’
When Nancy Astor took her seat in the Commons, she immediately started probing as to why this bill kept being blocked. With characteristic astringency, she pronounced it ‘astonishing’ that a bill could have failed for so many years, when it had found favour with so many. Under Lady Astor’s ‘formidable’ aegis, a parliamentary group was galvanised into action.
The Plumage Importation (Prohibition) Act was passed in 1921: exotic plumage could no longer be imported, or worn with impunity. The women behind the RSPB rejoiced. And, in researching their story, I too rejoiced when I discovered that our first female MP was responsible for securing the final victory.
There is growing impetus for women’s historic achievements to be remembered. Since the publication of my book, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change in 2018, six of its central suffragist and political characters have now been commemorated with a statue:
• Millicent Fawcett (left), sculpted by Gillian Wearing, unveiled in Parliament Square, London on 24 April 2018.
• Emmeline Pankhurst (right) by Hazel Reeves, unveiled in St Peter’s Square, Manchester on 14 December 2018. (The Pankhurst sculpture in Westminster, London, was created in 1930.)
The suffrage centenary last year got the ball rolling. Many more statues of women are in the pipeline. Who will be next?
I think it’s now time to remember the women who kick-started our conservation movement. Their extraordinary legacy has not been remembered by history.
• Etta Lemon (left) – another complicated heroine; RSPB dynamo for its first half century – deserves at the very least a blue plaque on her house in Redhill, Surrey.
• Eliza Phillips, faceless but not voiceless, co-founder and trenchant publications editor for the RSPB for 30 years, should be remembered in Croydon. Where, and how?
• Emily Williamson, founder of the Society for the Protection of Birds in Didsbury, Manchester, deserves a statue. Her house still stands, her garden now Fletcher Moss Park. It is the perfect spot.
Emily in the hands of a 21st-century artist could be all manner of things. Here’s one portrayal, drawn this year by sculptor Clare Abbatt.
Let 2021, the centenary of the Plumage Act, be visibly marked. Let these women inspire a new generation of environmental campaigners. Let their remarkable legacy be remembered.