Updated: 5 days ago
At the end of 2019 the relentless chatter on every airwave, social channel and broadsheet in the UK was Brexit, Brexit, Brexit and the impending election. But one piece of news cut through through the noise and piqued my interest, and I earmarked it in my mind to come back to.
On a late November morning, whilst sipping coffee and listening to the BBC’s Radio 4 news programme, Today, I heard a report on the unveiling of a statute of Lady Nancy Astor in the coastal town of Plymouth. It was to commemorate her being the first woman to take a seat in parliament in 1919. She was in fact the second female to be elected, after Sinn Fein’s Constant Markievicz had refused to take her seat in line with the party’s policy at the time, making Astor to first woman to be physically present in the House of Commons.
What with the launching of Series 2 of the Greater than 11% podcast, our website going live, getting our first event up and running, an election, Christmas and then New Year’s, it was only in late February that I was able to come back to this mental bookmark.
What stood out in the new report was that the statue had been unveiled by former Prime Minister Theresa May, that £125,000 was raised for it’s fabrication and erection via crowdfunding, that a train which travels the route from Plymouth to London had also been named in her honour and that there was a huge celebration taking place involving hundreds of local school children. The celebration was a ray of light that cut through the dismal drudgery of the political news landscape at the time.
It also seemed to chime with my frustration at the lack of public monuments, memorials and statues honouring women, not only in the UK but across the globe. We have plenty of men charging into battle on horses, seated regally in grand chairs or silently orating some famous speech, but where are all the women who have contributed to and shaped our societies and our cultures?
Millicent Fawcett, sculpted by Gillian Wearing, was placed in Parliament Square (London) in 2018. A long overdue acknowledgment (some 100 years after the event) of the hard won right to vote that the Suffragettes had fought for, for some women in the UK (it took a while longer before all women won the right to vote). But where are all the others that should be immortalised in metal, stone and raised on plinths? There are a few: Florence Nightingale, Emmeline Pankhurst, Louisa Blake, Mary Seacole, Catherine Booth , Emily Wilding Davison, and no doubt a handful more scattered across the UK, but with such low numbers, this new addition, the fanfare and ceremony that surrounded it had my attention.
Not being a student of history, nor in fact being originally from the UK, I have to admit that I had never heard of Lady Astor and so I consulted Google. My initial interest was flattened, almost immediately. News articles, reports and Wikipedia all acknowledged that Astor had somewhat ‘outdated’ views. Women are often criticised for being outspoken, especially when they are ‘firsts’ but I became disheartened as I researched further. The scales of history were tipping in the wrong direction for Astor, with documented accounts of anti-semitism, anti-catholicism, Nazi sympathising and having a lack of empathy for historical slavery.
I sat and I pondered. I pondered some more. What kept coming back to me was another woman in politics who I had discovered earlier in 2019, someone who I had become transfixed by, watching every piece of video content of her speeches and interviews that I could find online.
The woman was Barbara Jordan, an American Democrat who had held office from 1973-1979.
I don’t want to diminish Nancy Astor’s positive achievements - she had many: the expansion of nursery schools in children’s education, raising the legal drinking age from 14 to 18, recruiting women into the civil service and the police force. The quandary I pondered was: how should we look back on history given that the cultural context of society at each point varies through time? How can we make moral judgements when the cultural norms were so vastly different from those of our own present day experience?
Nancy Astor came from privilege, marrying into further privilege, and had access to a vast financial fortune which she used to travel and educate herself. Her husband, Waldorf Astor, 2nd Viscount Astor, succeeded into peerage on his father’s death which ended his political career and left his Parliamentary seat in Plymouth vacant. Lady Astor decided to contest the by-election for the seat in 1919, and won. This was the year after women had won the right to vote, but I think it’s important to note that there appears to be no evidence to suggest that Nancy Astor had been involved in any way with the Suffragette movement.
Both Nancy Astor and Barbara Jordan rattled around in my thoughts for days.
Jordan was also a first. The first black woman to be elected into the Texas House of Representatives, the first African-American to hold such a position in over 100 years and the first (and in fact the only one to ever to date) African-American person to serve as the acting governor of Texas. Jordan went on to become the first woman from a southern state of the USA to serve as congress woman.
The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Jordan graduated high school with honours, but owing to segregation at the time she was unable to attend the university of her choice, instead majoring in Social Science and History from the Texas Southern University, before going to study Law at Boston University. She went on to teach, before starting a private law practice that she initially ran out of her parents’ house. She had two failed attempts at being elected before officially entering political life and it was her carefully worded, brilliantly devised speech that ultimately led to President Nixon resigning over the Watergate Scandal. A speech that has gone down as one of the best of the 20th Century. Her focus and commitment whilst in politics was in supporting the underserved poor and minority communities and in reforming immigration in the US.
Barbara Jordan - Impeachment Speech
There are 47 years between the election of Nancy Astor and the election of Barbara Jordan to represent their respective constituencies in government. Which seems a small amount of time in view of how different their political drives and purposes for bringing about societal change were.
Whilst I champion women’s achievements being acknowledged and celebrated - especially retrospectively - with so many women forgotten and / or intentionally written out of history, I guess I struggle with how to digest or balance some ‘outdated’ views and actions with indisputable wins and successes.
I found this very hard and it took me over a month to summarise my thoughts. I extended my thinking further, as the week I considered posting this blog coincided with the UK acknowledging the Covid19 pandemic and enact lockdown. I allowed a further pause to feel, observe and reflect on the current situation - but my conclusion is just as relevant now as it was prior to the current crisis.
If I am to make a judgement it has to be through my own experiences, regardless of cultural norms being different now compared to those 100 years ago. I came to the conclusion that when I was younger, I for sure had opinions that were naive or unconsidered but as I’ve gotten older, I would say I’ve learnt, been open, and have tried to understand and support different experiences beyond my own social or career circles.
Age, if anything has made me more empathetic and considerate, more determined that we should all get an equal footing, chance and support in society at large. I see it as my responsibility to use both my experience and privilege to contribute and be open to change. Sure I’ll be forever learning, I will no doubt make mistakes (a lot of them) but empathy, kindness and advocating for those less fortunate and those different from ourselves are timeless qualities that the historical advantage of hindsight can’t dodge or soften through bubble wrapping bad behaviour and dubious opinions as ‘the cultural norms of the times.’