It was just one day in Westminster. But no ordinary day, for by ten o’clock it has turned into something quite extraordinary. We’d invited all female parliamentarians from both Houses to join in our film to talk about Lady Astor and what she meant to them. We didn’t expect the reaction. And we were stunned.
From 9:30am in the Attlee Room in Portcullis House, some of the most iconic female MPs of our time walked through those doors, taking time out of their busy days, queuing sometimes, to pay tribute to the first woman to take her seat in Parliament.
Late afternoon and still they came. And still they came.
Maria Miller and Sarah Wollaston kicked off the day, Baroness Shami Chakrabarti next, Karin Smyth, Rebecca Pow, Dawn Butler, Harriet Harman, Helen Whately, Tulip Saddiq, Vicky Ford, Baroness Watkins of Tavistock, the Rt Hon Dame Eleanor Laing, all paying tribute. Emails of apology coming in from some, others trying to get to us in time. The Prime Minister, unable to attend, sending her own words of support.
Late afternoon and we had moved to the Lords for a fulsome and passionate interview with Baroness Boothroyd: “Were it not for someone like Nancy Astor then I doubt I would be the first woman speaker of the House of Commons. What an ordeal it must have been for her, to come in there with over 600 men, who were all not welcoming at all”.
What struck me, and the crew, was how impassioned – without exception – these women MPs were about what Nancy Astor did.
I saw parliamentarians with tears in their eyes, with emotion in their voices, and observed – from behind the camera – on more than one politician, the hairs on her arms standing up as she spoke about that first courageous walk through the doors into the Chamber.
“I think Nancy Astor is incredibly important and I think she is famous for saying that she would leave the door open,” said Baroness Chakrabarti. And indeed she did. After her election, Lady Astor said, of being welcomed to ‘the most exclusive men’s club in Europe’: ‘It won’t be exclusive long. When I came in I left the door wide open!”
Nancy Astor’s entrance to the House of Commons was greeted by a flurry of torn up paper that was thrown at her, by men refusing to move their knees to let her sit down, and a later admission from Churchill that they tried to ‘freeze her out.’
Yet still she persevered. Facing them, facing them down, for two years alone before she was joined by another female MP – whom she befriended.
When we showed our film at the launch of our Crowdfunder, there were people in the audience that were so moved they were crying. Such is the power of this woman’s achievement, that a century on what she did can move people to tears.
And I can’t help but wonder why that is?
What is resonating over the years for these women in politics and public life? What is similar? What has changed? Is it because it’s still a ‘bear pit’ and brutal and gladiatorial and pugilistic?
Is this reaction asking us a question that we need to discuss? When we ask why there aren’t more women in politics, public life and Parliament is the answer staring us in the face? Is the answer that we haven’t moved on enough, that it’s just as brutal, that there aren’t the checks and balances needed to protect? The violence and aggression that is a daily occurrence on social media, behaviour that in ‘real life’ would not happen, would not be said face-to-face. Social media is a public space where you are not covered by parliamentary privilege. And where you are protected by robust existing UK laws on harassment. Yet still it happens.
This project has raised real passion and conversations that are part of our collective. I’m so touched by the feedback we get and the support we are receiving.
But it’s not just about the statue, it’s about a conversation: about equality and democracy and the world we live in today – and the world we want to live in.
Lady Nancy Astor was a woman of power, passion, politics and devotion to the people of Plymouth, the city she served. Hers is a story not just about politics, but about women. About us all. About the women who voted her in when they were given their very first chance to vote. It transcends politics to ask us questions a century on that we need to answer about equality in our society.
She walked through a door that none of us will ever have to go back through. But where do we want to go from here?
At the moment there are more than 900 monuments and statues in the UK. Only 27 of those are of non-royal, non-mythical women.
Let’s fix that.
For more information please contact Alexis Bowater at
See the film here:
Our Crowdfunding page is here: