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Nancy Langhorne: A woman of paradox

When I decide on a person in history to do a profile on, anticipation and excitement are at the forefront of my research process.

While gathering information about Nancy Langhorne those changed somewhat. The fact that the woman was a Virginia native played a major part in why I wanted to write this article. You should strive to make a difference in the lives of the people you represent when you enter the political arena. Langhorne made her mark in that regard.

Langhorne, also known as Lady Astor, was born at the Langhorne House in Danville, Virginia on May 19, 1879, to railroad businessman Chiswell Dabney Langhorne and Nancy Witcher Keene. She was the eighth of 11 children. Chiswell Langhorne struggled financially following the abolishment of slavery to make his business profitable and the family, prior to Nancy’s birth, lived in near poverty for several years.  But Chiswell Langhorne found a job as a tobacco auctioneer in Danville which was the center of light leaf tobacco and a major processing and marketing center.

In 1874, Chiswell Langhorne won a construction contract with the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad and by 1892 he had re-established his position of wealth and built a large home. Later, Chiswell Langhorne moved the family to an estate known as Mirador in Albemarle County. Known for their beauty, Nancy and her sister, Irene, attended a finishing school in New York City. While there she met her first husband socialite Robert Gould Shaw II and was married there October 27, 1897 when Nancy was 18.

Although an unhappy one, their four-year marriage produced a son, Robert. After Nancy’s mother died in 1903 she moved back to Mirador to run the household which proved unsuccessful. Once Nancy took a tour of England she fell in love with the country. Upon her father’s suggestion she moved there, although reluctant at first, with her younger sister Phyllis in 1905.

Furthermore, Nancy had established herself in English high society as a witty and saucy American in her conversations but displayed a devout Protestant demeanor as well. Eventually she wed another American native aristocrat Waldorf Astor whom she was matched in temperament and shared the same birthday.

In their union five children were born-Nancy, John, William, Francis and Michael. Subsequently, the couple moved into Cliveden, a lavish estate on the River Thames in Buckinghamshire which was a gift from her father-in-law. Lady Astor became a prominent hostess for the social elite. Viscountess Astor first became involved in politics by joining the Milner’s Kindergarten who advocated unity and equality among English speaking people and continued expanse of the British Empire. During this time her anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic attitudes developed and her political career and public opinion would be affected in the years to come.

Lady Astor’s first foray into British Parliament was when her husband Waldorf became a member of the House of Lords after being in the House of Commons. She ran in the election and won the House of Commons seat. Lady Astor was the second woman to become a member of Parliament. In addition, Astor was a member of the Conservative Party and served in Parliament from Nov. 28, 1919 to July 5, 1945. Initially Nancy Astor was not connected to the women’s suffrage movement but eventually gained their support. She supported the development and expansion of nursery schools for children’s education. In the 1920s Lady Astor gained support for a bill raising the legal drinking age in a public house from 14 to 18 which was nicknamed “Lady Astor’s Bill.” In addition, she used her wealth and position to bring attention to women serving in government. Nancy worked to recruit them into the civil service, police force, education reform and the House of Lords.

Viscountess Astor, in May 1922, was guest of honor at a Pan-American conference held by the U. S. League of Women Voters in Baltimore, Maryland. Furthermore, Nancy became the first president of the Electrical Association for Women in 1924.

In July of 1925 she was chairwoman of the first International Conference of Women in Science, Industry and Commerce organized by Caroline Haslett of the Women’s Engineering Society along with other leading women’s groups and advocated the necessity for women to work in the science, engineering and technology fields. Also, Nancy was concerned for the treatment of juvenile crime victims.

During the 1920’s her constituency held her in high esteem in England as well as the United States but that deteriorated because of comments like the following –  she told a group of African American students “they should aspire to be more like the black servants of her youth; told a group of black church members that “they should be grateful for slavery because they were introduced to Christianity.”

Sadly, Lady Astor’s husband Waldorf Astor died September 30, 1952. Her attitude towards Catholics changed and developed friendships with them. Among her honors was the Freedom of the City of Plymouth in 1959. By then, all of her sisters had passed away and she was estranged from her children.

Unfortunately, Lady Nancy Langhorne Astor died May 2, 1964 at age 84 at her home at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, England. Her cremated ashes were interred at the Octagon Temple at Cliveden. A bronze statue of Lady Astor was placed in Plymouth near her former family home in 2019 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her election to Parliament. The famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York is a apart of the Astor legacy and one of the Astor family members John Jacob was a passenger on the Titanic.

Nancy Langorne’s life was a paradox. I was reminded of things I knew about her but learned so much more and attempted to focus on her advocacy for women’s rights and their more active role in science and technology and social issues.

I am interested in visiting the Langhorne House in Danville which is on the National Landmark of Historic Places.

Judy Moore is a member of The Central High Museum, Inc. She lives in Wylliesburg and can be reached at ju.mo39@live.com.