In the fall of 1919, a cheeky American divorcée became the unlikely emblem of the volatile atmosphere in postwar Britain. Lady Nancy Astor, the second wife of Lord Waldorf Astor of Plymouth, decided that she would run for her new husband’s seat in Parliament. Just a few years earlier the idea of a woman in Parliament would have been ludicrous, but she had the support and admiration of the newly enfranchised female electorate and a society that was rapidly transforming before her eyes.
Directly confronting her critics with a “merry mixing” attitude, Lady Astor appealed to men and women alike, campaigning with dogged charm, dauntless energy and “unlimited effrontery.” She marched unabashed into the poorest parts of the district wearing gloves and pearls, kissing anyone who scowled at her and then declaring that she was “going back to one of my beautiful palaces to sit down in my tiara and do nothing and when I roll out in my car I will splash you all with mud and look the other way.” Her confidence and forthright manner proved indomitable. By winning the election, Lady Astor not only represented the changing times; she showed women that even a merry wife of Plymouth could forge a new place in the world, using the very qualities that made her female.
It’s no secret that World War I rocked the most basic foundations of Europe, decimating the physical terrain and the mental landscape of a generation. The year 1919 was strange: a caesura between the dull horror of WWI and the chaos of the Jazz Age. The older generation struggled to pick up the pieces, while the young yearned to forget and move on. The world was on the brink of modernity. Soon radio and film would transform society; modernism would transform art and literature; electricity and manufacturing would transform daily life. The middle class was gaining power as the aristocracy’s authority collapsed. Men who fought the horrific war were deeply changed; but women, too, confronted new challenges that sparked a change in perspective, enabling them to imagine a different life for themselves and their children.
Throughout Britain, major changes in family life led to new opportunities for wives and mothers. Lower infant mortality rates, combined with a wider understanding of birth control, led to smaller families and less demand on mothers. Having control over their fertility literally gave years of life back to women. Family life also became more democratic. Freed from constant childcare, mothers were able to find opportunities to work in many professions.
Unmarried women of a younger generation also began to question the limits that had been imposed on them before the war. Those who had gone to work at munitions factories and on the docks struggled with the mandate to return to pre-war life as domestic laborers. Other women who had gained experience in skilled trades as engineers or in white-collar professions were forced back to unskilled industries. War work had given women new skill sets and the novelty of financial independence—and with that, a new sense of confidence and self-determination. Expectations had changed. When the Sex Disqualification Act of 1919 finally allowed women access to many professions, thousands chose a life of independence that would have been impossible before the war.
World War I’s effect on British women was complex, but the sum of all parts was a gradual but sweeping social change. Soon, Britain would hurtle headlong into the Jazz Age. The upheaval of the 20th century would accelerate transformations on all sides of society. But Lady Astor and the women of her day had found a new confidence, simply by realizing that they had the ability to ask for more out of life. “We are not asking for superiority, for we’ve always had that,” Lady Astor quipped. “All we ask is equality.”