A century on, has life got even worse for female MPs? 

Lady Nancy Astor arguing at the hustings during her election campaign in Plymouth
Lady Nancy Astor arguing at the hustings during her election campaign in Plymouth Credit: Hulton Archive 

Cathy Newman on the challenge facing women politicians 100 years after the first one entered the House of Commons 

A century ago, when Nancy Astor became the first woman to take a seat in the House of Commons, the headline writers knew exactly what to make of it. “Commons Boudoir for Women MPs’ Hat Problem Still Unsolved!” roared one. 

True, a large delivery of hats from milliners seeking free advertising from the female politician had presented an unexpected challenge. But it hardly seems the most newsworthy aspect of this momentous event.

In fact, women had been able to stand since November 1918, with Constance Markievicz the first to win a seat in that year’s general election. But, as Sinn Fein MP for Dublin, she refused to take it up, in line with her party’s policy. 

So it was left to the American-born Viscountess Astor to make history the following year. She was elected as Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton following a by-election on November 15 1919 (replacing her husband, Waldorf, who had been elevated to the House of Lords), but had to wait several weeks, until November 28, for the results - where it emerged that she’d won more votes than the Labour and Liberal candidates put together. 

Yet when Lady Astor took up her seat in the Commons on December 1 - met by a group of veteran suffragettes at Paddington station that morning - it wasn’t just the hat problem which presented itself. 

There were scant facilities for female MPs. Lady Astor, then aged 40, was the sole occupant of the “Lady Members’ Room” - a basement hide-out which soon became known as “the dungeon”. When, over the years, more women parliamentarians arrived - the second female MP to take her seat and the first British born, Liberal Margaret Wintringham, was elected in 1921 - conditions became cramped. 

As with the millinery panic, this wasn’t something that was quickly solved. 

Barbara Castle (pictured with the Queen) found she had no desk in the Commons after being elected Credit: PA

In fact, many years later, in 1945, when Barbara Castle was elected as Labour MP for Blackburn (a seat she held for 34 years), she arrived to find that she had no desk, let alone an office. 

Lady Astor’s parliamentary existence seems far more than a century removed from today’s female denizens of Westminster. For one thing, the head gardener at her country residence of Cliveden would make up a fresh buttonhole every day to send to her in London. I think it’s safe to say that not a single one of the 211 women in the Commons during this most recent parliament had such floral tributes. But another aspect of Lady Astor’s experience may be all too familiar to her successors: the vitriol heaped on her by members of the public.

She became inured to the slings and arrows hurled her way on the campaign trail, and developed a brilliant line in put-downs. “How many toes has a pig?” she was once asked at a meeting. “Take your shoes off and count them,” she retorted. 

She was also criticised for her audacity in pursuing a political career when many thought she should be staying at home to look after her five children. Again, Lady Astor had an answer: “I feel someone ought to be looking after the more unfortunate children. My children are among the fortunate ones.”

But for all her withering comebacks, it’s not a joke; this kind of gendered abuse has persisted down the decades. Two early Labour MPs in the 1940s, Bessie Braddock and Leah Manning, were nicknamed “United Dairies” because of their generous cleavage (I suppose we should be grateful that “Blair’s Babes” was marginally less personal).

Barbara Castle, as transport secretary, received hate mail for curbing drink-driving - a law which saved many lives - with one member of the public calling her a “bitchy old cow”.

The same insult was often thrown at the towering female figure of 20th century British politics: Margaret Thatcher. When she became the first female to lead a British political party, a Conservative vice-chairman exclaimed: “My God! The bitch has won!”

Nicky Morgan is not standing as an MP in the forthcoming general election Credit: REUTERS 

That insult, along with “witch”, was repeatedly applied to her during her 15-year tenure as Tory leader, mainly from her many opponents on the Labour benches. But her international foes also had some choice phrases, with French president Jacques Chirac asking: “What more does this housewife want from me? My balls on a plate?”

Today, the invective has reached new heights. Female MPs from all sides of the house receive daily death and rape threats. 

Even since the start of this current general election campaign just over a week ago, the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson has said her staff were left shaken and fearful after she was sent a suspicious package in the post. The Labour MP Jess Phillips, whose constituency office was attacked in September, has told me she’s so stressed that she wakes up gasping for air and, if she’s out of contact with her family for too long, she panics they may have been killed. 

Research by Amnesty International has found that black, Asian and minority ethnic female MPs are more likely to be targeted online, with the first black female MP, Labour’s Diane Abbott, consistently singled out. 

Little wonder so many women have decided not to stand again. Eighteen female MPs are stepping down at this election - including Amber Rudd, Gloria de Piero, Seema Kennedy and Nicky Morgan, who previously received threatening phone calls from a man named Robert Vidler, 64, telling her her “days were numbered” and who was jailed for 18 weeks. We are seeing Conservative women, in particular, calling time on their parliamentary careers on average a full decade earlier than their male counterparts. 

Many MPs -  both male and female - say that social media has polluted the public discourse by giving a platform to trolls who previously lurked, mostly unseen, under bridges. And following the murder of Labour backbencher Jo Cox in 2016, they know all too well that it can spill over into the real world.

Their entirely understandable decision to retreat from the fray, 100 years after Lady Astor took her rightful place in our seat of power, is to the detriment of us all. 

The 211 female members of the House of Commons - 32 per cent of the total - is an all-time high. But women account for more than fifty per cent of the population: we need to be better represented in parliament. 

Even more so because female MPs have made an extraordinary contribution in Westminster. It was a woman - former suffragette Eleanor Rathbone - who introduced a “family allowance”, which later became child benefit. Barbara Castle also prevented deaths by making seat-belts compulsory, and introduced the Equal Pay Act nearly half a century ago. Jennie Lee, as arts minister in Harold Wilson’s government, oversaw the creation of the Open University. And of course, Mrs Thatcher blazed a trail for generations of women in Westminster and paved the way for Theresa May. 

So while we should certainly celebrate Nancy Astor’s historic victory, a century ago -  and recognise all that has changed since - we must also reflect that the treatment of women in public life may not have progressed as much as we like to think. After all, what’s the use of being given your own desk, if you’re too afraid to sit at it?

Bloody Brilliant Women by Cathy Newman (RRP £20). Buy now for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514.