Behind the scenes
“We should greatly prefer an imperfect scheme that can pass, to the most perfect scheme in the world that could not pass” Millicent Garrett Fawcett, 1917
Before 1914, only 58% of men had the vote. By 1916 it had become clear that the next general election could not use the pre-war electoral register, as many men on military service had been out of the country too long to meet the residency qualifications. There was also a strong feeling among politicians on all sides that previously unfranchised men who had been conscripted into the forces or otherwise contributed to the war effort deserved the vote.
A cross-party conference of 32 MPs and Peers was formed to discuss electoral reform, with Speaker Lowther as Chairman. Women's suffrage campaigners saw their opportunity, and lobbied politicians extensively. Concerned about enfranchising too many women by giving them the vote on the same terms as men, in January 1917 the conference recommended that an age limit of 30 or 35 be set and left the House of Commons to debate which.
Two months later over 80 women representing 33 suffrage societies and women's organisations took part in a deputation to the Prime Minister. Led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett (NUWSS), the deputation also included Emmeline Pankhurst (WSPU), Charlotte Despard (WFL), Eleanor Rathbone (NUWSS), and Dr Louisa Garrett Anderson (WSPU).
“No nation is sustained, either in peace or in war, by the work of one sex only; it is sustained by the work of both sexes combined. And this, which we have always perceived, has come to many as a revelation, made clear by the great search-lights of war” Millicent Garrett Fawcett.
Prime Minister Lloyd George considered the proposed age bar for women voters as ‘illogical' and ‘unjustifiable'. However he advised the deputation not to challenge the recommendations made by the Speaker's Conference, warning that if calls were made for votes for women on the same terms as men there was likely to be strong opposition from anti-suffragist MPs.