Votes for Women at the Speaker's Conference
The Speaker deliberately left discussion of women's suffrage as long as possible, to obtain agreement on other electoral reform issues first. He wrote in his memoirs, ‘I endeavoured to push off the burning question of women's suffrage as long as I could.' On the departure of three anti-suffragist members in December 1916 (Robert Finlay, Frederick Banbury and Lord Salisbury), he replaced them with pro-suffragists.
Votes for women was finally discussed on 10 and 11 January 1917, when the Speaker suggested informal divisions. The Conference agreed by 15 votes to 6 that there should be some measure of women's suffrage; but a motion to give the vote on the same terms as men was lost, 10 votes to 12. Various age limits were then considered, but the number of women enfranchised seemed either too high or too low for consensus. Then:, as described by Willoughby Dickinson,‘I made my proposition that the vote should go to occupiers or wives of occupiers, and this carried 9 to 8. Thus by a majority of one, the suffrage clause went forward!'
The Conference therefore decided by a majority to recommend that the franchise be conferred on all woman who were on the local government register, or whose husbands were, provided they had reached a specified age ‘of which 30 and 35 received most favour'.
Lowther received much praise and many congratulations for his adroit management of the Conference. Walter Long wrote, ‘It is entirely thanks to you that the Conference has come through so triumphantly.' Asquith moved a resolution in the House of Commons to thank the Speaker and to introduce legislation based on the Conference resolutions. This passed easily, despite continuing opposition to women's suffrage from some MPs.