‘The Burning Question’

The Speaker, John Bercow, with a portrait of Speaker Lowther. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
The Speaker, John Bercow, with a portrait of Speaker Lowther. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

One hundred years ago, votes for women gained support in Parliament thanks to Speaker James Lowther.

 ‘I endeavoured to push off the burning question of women’s suffrage as long as I could.’ (Speaker Lowther, ‘A Speaker’s Commentaries’)

Speaker James W Lowther was remembering a Conference on electoral reform which discussed and then recommended votes for women on 10-11 January 1917. January 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of this important but little-remembered Parliamentary body, which was crucial in the history of votes for women.

James W. Lowther. Parliamentary Archives, PHO/7/1/9/4
James W. Lowther. Parliamentary Archives, PHO/7/1/9/4.

Speaker Lowther had been contending with suffragette agitation in the Palace of Westminster over a number of years before the First World War, including ordering the closure of the Ladies’ Gallery after the Grille Incident in 1908, and banning Emily Wilding Davison from the precincts in 1910. However before the Conference, the Speaker was best-known to women’s suffrage campaigners for a Parliamentary ruling in 1913, when he scuppered a promising suffrage bill by ruling in the House of Commons that women could not be added to a men’s Franchise Bill. Willoughby Dickinson MP, a great supporter of votes for women, wrote in his diary:

‘Last night the Speaker stated in his opinion if that Bill came up from Committee with material alterations it would be a new bill and have to be sent back for second reading. This was aimed at Women’s Suffrage …. The opinion is clearly wrong as everyone admits and I am sure he has acted as usual by prejudice against this Bill. In my opinion he is a very unfair Chairman.’ (Diary entry for 24 January 1913, in Hope Costley-White, ‘Willoughby Hyett Dickinson: A Memoir’)

Militant suffragettes and peaceful suffragist campaigners alike were furious at the Speaker’s ruling, which led to an outburst of militant protest led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Sylvia Pankhurst recalled targeting a portrait of a historic Speaker shortly afterwards:

House of Commons 1628-9 Speaker Finch held by Holles and Valentine
Andrew Carrick Gow, ‘House of Commons 1628-9 Speaker Finch held by Holles and Valentine’. Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 2950

 ‘I rushed to the House of Commons and threw a stone at the picture of Speaker Finch, held in the chair by Members to force him to put through Sir John Elliot’s resolution on tonnage and poundage in Cromwell’s day.’ (Sylvia Pankhurst, ‘The Life of Emmeline Pankhurst’)

Millicent Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, remembered the ‘Government fiasco of 1913’ as follows:

 ‘I was one of a crowd of women walking up and pacing down Palace Yard and Parliament Square… I felt that what I had been working on for forty years had been destroyed at a blow: but I also felt what beavers must feel when their dam has been destroyed, that they must begin all over again.’ (Millicent Fawcett, ‘What I Remember’)

The Speaker finds out about the 1917 Speaker's Conference with Mari Takayanagi, Vote 100 Exhibition joint project manager. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
The Speaker finds out about the 1917 Speaker’s Conference with Mari Takayanagi, Vote 100 Exhibition joint project manager. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

But a few years later, everything had changed. With the Great War raging, it became obvious in Parliament that there had to be some electoral reforms made before the next general election, or millions of men fighting on active service would not be able to vote. Approximately 40% of men were not eligible to vote before 1914 because of residence and property qualifications. Suffrage campaigners seized the opportunity to include women. Millicent Fawcett wrote a lengthy letter to Prime Minister Asquith expressing concerns:

 ‘Not, of course, that any of us are in any degree hostile to the enfranchisement of men who have been suffering and working for our country, but it is feared that the Suffrage may be dealt with in a manner prejudicial to the future enfranchisement of women.’ (Fawcett to Asquith, 4 May 1916)

After much discussion, in October 1916 Asquith appointed Speaker Lowther to chair a Conference on Electoral Reform, a cross-party group of MPs and Peers, to make recommendations on various issues, including who should be able to vote. Although initially worried that the Speaker was an ‘Anti-Suffragist’, Millicent Fawcett gave due credit to him ‘for his power of holding the balance even between contending factions, and also for courtesy and humour, always a great solvent of difficulties.’

Viscount Simon, grandson of Sir John Simon. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
Viscount Simon, grandson of Sir John Simon. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Speaker’s Conference members who were in favour of women’s suffrage included Willoughby Dickinson and Sir John Simon. In the end, it was largely thanks to Speaker Lowther that the Conference recommended votes for some women. Whatever his personal feelings, he felt a duty to achieve a consensus on this issue for the sake of the country in wartime. He left the ‘burning question’ of women’s suffrage until after agreement had been reached on other less controversial issues.

Following arguments led by Willoughby Dickinson on 10 and 11 January 1917, the Conference 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’ (Conference report, 27 January 1917). By this time Dickinson had thoroughly revised his opinion of the Speaker.

Baroness Jenkin, great-granddaughter of Willoughby Dickinson MP. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
Baroness Jenkin, great-granddaughter of Willoughby Dickinson MP. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

‘He has really done good work as he has enabled us to arrive at a reform which, whilst essentially is compromise, is a thoroughly radical scheme. If Parliament accepts it we shall have put democracy on a really firm basis and if we add women to the list of electors the House of Commons will at last represent the whole people’. (Diary entry for 26 January 1917, in Hope Costley-White, ‘Willoughby Hyett Dickinson: A Memoir’)

The Speaker discusses the importance of women's suffrage with Mari Takayanagi, Vote 100 Exhibition joint project manager. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
The Speaker discusses the importance of women’s suffrage with Mari Takayanagi, Vote 100 Exhibition joint project manager. © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Parliament did accept it: the Conference recommendation went forward in the Bill introduced later in 1917, which became the Representation of the People Act 1918. Although equal franchise had to wait another ten years, until the Equal Franchise Act 1928, the big concession of principle – that women could vote – was first agreed in the Speaker’s Conference recommendation in January 1917. Votes for women would never have been achieved without the actions and pressure brought to bear by Millicent Fawcett, the Pankhursts and all the other women’s suffrage campaigners across the decades. However as we mark the centenary of the Speaker’s Conference report in January 2017, we should also remember the role of Speaker Lowther and his conference.

The Vote 100 online display on the 1917 Speaker’s Conference, with downloadable leaflet, is at: http://www.parliament.uk/1917speakersconference

Mari Takayanagi, Joint Vote 100 Exhibition Project Manager

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