House of Lords votes to approve female suffrage after bitter debate
Westminster, 11 January 1918 - The House of Lords has voted by a majority of 63 – 134 votes to 71 – to extend the suffrage to women.
The decision effectively green-lights plans to overhaul the voting system to allow for the addition of some 6 million women to the electoral register.
The debate in the Lords centred on an amendment tabled by Earl Loreburn to remove women from the suffrage clauses in the reform bill. Loreburn contended that the enfranchisement of women was neither in the interests of the UK nor of women themselves. He questioned the wisdom of trusting the judgement of women in such grave matters as had to be decided by the House of Commons.
He was not alone in voicing scepticism. In the course of the debate, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Finlay, worried whether six million women would provide the ‘vast material for pacifist agitation for a hurried peace’, while Earl Curzon feared the envisaged change would be ‘catastrophic’ and ‘irrevocable’.
Lord Lansdowne likewise sided with the opponents of women’s suffrage: not only did Lansdowne suggest that women were themselves ‘profoundly divided’ on the issue, he questioned whether Parliament had the right to make such a ‘revolutionary’ change.
None of these arguments won out. Lord Selborne suggested that it was ‘pure delusion’ to imagine the House of Commons passing a reform bill that omitted women from the franchise any more than they would omit soldiers and sailors. The change, he argued, would ‘bring fresh power to the Empire’.
The Archbishop of Canterbury was another who believed the time was right for taking a ‘plunge in the dark’, as to do otherwise would be to set the House against the wishes of the people and inaugurate a most deplorable controversy in the country.
The majority of his fellow Lords clearly agreed with this position.
Welcoming the vote, the Irish Times has defended the decision to extend the franchise and rejected the inference put about by some peers that it would encourage ‘pacifism’. On the contrary, it would have been a ‘palpable injustice’ to withhold the vote from ‘a sex which has for the first time taken its full share in the national effort, and whose services will be needed in every department of reconstruction after the war’.
The only stage now remaining before the bill becomes law is to receive Royal Assent.
[Editor's note: This is an article from Century Ireland, a fortnightly online newspaper, written from the perspective of a journalist 100 years ago, based on news reports of the time.]