After the passing of the Third Reform Act in 1884, 60% of male householders over the age of 21 had the vote. Following the horrors of the First World War, millions of returning soldiers would still not have been entitled to vote in the long overdue general election. (The previous election had been in December 1910. The Parliament Act 1911 had set the maximum term of a Parliament at five years, but an amendment to the Act postponed the general election to after the war's conclusion.)
The issue of a female right to vote first gathered momentum during the latter half of the nineteenth century. In 1865 the Kensington Society, a discussion group for middle-class educated women who were barred from higher education, met at the Kensington home of Indian scholar Charlotte Manning. Following a discussion on suffrage, a small informal committee was formed to draft a petition and gather signatures, led by women including Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett. In 1869, John Stuart Mill, published The Subjection of Women (1861, published 1869), one of the earliest written on this subject by a male author. In The Subjection of Women, Mill attempts to make a case for perfect equality. He talks about the role of women in marriage and how it needed to be changed. There, Mill comments on three major facets of women's lives that he felt are hindering them: society and gender construction, education, and marriage. He argued that the oppression of women was one of the few remaining relics from ancient times, a set of prejudices that severely impeded the progress of humanity. He agreed to present the petition to Parliament provided it could get at least 100 signatures, and the first version was drafted by his step-daughter, Helen Taylor.
The Suffragettes and Suffragists had pushed for their right to be represented prior to the war, but felt too little had changed despite violent agitation by the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women's Social and Political Union.
The suffragist Millicent Fawcett suggests that the women's right to vote issue was the main reason for the Speaker's Conference in 1917. She protested at the resultant age limits while accepting that there were at the time one and a half million more women than men in the country and that the friends of women's suffrage wanted to maintain a male majority.