Ford, Isabella O. (1855–1924)

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Ford, Isabella O. (1855–1924)

British feminist . Born in Leeds, England, in 1855; died in 1924; one of eight children of Robert (a solicitor) and Hannah (Pease) Ford.

One of eight children in an upper-middle-class Quaker family, Isabella Ford was raised in an enlightened environment. Her parents taught their children to treat everyone, including the servants, with "esteem, equality and friendship." They also believed in gender equality and educated their children in both the sciences and the arts. Politically, the Fords supported John Bright, the Quaker MP for their district, and his campaign for repeal of the Corn Laws. They also championed other progressive causes such as prison reform and the protection of wild life. Their home (Adel Grange), outside of Leeds, became a gathering place for political radicals, and

Isabella came in contact with prominent feminists, such as Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson . In 1857, Ford met Edward Carpenter, a former Anglican priest who introduced her to socialist ideas. In 1883, the two of them joined the Fabian Society, a newly formed organization whose aim was to "reconstruct society in accordance with the highest moral possibilities through political means."

In 1885, Ford began a long campaign to reform conditions for the women textile workers in Leeds, who endured low pay and deplorable working conditions. Joining with Emma Paterson , president of the Women's Protective and Provident League, Ford helped form a Machinists' Society for tailors. In 1889, she established the Leeds Tailoresses' Union and was elected president.

Continuing her work for women's rights, in 1890 Ford, her sister Bessie Ford , and her sister-in-law Helen Cordelia , helped form the Leeds Women's Suffrage Society. Three years later, Ford was involved in organizing the Leeds branch of the Independent Labor Party. By 1900, she had gained a national reputation as a speaker and organizer for the women's movement. She also wrote books on the struggle for equality, including Women's Wages (1893), Industrial Women (1900), and Socialism (1904).

Ford's political involvement grew in 1903, when she became a member of the national executive committee of the Independent Labor Party. In that role, she helped persuade party leaders to support women's suffrage. In 1907, despite the objection of some suffragists to her socialist ties, Ford was elected to the executive committee of the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). In 1912, she persuaded the NUWSS to support Labor Party candidates in the parliamentary elections, which did not sit well with the Liberal Party.

A life-long pacifist, Ford became concerned about growing hostilities between Britain and Germany and, in 1914, helped organize a peace rally in London for August 4. During the rally, which was supported by the NUWSS, the Women's Labor League, and the International Women's Suffrage Alliance, news came that Britain had declared war on Germany, effectively launching World War I.

As the conflict wore on, the women's movement was split over the role women should play in the war. While some factions supported Britain's effort to defeat Germany, others, including Ford, argued that the women's movements should work to try and secure a cease-fire. As the schism deepened, Ford found herself more and more isolated, and in 1915, she was forced to resign from the executive committee of the NUWSS. In her later years, she put all her effort into the peace movement, serving as a delegate to the Women's International League Congress from 1919 to 1922. Isabella Ford died in 1924.

suggested reading:

Middleton, Lucy. Women in the Labour Movement, 1977.

Roberts, Marie, ed. The Reformers: Socialist Feminism, 1995.

——, ed. The Workers, 1995.

Rowbotham, Sheila. Hidden From History, 1972.