the men who said no


Isabella Ford

Isabella Ford was active in the struggle for socialism and women’s rights before the war, making peace her priority when World War 1 came.

She was born in Leeds in 1855, into a prosperous Quaker family with 8 children. Her parents believed in treating girls equally to boys so she was taught science and history as well as art and literature. Her parents supported progressive causes such as parliamentary and prison reform. The family home in Adel Grange became a centre for the discussion of radical ideas, where she was introduced to socialism, becoming a member of the Fabian society in 1883. She began a long campaign to improve the working conditions for women in the textile industry in Leeds, setting up the Leeds Tailoresses’ Union in 1889. She took a leading role in strikes, helping to organise relief for the strikers and to publicise their cause. In one industrial dispute she is described as walking through the sleet and snow with the strikers ‘like a new Joan of Arc’.

In 1890 she helped to form the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society, and, later, with her sister Bessie, the local branch of the Independent Labour Party - because the ILP stood for ‘equality and opportunity for the whole race….women had never had such equality before.’ By the early 1900s she was a national figure, known for her speaking, organising and writing abilities, publishing several books about women and socialism, and women in industry, as well as articles and letters. She served on the national executive of the ILP and persuaded them to support women’s suffrage. In 1907 she was elected to the executive of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). For both the ILP and the NUWSS she spoke at meetings up and down the country.

‘She never saw socialism as meaning simply a change in economic and social structures, but argued instead that it would bring beauty and justice into the lives of working men and women, and would provide the potential for full human development.’ When she opened a Women’s Trade Union Club in Leeds in 1897 she chose bright wallpaper decorated with daffodils and sweet peas ‘since beauty of all sorts is excluded from so many of our girls’ lives, that it shall not be excluded from their club.’

She opposed war on religious grounds. She helped to organise the women’s peace rally on 4 August, 1914 at Kingsway Hall. At the annual conference of the NUWSS she is remembered as speaking strongly against cooperation with the government for war purposes ‘with a pugnacity of word and gesture which took everyone’s breath away, and then, having had her say, stamped off the platform and down the hall in almost ferocious style.’ She supported many other suffragists who opposed the war, holding meetings in her London home for Catherine Marshall and others. In a letter to Catherine Marshall in October 1914 Isabella described the pressures on suffragists of whether to stick with the suffrage issue, or join with male peace activists, to do relief work which the government would approve of, or to take up peace work instead. She knew that her friend and leader of the NUWSS, Millicent Fawcett, didn’t approve of the peace work, and said: ‘I intend to take more definite action - I want to visit branches and address them on ‘Women’s Work in Time of War’ - a most misleading title I assure you!’ She was trying to get out of other commitments to her council and the Lord Mayor ‘because my whole mind and soul is bent on peace work.’ In the end, like many others, she left the executive of the NUWSS over the issue. Her work now concentrated on peace, for the Women’s International League, the Union of Democratic Control and later in the war, the Women’s Peace Crusade.

On October 15th, 1917, the Women’s International League arranged a conference at Central Hall, Westminster, as the Women’s Peace Crusade was growing in strength. Isabella was secretary of the WPC in Leeds, and she moved a resolution, together with Margaret Haley, which was passed: ‘This meeting declares that the political situation in Germany, rightly handled, gives opportunity for a democratic peace…. Believing that the only guarantees for a lasting peace are the satisfaction of the peoples and the establishment of a League of Nations, making disarmament possible, this meeting declares that negotiations should now be begun to those ends, and that such a policy would be approved by the great mass of the people of this country, who are sick of the slaughter and starvation of millions, not only on the battlefields but in the homes of Europe.’

After the war she attended the WILPF Congress in Zurich in May 1919. Many of the international delegates were deeply shocked to see the condition of the Austrian, German and Hungarian delegates, some of whom they had last met in 1915 - they did not dare to eat the rich food after years of deprivation. Isabella Ford was reported in tears over the daughter of one of the German delegates who had died of tuberculosis because weak from hunger. On the last day a Frenchwoman arrived from the devastated Ardennes, and the German who had just finished speaking leapt up to give her some roses, saying ‘A German woman gives her hand to a French woman, and says in the name of the German delegation, that we hope we women can build a bridge from Germany to France and from France to Germany, and that in the future we may be able to make good the wrong-doing of men.’

She died in 1924.



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