Isabella Ford is one of the most remakable and interesting individuals Yorkshire has ever produced. For much of her life she was a well-known public figure who could draw large audiences for her speeches and command the respect of women and men across the political spectrum. Yet today her contribution to the social, economic and political changes that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is largely forgotten, even in her Yorkshire home.
Isabella had a national and international profile, but she lived all her life in Leeds, sharing the house at Adel Grange with her sisters Bessie and Emily. Everyone who was anyone came to Leeds sooner or later to visit them, and they hosted guests as disparate as the American suffragist Susan B Anthony, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin and the early gay rights activist Edward Carpenter, who became a close personal friend. Emily Ford became a noted religious artist whose work can still be seen in All Souls’ Church near Leeds University, and all the Fords had a strong social conscience. In Isabella, this was combined with an excellent political brain and a great capacity for empathy as well as practical action.
Predictably, she was a strong supporter of votes for women, and although her Quaker beliefs kept her out of the militant campaign she had friends on both sides of the tactical divide. For many years she counted both the militant Emmeline Pankhurst and the law-abiding Millicent Fawcett as her friends, and ultimately it was pacifism and Isabella’s opposition to the First World War rather than suffrage which divided them.
A considerable number of middle-class women supported the campaign for the franchise, but some saw the oppression of their sex as economic and social as well as political. Isabella’s early charity work convinced her that working-class women needed more than just sermons and needlework classes, and that they themselves should have agency over their own lives. As a result she turned her hand to trade union organisation, helping to lead industrial actions such as the Leeds Tailoresses strike of 1889 and the one at Bradford’s Manningham Mills a year later. She was the President of the Leeds Tailoresses Union and had a deep understanding of the challenges the women she represented faced. These experiences led her to see suffrage as inextricably linked with economic justice, and she became a strong advocate for the vote as a prerequisite for the economic and social liberation of women, spending many years attempting to connect the socialist and suffrage causes.
The Ford sisters were early joiners of socialist organisations and had a wide circle of friends in them. They were amongst the first women to join the Independent Labour Party when it was formed, and for four years Isabella was a member of its executive. She was in the public gallery when the Labour Party was founded and a few years later she was the first woman to speak at a Labour Party conference. She was instrumental in securing the deal in 1912 by which the Labour Party agreed to support the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in exchange for NUWSS money and electoral expertise for Labour candidates. She was a member of Adel Parish Council for many years, initially as the ILP’s first and only female elected councillor.
Like many other women Isabella moved between different campaigns as events and necessity dictated, trying to knit together disparate strands of the ferment of causes and movements that marked the times. However, most women’s history from this period is framed around the suffrage movement alone, and gradually we have begun to define women by the part they played in that. As a result, people like Isabella Ford seem to slip in and out of the picture instead of standing in the central position they actually occupied, and we have slowly lost the stories of women who, for one reason or another, lived socialist, trade unionist or just more complicated, lives. The battles fought by the tailoresses and weavers of the West Riding for a decent standard of living have at least as much validity as those of (mainly) middle-class women for the vote. Far too many women on the left have been erased from their own history.
Choosing one kind of history, or the history of one group, over another merely obscures our view of the whole. Like Isabella Ford, we need to encompass the entire story of women’s progress over the last two centuries; only then will we truly be able to celebrate the sheer magnitude of what we have achieved, as well as accept the challenge of what remains to be done.
Read more about Isabella Ford and other women involved in the early Labour and trade union movements in The Women in the Room: Labour’s Forgotten History.
June Hannam’s excellent biography Isabella Ford, published in 1989, is available from libraries, second hand bookshops and online sites.