We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Ford, Isabella Ormston (1855–1924), socialist propagandist and suffragist, was born on 23 May 1855 at St John's Hill, Clarendon Road, Headingley, Leeds, the eighth and youngest child of Robert Lawson Ford (1809–1878), solicitor and landowner, and his wife, Hannah (1814–1886), the daughter of Thomas Benson Pease of Darlington and Martha Whitelock. When Isabella was ten the family moved to Adel Grange, a large property on the outskirts of Leeds, which was to be home for her and two of her sisters, Elizabeth Helen (Bessie; 1848–1919) and Emily Susan (1850–1930), until shortly before Isabella's death.

The Ford children were brought up in a Quaker household immersed in radical Liberal politics, women's rights campaigns, and humanitarian causes. The girls were educated at home by governesses and were taught a wide range of subjects. Isabella's mother encouraged her to take an interest in the employment conditions and education of working women and at sixteen she was expected to teach in a night school for mill girls set up by her parents and a local shoemaker. A family friend, Emma Paterson, president of the Women's Protective and Provident League, suggested that she should become involved in trade union organization and during the mid-1880s Isabella Ford helped to establish two short-lived societies for women workers in Leeds. It was the labour unrest of 1888–90, however, which brought her to prominence as a trade union organizer. She assisted in disputes among female textile workers and took a leading role in the lengthy Leeds tailoresses' strike of 1889. She also took part in the Manningham mills dispute in Bradford in 1890/91 and became a lifelong friend of Ben Turner, leader of the Textile Workers' Union.

The labour unrest also marked the beginning of Isabella Ford's commitment to socialist politics and she was a founder member of the Leeds Independent Labour Party (ILP). From then on she argued that trade union organization, the vote, and socialism were all necessary for women's emancipation, although her priorities shifted over time. During the 1890s, as president of the Leeds Tailoresses' Union, she was most active in day-to-day organizing work among clothing workers and in speaking for the Textile Workers' Union in its drive to recruit more female members in the West Riding. She was a member of the executive committee of the Women's Trade Union League and after 1895 attended international textile workers' congresses where she translated from French and German for the English delegates. Isabella Ford tried to draw the attention of middle-class women to the work conditions of female workers by speaking at meetings of women's organizations, such as the Women's Liberal Federation, and by writing numerous pamphlets on the subject.

Isabella Ford also carried out propaganda work for the Leeds ILP, speaking at meetings all over the West Riding and writing a column in the Leeds Forward. She was one of the ‘new life’ socialists who gathered around the Yorkshire writer . She was attracted by his vision of a socialism which would transform all areas of life, including the relationship between the sexes, and which would bring love, truth, and beauty into people's lives. Adel Grange became a centre for anyone interested in socialism and women's rights and attracted visitors from all social classes. Isabella Ford had a wide range of interests. She wrote three novels, Miss Blake of Monkshalton (1890), On the Threshold (1895), and Mr Elliott (1901), and was a member of the Leeds arts club, the Humanitarian League, and the Leeds Women's Suffrage Society. In 1895 she was elected to the parish council of Adel cum Eccup.

After 1900, despairing of her lack of success in organizing women workers, Isabella Ford concentrated on propaganda work for socialist and feminist politics at a national level. Between 1903 and 1907 she was elected to the national administrative council of the ILP and embarked on a punishing schedule of meetings which took her all over the country. She was excited by the revival of the women's suffrage movement and was one of a small number of socialist women, neglected in both suffrage and labour histories, who tried to link feminism and socialism, never putting one before the other. She took every opportunity to persuade the labour movement to support a limited franchise and spoke on this subject at the annual conferences of the Labour Representation Committee in 1903 and 1904, which she attended as a delegate of the ILP. In 1904 she took part in a debate with the adult suffragist Margaret Bondfield and was described by Sylvia Pankhurst as ‘a plain, middle-aged woman, with red face and turban hat crushed down upon her straight hair, whose nature yet seemed to me … kindlier and more profound than that of her younger antagonist’ (Pankhurst, 178). Isabella Ford also reminded the Hungarian suffragist Rosika Schwimmer of ‘a caricature of an English spinster’, and yet when she began to speak her wit and depth of knowledge about her subject soon captured an audience's attention (R. S., ‘Women's age of innocence’).

Isabella Ford's writing style was also full of wit and humour and her output reached a peak between 1903 and 1906 both in quantity and quality. Articles and letters appeared regularly in the ILP journal, Labour Leader, varying from commentaries on recent political events to more discursive pieces which analysed women's social position. Her ideas were explored more fully in an important pamphlet, Women and Socialism, published by the ILP in 1904, in which she attempted to develop a theory which would link the labour movement and the women's movement together. As the demand for the suffrage grew more urgent after 1907, and a rift developed between the Labour Party and the militant suffragettes, Isabella Ford decided to join with other committed suffragists in giving priority to the vote. Between 1907 and 1915 she served on the executive committee of the constitutionalist National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by her close friend Millicent Fawcett. She used her speaking talents to good effect at meetings all over the country and was described as the ‘raciest’ speaker in the NUWSS: ‘she speaks with equal success to an audience of 5,000 working men or 25 clergymen—they laugh and weep as she chooses, and they all love her’ (Common Cause, 3 Oct 1913). Her speeches referred constantly to the problems faced by working women. She made a special effort to gain the support of labour groups and played a role in bringing about the alliance for electoral purposes in 1912 between the Labour Party and the NUWSS.

In this, as in most of her activities, Isabella Ford acted as a conciliator. She was described by one contemporary as:
broad and well balanced, and even for Suffrage … refuses to be a fanatic … she swims in the mainstream, she belongs to the centre … Sweet humour puts a twinkle in her eye and on her lips a laugh, at herself maybe, with no bitterness. (Mallon)
On the other hand she was not afraid to express intense indignation against injustice, in particular on behalf of the weak.During the First World War Isabella Ford was a pacifist and resigned with other friends in 1915 from the executive of the NUWSS in order to work for peace, as usual speaking at meetings all over the country. She served on the executive of the British section of the Women's International League. She was also a member of the Union for Democratic Control and the 1917 Club and established a Leeds branch of the Women's Peace Crusade.

In the post-war period, age and ill health curtailed her public activities, but Isabella Ford continued to work wherever she could for women's rights, international peace, and socialism. In 1919, for example, she attended an international congress of women in Zürich and in 1922 she was a delegate to the international peace conference at The Hague. She was asked on a number of occasions to stand for parliament as a Labour Party candidate, but declined because of her health. None the less she continued to work for the Labour Party and campaigned for her old friend Philip Snowden at the 1923 election which saw the return of a Labour government.

Isabella Ford never fully recovered from the death in 1919 of her sister Bessie, who had always provided emotional support, and wrote to Edward Carpenter that ‘a piece of myself is gone’ (I. Ford to E. Carpenter, 2 Aug 1919). In 1922 she moved with Emily to Adel Willows, a small property near the Grange, and it was here that she died in her sleep on 14 July 1924 after several months of ill health caused by a weak heart. Her funeral took place at the Quaker burial-ground, Adel, and a memorial gathering organized by the Women's International League and the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship was held at the Guildhouse, London, on 28 July. She left an estate valued at £24,540, which, apart from a legacy to her parlourmaid, was shared among her relatives.

June Hannam


J. Hannam, Isabella Ford, 1855–1924 (1989) · J. Arnott, ‘In memoriam: Isabella O. Ford’, Leeds Weekly Citizen (19 July 1924) · Woman's Leader (1 Aug 1924) · Yorkshire Evening Post (15 July 1924) · The Friend (1 Aug 1924) · J. J. Mallon, ‘Isabella Ford’, Woman Worker (7 Aug 1908) · ‘Some eminent trade unionists: no. 8, Miss Isabella Ford’, Leeds Weekly Citizen (12 June 1914) · E. E. Crossley, ‘Isabella O. Ford’, Leeds Weekly Citizen (28 June 1929) · E. S. Pankhurst, The suffragette movement: an intimate account of persons and ideals (1931) · G. Beith, ed., Edward Carpenter: in appreciation (1931) · J. Liddington and J. Norris, One hand tied behind us: the rise of the women’s suffrage movement (1978) · A. Wiltsher, Most dangerous women: feminist peace campaigners of the First World War (1985) · B. Turner, ‘Miss I. O. Ford: an appreciation’, Yorkshire Factory Times (24 July 1924) · R.S. [R. Schwimmer], ‘Women's Age of Innocence’, NYPL · I. O. Ford, letter to E. Carpenter, 2 Aug 1919, Sheff. Arch., Carpenter collection


U. Leeds, Brotherton L., MSS · Women's Library, London, corresp. files |  BLPES, corresp. with the independent labour party · L. Cong., Walt Whitman MSS · Man. CL, suffrage MSS · NYPL, Schwimmer Lloyd collection · Sheffield Central Library, corresp. with Edward Carpenter


photograph, repro. in Yorkshire Factory Times (1 Nov 1989) · photograph, repro. in Mallon, ‘Isabella Ford’ · photograph, repro. in Common Cause (Oct 1913) · photograph, repro. in Leeds Weekly Citizen (7 May 1915) · photograph, repro. in Common Cause (June 1910)

Wealth at death  

£24,540 5s. 7d.: probate, 29 Aug 1924, CGPLA Eng. & Wales