Members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) have always been disproportionately active in struggles for peace and justice. This was certainly true of first wave feminism…
One of the most prominent of first wave Christian feminists to continue Quaker leadership in the women’s movement was Isabella Ford (1855-1924). Again, the influence of family was vital. As a child she was encouraged to develop an inquiring mind and engage in current political issues. As a young woman, she then met prominent feminists such as Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and also the former Anglican priest Edward Carpenter, who challenged accepted ideas of politics and sexuality and led Isabella towards socialism.
An highly active social reformer, suffragists and writer, she was a notable public speaker and wrote many pamphlets on issues related to socialism, feminism and worker’s rights. After becoming concerned with the rights of female mill workers at an early age, Ford became involved with trade union organisation in the 1880s. A member of the national administrative council of the Independent Labour Party, she was the first woman to speak at a Labour Representation Committee (which became the British Labour Party) conference. Through her encouragement, leading labour figures such as Philip Snowden became more involved and she helped build crucial links between the women’s and labour movement.. During the first world war, and after the vote was obtained for women, Isabella Ford was also highly committed to the peace movement, including through the Women’s International League.
Although some ‘would have taken her for an average English spinster before she spoke’, she 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).
As a contemporary commented, she was a born communicator and conciliator:
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)
Light of all beings,
we give thanks for Isabella Ford
and the historic witness of members of the Society of Friends
for peace, justice and human rights.
May this continue to flourish through your grace
that we and all people may be enriched by your light within us.
In the name of the One who called us friends, Amen.