Isabella Ford, the daughter of Robert Ford and Hannah Pease, was born in Leeds in 1855. Ford came from a prosperous family from the West Riding of Yorkshire. Although a substantial landowner, Ford worked as a solicitor in Leeds. Hannah Pease also came from a wealthy family. Her grandfather, Thomas Pease, had been one of the major shareholders of the Stockton to Darlington Railway.
Robert and Hannah Ford were both Quakers and this influenced they way they raised their eight children. For example, although members of the upper middle-class, the Ford children were taught to treat the servants with "esteem, equality and friendship". Robert and Hannah Ford also believed in gender equality. Like her brothers, Isabella was taught science and history, as well as art and literature. The children were encouraged to develop inquiring minds and at home were expected to take part in discussions about current political issues.
Robert and Hannah Ford's politics were different from most other members of their class. They supported John Bright, the Quaker MP for Manchester, and his campaigns for parliamentary reform and the repeal of the Corn Laws. The Fords also supported other progressive causes such as prison reform and the protection of wild life.
The family home at Adel Grange near Leeds became a place where radicals could meet and discuss politics. As a young woman, Isabella Ford met prominent feminists such as Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. In 1875 Isabella met Edward Carpenter, a former Anglican priest who had began to question conventional ideas on politics and sexuality. Carpenter introduced Ford to socialist ideas and in 1883 they both joined the recently formed Fabian Society, an organisation which aimed to "reconstruct society in accordance with the highest moral possibilities through political means".
In 1885 Isabella helped Emma Patterson, President of the Women's Protective and Provident League, to form a Machinists' Society for tailoresses in Leeds. This was the start of a long campaign by Ford to improve the pay and conditions of women working in the textile industry in Leeds. In 1889 she established the Leeds Tailoresses' Union and the following year she was elected president of the organisation.
Isabella retained her interest in women's rights and in 1890 helped form the Leeds Women's Suffrage Society with her sister Bessie and their sister-in-law, Helen Cordelia. Three years later, Isabella was involved in forming a Leeds branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The two organizations worked closely together and women such as Mary Gawthorpe and Ethel Annakin were active members of both groups. By the early 1900s Isabella Ford had developed a national reputation for her talents as a speaker and organizer. Ford was also an important writer of books on the struggle for equality. This included Women's Wages (1893), Industrial Women (1900) and Women and Socialism (1904).
In 1903 Isabella became a member of the national executive committee of the ILP. She played an important role in persuading leaders of the ILP such as Philip Snowden to support women's suffrage. Isabella argued that the emancipation of women and the emancipation of labour were strongly linked and that "socialists should support the struggle of women, just as women should support socialism."
Some suffragists disapproved of Isabella Ford's socialism but it 1907 it did not prevent her being elected to the executive committee of the NUWSS. In 1912 she upset members of the Liberal Party when she persuaded the NUWSS to support Labour Party candidates in parliamentary elections.
Isabella Ford, a life-long pacifist, was deeply concerned by the growing hostility between Britain and Germany. In the summer of 1914, Ford and Helena Swanwick helped organise a peace rally in London. Supported by the NUWSS, the Women's Labour League and the International Women's Suffrage Alliance, the rally was held on 4th August. During the meeting at the Kingway Hall they heard the news that Britain had declared war on Germany.
The women's movement was split over the issue of what role women should play during the First World War. The leadership of the WSPU was willing to do whatever was necessary to defeat Germany. Millicent Fawcett of the NUWSS urged her members to concentrate on relief work. Others like Isabella Ford and Helena Swanwick argued that the women's movement should use its energies to try and secure a ceasefire.
As the war went on Isabella found herself more and more isolated and in 1915 was forced to resign from the executive committee of the NUWSS. For the rest of her life, Ford concentrated her efforts helping the peace movement. In the years, 1919, 1920, 1921 and 1922 Ford was a delegate to the Women's International League Congress. Isabella Ford died in 1924.