#whitefeather diaries

A Quaker woman calls for votes, peace and socialism

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Before the war, the issue of votes for women was one of the hot political topics of the day. When war came, women campaigning for the vote were split over whether to support it. For some women, the struggle for the right to vote and the campaign against the war went hand in hand.

These included prominent Quaker women such as Isabella Ford from Leeds. Despite her wealthy background, she was a socialist and a member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). She campaigned for votes for women and held firm to the belief that war cannot end war. In January 1915 she sent a New Year greeting to the ILP:

I have always been thankful that I had the good sense to be a socialist, and now am more so than ever... in the midst of all this chaos and ruin, of all the nonsense talked about this war ending all war, the ILP and its leaders, Mr Keir Hardie, J.R. MacDonald, Bruce Glasier and the rest have stood calmly upholding those principles of sense and justice which alone can save us and all humanity. How proud it makes me.

Women and warfare

Isabella urged the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) to campaign for peace. In early 1915 the organisation split on the issue. Isabella was a strong voice on the anti-war side. She wrote in the Leeds Weekly Citizen on 12 March 1915:

Women have more to lose in this horrible business than some men have, for they often lose more than life itself when their men are killed, since they lose all that makes life worth living for, all that makes for happiness... the destruction of the race too is felt more bitterly and more deeply by those who through suffering and anguish have brought the race into the world.

Resigning from the NUWSS

On 14 June 1915 a statement by Isabella Ford and other anti-war suffragists was published in the suffrage newsletter Common Cause, explaining why they had resigned from the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. They summed up their view of the split succinctly:

The real cleavage of opinion in the Union lies between those who consider it essential to work for the vote simply as a political tool, and those who believe that the demand for the vote should be linked with the advocacy of the deeper principles that underlie it.

Sources: Common Cause; Leeds Weekly Citizen; June Hannam, 'Isabella Ford and the Women's International League during World War One' (talk given to the British branch of WILPF, 2014); Anne Wiltsher, Most Dangerous Women: Feminist peace campaigners of the Great War (Pandora, 1985)

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Relief workers building a new section at Sermaize Château Hospital
Wednesday 28 October 2015

Hilda, a Quaker doctor from Somerset, was working in France with the Friends War Victims Relief Committee. She had re-established the group to alleviate the suffering of those caught up in the war. This humanitarian response unit worked with civilians close to the front line, offering practical support on the basis of a common humanity.

In the spring of 1915 she wrote home to her friend Edith Pye.