The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Ruth Dalton (1890-1966) and Leah Manning (1886-1977) were both Labour MPs and formidable campaigners. They got to know each other in the early 1920s in Cambridge, where Manning was working as a teacher and Dalton’s husband was standing for election. In her autobiography, Manning recalled that they “became good friends and she helped me to run the first Family Planning Clinic in Cambridge—at that time thought to be not very respectable.”
Ruth Dalton’s 92-day career in Parliament made her the shortest-serving woman MP—a record equalled in 1974 by Margo MacDonald. After gaining a degree from the London School of Economics, where she joined the Fabian Society, Ruth married Hugh Dalton, who later became Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1917 they had a daughter, Helen, who died in 1922.
Ruth Dalton translated foreign newspapers for the War Trade Intelligence Department during the first world war and later ran the first birth control clinic in Cambridge with Manning. She was elected to London County Council in 1925 as Labour councillor for Peckham, and helped to develop green belt policy.
Hugh Dalton was MP for Peckham, but wanted to contest Bishop Auckland in the 1929 general election. When the incumbent MP died in December 1928, Ruth Dalton was persuaded to stand in the resulting by-election and hold the seat for her husband until the general election. Her maiden speech was a heartfelt account of the poverty and distress in her constituency. After the election the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, asked her to consider remaining in politics. She told him that she had never wanted to be an MP and preferred to return to the LCC, because “There we do things. Here it all seems to be all talk.” Her subsequent work included service on the Arts Council and the board of the Royal Ballet.
Leah Manning joined the Fabian Society at teaching college—Homerton in Cambridge—later becoming active in the NUT and Labour. Her only child died in infancy in 1918. She could “never resist a procession or a demo” and was associated with the trade union group in Parliament. She was greatly involved with the Family Planning Association.
Manning was selected as the Labour candidate for Bristol East, but was encouraged by the party to step down in favour of Stafford Cripps in 1930. In the by-election following the death of Ethel Bentham (1861-1931), she stood for Islington East in 1931 and took the seat with a majority of 2,277. This was the first time that one woman MP had been succeeded by another. Manning described the “bitter hostility” she faced in the House, criticised its “wearisome and stupid” all-night sittings, and insisted on using the men’s coathooks, despite the disapproval of her male colleagues. Her maiden speech was controversial, attacking Chamberlain’s policies. In subsequent contributions, she focused on education and teachers’ pay. During the Spanish Civil War, Manning was instrumental in the evacuation of 4,000 children and a number of adults from Bilbao.
Manning served for only eight months in 1931 until defeat in the 1931 general election, but she sought re-election—she stood in Sunderland in 1935—and eventually returned to the Commons as Member for the new constituency of Epping from 1945 to 1950. She spoke mainly on agriculture and foreign affairs, and she was a member of the Estimates Committee. She campaigned on war damages, worked on new towns and penal reform, and lobbied for the inclusion of family planning in the NHS Bill in 1946.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
The Northern Echo, “The Gentle Touch”, 5 March 2005: https://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/6959543.the-gentle-touch/
Dalton making her maiden speech in Hansard: http://bit.ly/2VLh2Yy
Homerton 250 website, “Dame Leah Manning”: https://homerton250.org/people/dame-leah-manning/
History of Parliament blog by James Parker on Leah Manning as a parliamentary candidate: https://thehistoryofparliament.wordpress.com/2019/05/21/i-am-a-political-animal-but-i-am-not-a-politician-leah-manning-as-a-sponsored-parliamentary-candidate-in-the-1930s/
Lost Cambridge website: “Leah Manning MP elected for Islington East, 1931”: https://lostcambridge.wordpress.com/2018/06/09/leah-manning-mp-elected-for-islington-east-1931/
Manning making her maiden speech in Hansard: http://bit.ly/2WbCZPU
Leah Manning and the Spanish Civil War: https://www.layersoflondon.org/map?record=6653