Mary Irene Parlby, née Marryat, Alberta MLA (1921–35), women’s rights advocate, activist (born 9 January 1868 in London, UK; died 12 July 1965 in Red Deer, AB). Parlby served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of Alberta for 14 years and was the first woman in Alberta, and the second in the British Empire, to be appointed to a cabinet position. One of the Famous Five appellants in the Persons Case, Parlby was a compelling advocate for women’s rights. Her career in activism and legislation was especially dedicated to improving the lives of rural women and children. She was the first woman awarded an honorary degree from the University of Alberta.
Irene Marryat was the eldest child of Colonel Ernest Lindsay Marryat. Born and partly raised in London, England, Irene moved to India when she was 13, when her father was stationed there. Irene was educated at exclusive schools in Switzerland and Germany. Despite her father’s suggestion and support, she did not study medicine, and was interested instead in writing and theatre.
She travelled around Europe for a time before visiting friends in Buffalo Lake, North-West Territories (later Alberta), in 1896. Shortly after arriving, she met Walter Parlby, an Oxford graduate who had immigrated to Canada to join his brother, a farmer near the town of Alix, Alberta. Irene and Walter married in 1897.
After settling into her new home in Alix, Irene found that she enjoyed farm life on the Prairies; rural Canada was considerably different from her urban background. In 1899, she gave birth to her son, Humphrey.
United Farm Women of Alberta
Walter was involved with the United Farmers of Alberta and was elected president of the Alix local in 1909.In 1913, Irene joined the Alix Country Women’s Club and was named secretary of the organization.She said of her role there: “Little did I think as I accepted the position that I was taking the initial step that was going to plunge me into many years of public life, for which I had no ambition at all.”
One of Parlby’s first initiatives with the Women’s Club was to establish a local library, which was made possible by donations from readers of the London Spectator who had seen Parlby’s advertisement for books in the paper.
In 1913, Parlby organized the first women’s local of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) and was elected president of the UFA Women’s Auxiliary in 1916. As president, she was instrumental in transforming the auxiliary into an independent organization, the United Farm Women of Alberta (UFWA).In her new role, she travelled the province, pressing for better health care and social services — as well as better schools and libraries for rural families. (She was president until 1920.)
In 1916, she presented a paper at a joint UFA/UFWA convention in Calgary titled “Women’s Place in the Nation.” In it, she argued that women should insert themselves in all areas of society.
Along with leading feminist activists in Alberta — Louise McKinney, Henrietta Edwards and Emily Murphy among them — Parlby helped push the Dower Act through the Alberta legislature in 1917 (see Dower).The act was a vital piece of legislation that protected married women’s property rights. (See also Irene Parlby and the United Farmers of Alberta.)
The UFA transformed into a political party in 1921, with the goals of regulating the grain trade, opposing the privatization of transportation and highlighting other concerns of the western province.
Parlby was nominated as a UFA candidate in the Lacombe district, and by reports only agreed to run because she thought the UFA had little chance of success. She described the ensuing campaign as “nasty” and mentioned that the “only thing which seemed to concern my opponents was that I am a woman — and worse, an Englishwoman who, although I came to Western Canada when it was still an undeveloped wilderness, could not possibly know anything about it!”
On 18 July 1921, the UFA won a majority in the Alberta Legislature, and Parlby was elected MLA for her district.
Premier Herbert Greenfield appointed Parlby to cabinet, making her the second woman in the British Empire to hold such a position. (The first was Mary Ellen Smith, elected to the British Columbia Legislature a few months earlier.) Parlby was named Minister without Portfolio, with special responsibility for advising the government on issues of particular concern to women and children. However, she was without a mandate or budget to take any action. Popularly known as the “Women’s Minister,” Parlby was particularly active on issues related to health care, improved wages for working women and married women’s property rights.
Lacombe constituents had faith in Parlby, returning her to office in 1926 and again in 1930. Over her 14 years in the Alberta Legislature, her persistence and patience served her well. As she once said, “evolution cannot be brought about by the use of dynamite.”
Women’s Rights Legislation
As “Women’s Minister,” Parlby sponsored successful legislation for minimum wage for women, mothers’ allowance grants, and improvements to the Dower Act and the Official Guardian Act, among others. She advocated for mobile dental and medical services as well as municipal hospitals.
Not all of Parlby’s bills were successful, however. In 1925, she introduced the Community of Property Bill, which proposed that all property brought into a marriage by a woman, or acquired as an inheritance or gift, remain in her name. It also stipulated that all other property gained during the marriage would remain community property. Considered too radical, the bill failed (see Property Law).
Parlby had a positive reputation in politics. Nearly 20 laws concerning the welfare of women and children were passed during her time in public office.Some called Parlby the “Minister of Cooperation.”
In August 1927, Emily Murphy invited Parlby, Henrietta Edwards, Louise McKinney and Nellie McClung to a meeting at her Edmonton home. Murphy had carefully drafted a petition to put before the Supreme Court of Canada regarding the interpretation of the word persons in the British North America Act (Constitution Act, 1867). At the time, women were not included in the definition of persons under the Constitution. Murphy and her fellow activists signed the petition, which asked the Supreme Court whether the word persons in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, included women.If it considered women to be persons, the Constitution would allow for a woman to be appointed to the Senate.
Handing down the judgment on 24 April 1928, the Supreme Court denied the petition. However, the fight was not over. First called the “Alberta Five” and later “The Famous Five,” the women took their request to the highest court, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England.
On 18 October 1929, Lord Chancellor John Sankey read out the names of the five Alberta appellants. He then thoroughly explained his legal argument in what became known as the Persons Case. Sankey summed up his decision: women are persons under the law. As a result, women were eligible for Senate appointments.
Members of the Famous Five are often criticized as having been racist and elitist. Their reputation and accomplishments are often seen as tarnished by their associations with the eugenics movement. Parlby supported the passing of eugenics legislation, titled the Sexual Sterilization Act, while she was a cabinet minister. The law organized the involuntary sterilization of people considered “mentally deficient.”
In a 1924 speech to members of the United Farm Women of Alberta, Parlby posed a question about the standard farming practices of culling the herd to breed only the best animals, “and yet when it comes to the human race we allow the mating of the most diseased and imperfect both mentally and physically?”
She and others believed the sterilization procedures would prevent further problems and so enacted the Sexual Sterilization Act. The legislation was enacted in 1928 and repealed in 1972, during which time thousands of people deemed “psychotic” or “mentally defective” underwent eugenic sterilization.
League of Nations
In 1930, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett appointed Irene Parlby one of three Canadian delegates to the League of Nations meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. The League of Nations was instituted in 1919 after the First World War, with the goal of preventing war through negotiation, disarmament and collective security. The League was replaced by the United Nations after the Second World War.
As elections approached in 1935, Parlby declined to run for a fourth term in office. She settled back into the comfort of her home, taking care of family and continuing to champion the betterment of women. In the same year, the University of Alberta awarded Parlby an honorary doctor of laws for the many years she served on its board of governors. She was the first woman to receive the honour.
After making a defined mark in women’s rights and political advancements, Irene Parlby died in Red Deer, Alberta, at age 97.
Significance and Legacy
The Government of Canada recognized Irene Parlby as a Person of National Historic Significance in 1966. This was based on her role in the Persons Case, but also for her work as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta and her distinguished service in the fields of “education, social welfare, and legislative reform.”In October 2009, 80 years after the Persons Case, the Senate of Canada voted to recognize the Famous Five as honorary senators. It was the first time the Senate had bestowed such a distinction.
Nancy Millar, The Famous Five: Five Canadian Women and Their Fight to Become Persons (2003)