Irene Parlby

Mary Irene Parlby, née Marryat (January 9, 1868 – July 12, 1965) was a farm women's leader, activist and politician.

The eldest child of a British Army Colonel, Parlby lived in India for part of her childhood and later in Ireland. Although encouraged by her father to become a doctor, she was more interested in acting or writing. Parlby travelled to various parts of Europe and came to Canada in 1897 when a family friend who had settled in what is now Central Alberta invited her to come for an extended visit. Parlby found the frontier life an exciting change from the restrictions of Victorian English society. In Canada, she met and married Walter Parlby, an Oxford-educated Englishman who had come to Canada to become a farmer. They became the first settlers near the town of Alix and, in 1899, their son Humphrey was born.

The ranching life to which Parlby and her husband became accustomed, changed rapidly with the arrival of waves of immigrants and the railway. In 1905, Alberta became a province and, in 1909, Walter Parlby became the president of the Alix local of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), an organization dedicated to improving agricultural prices, markets, transportation and legislation.

From 1916 to 1919, Irene Parlby was president of the United Farm Women of Alberta. In that capacity, she worked for the improvement of public health and the establishment of municipal hospitals and travelling medical and dental clinics. In 1921, she was elected to the provincial legislature as a member of the UFA and appointed Minister without Portfolio in the new UFA government. The second woman in Canada to become a provincial cabinet minister, Parlby studied international examples of education systems for rural areas and supported all programs which would benefit the welfare of women and children.

Despite the presence of many competent and successful women in public life in Alberta, their legal right to hold these positions was challenged based on section 24 of the British North America Act which stated that women were not "persons" with rights and privileges. In 1921, the Alberta Supreme Court decided that women were qualified to hold public office but three Canadian Prime Ministers declined to name a woman to the Senate and thereby settle the same matter federally.

"The Famous Five"

Known as The Famous Five (Henrietta Muir Edwards, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Emily Murphy), these women won the "Persons" Case, a 1929 court ruling which established under the British North America Act the right of women to be appointed to the Senate of Canada.

Parlby remained in the Alberta Cabinet until 1935 but also represented Canada at international gatherings of women's groups. In 1930, she travelled to Geneva as one of three Canadian delegates to the Assembly of the League of Nations and in 1935, became the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Alberta. She retired from politics in the same year but continued to be in demand as a speaker both in person and on the radio. Throughout her long political career, Irene Parlby was an idealistic and eloquent advocate for the betterment of rural Canadian women and children.

Related sites


Cavanaugh, Catherine Anne. — In search of a useful life [microform] : Irene Marryat Parlby, 1868-1965. — Ottawa : National Library of Canada, 1995. (Canadian theses on microfiche ; no. 95159). — Ph.D. thesis, University of Alberta, 1994.

Cormack, Barbara Villy. — Perennials and politics : the life story of Hon. Irene Parlby, LL.D. — Sherwood Park, Alta. : Printed by Professional Print, [1968]. -- 160 p.

MacEwan, Grant. — ...and mighty women too : stories of notable western Canadian women. — Saskatoon, Sask. : Western Producer Prairie Books, 1975. — P. 146-158

MacLean, Una. — "The Honourable Irene Parlby". — Alberta historical review. — Vol. 7, no. 2 (Spring 1959). — P. 1-7

McKinlay, Claire. — The Honorable Irene Parlby. — 125 p. — M.A. thesis, University of Alberta, 1953. (Microfilm copy held by the National Archives of Canada, Ottawa)

Other information and material about Irene Parlby is available at the Glenbow Archives, Alberta

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