Most Canadians, if they have heard of Irene Parlby, know her as one of the "Famous Five."
This group of five Alberta women were plaintiffs in a court case that argued women were indeed
"persons" under the British North America Act and thus entitled to be named to the Canadian
Senate. It was a landmark case in the long struggle by women to achieve political and legal
equality in Canada, but Parlby's historical significance rests on much more than just the Persons
Born in England in 1868, Irene Marryat came to Canada in 1896. An old family friend, who
had emigrated to Canada, invited Irene to visit her on a farm near what would become Alix,
Alberta. Irene accepted and soon after met and married Walter Parlby.
Both Irene and Walter took a strong interest in politics. In 1909, when the United Farmers
of Alberta was founded, Walter Parlby became the first President of the Alix branch of the
movement. Initially the UFA was not so much a political party as an economic and social
movement. It emphasized "equity" and promoted the economic principle of cooperation and the
creation of cooperative societies. Overall, it hoped "to further the interests of farmers and
ranchers in all branches of agriculture."
Irene also became involved in the movement, and she helped organize a local women's
group, the Alix Country Women's Club, in 1913. The club initially busied itself with local
concerns such as establishing a library, but it had larger objectives as well. Representatives from
the club played a major role in establishing the United Farm Women of Alberta, and in 1916,
Irene Parlby became president of this province-wide association.
The war and post-war readjustment strained traditional political parties and values. The
UFA and UFWA, along with labour and other groups, were strongly influenced by the ideas of
Henry Wise Wood, a political theorist who proposed a radical new way of looking at
representation in legislatures. Wood suggested government should be organized on the basis of
economic groups, and that people be elected to represent such groups rather than old-fashioned
political parties. According to this view, farmers needed farm representatives, and after 1919, the
UFA began to build a political organization to fight the next provincial election.
Irene Parlby was chosen to campaign as the UFA candidate in the constituency of Lacombe.
Her opponents made much of her gender and she never professed much liking for the business of
seeking votes and support, but she was elected easily on July 18, 1921. As a leading spokesperson for the
UFA and UWFA, there was considerable speculation about which cabinet post she would be
offered when the UFA gained the majority in the legislature. Revealingly, she was not given a
department to manage – the idea of female equality had significant limits in 1921 – but she was
appointed as a Minister without Portfolio. This also made her only the second woman to be
named a cabinet minister in Canada, after Mary Ellen Smith in British Columbia.
The UFA government struggled in its early years. Henry Wise Wood chose not to run for
election at all, and many UFA members felt that they could and should oppose the government if
proposed legislation did not suit their constituents. Eventually, Premier Herbert Greenfield had to
tell UFA members that they must support the government or the government could fall. A
financial crisis in 1923 forced Greenfield to cut expenditures and raise taxes to balance the
government's books. Many historians suggest that this decision marks the transition of the UFA
from political movement to political party. By 1923, most of Henry Wise Wood's ideas about
group government had had to be abandoned, and the UFA ran Alberta for the next 12 years as a
populist, but fiscally conservative, government.
Irene Parlby's role in the UFA government was significant, despite having no department to
run. She often acted as a spokesperson for the government on matters related to health and
education, and she took a particular interest in issues relating to women and families. Much of
her work, however, was focused on national and international issues such as the Persons Case
and her work as a delegate to the League of Nations. By the early 1930s, she was clearly less and
less interested in the partisan political manoeuvrings of the Alberta legislature, and although she
successfully ran in the 1931 general election, the UFA government was running out of steam. In
1935, Parlby chose not to run – probably wisely – and the UFA government was swept aside by
a new political movement, Social Credit.
After 1935, Parlby continued to speak out on a range of issues, but she had little direct
political influence in a Social Credit dominated Alberta. However, when she died in 1965 at the
age of 97, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada moved quickly to recognize her as
a person of national historic significance. This was based on her role in the Persons Case, but
also for her work as a legislator and her distinguished service in the fields of "education, social
welfare, and legislative reform."
Michael Payne is the Head of Research and Publications, Historic Sites and Cultural Facilities Branch, Alberta Community Development, and author of The Fur Trade in Canada: an Illustrated History. He is also the co-editor of the centennial history of Alberta: Alberta Formed – Alberta Transformed.