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Themes - Activism

Irene Marryat Parlby

Photograph of Irene Marryat Parlby


Politician, farm women's leader


Irene Parlby was born in England in 1868, the eldest child of a British Army Colonel. Because of her father's profession, she lived in India for part of her childhood and later in Ireland. Although encouraged by her father to become a doctor, Irene was more interested in acting or writing. She 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 Irene to come for an extended visit. Irene 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. He and Irene became the first settlers near the town of Alix and, in 1899, their son Humphrey was born.

The ranching life to which Irene 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 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, Irene 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. Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby became the five interested persons required by law to take the question to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1927 and then on to the Privy Council in England. The decision that women were persons eligible to be named to the Senate of Canada was handed down on October 18, 1929.

Irene 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. She died in 1965, at the age of 97. Throughout her long political career, Irene Parlby was an idealistic and eloquent advocate for the betterment of rural Canadian women and children.


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 at

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