Irene Parlby, an advocate for rural women and
children, was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1921. She was
appointed Minister without Portfolio—the first female Cabinet Minister
in Alberta history and only the second in the British Empire. Irene
represented Canada at the League of Nations in Geneva in 1930 and was
the first woman awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of
Alberta in 1935.
Irene joined her fellow suffragists, Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy,
Henrietta Muir Edwards, and Louise McKinney in the victorious fight to
give women the right to run and vote for office. She also petitioned
successfully for improved health care facilities, better educational
opportunities and protection for widows and children.
An early supporter of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), she
helped form the first women's local in 1913, and was elected president
of the Women's Auxiliary in 1916. She transformed it into the United
Farm Women's Association (UFWA), an organization which played a major
role in fostering legislation related to the welfare of women and
children. As the organization's first president she saw the need for
changes to improve the social and political status of women. In 1916
Irene was a delegate to the joint United Farmers of Alberta and United
Farm Women's Association convention in Calgary and presented a paper
entitled: "Women's Place in the Nation." In this paper she
argued that women should be taking a much more extensive role in
different aspects of society. Some say that when she was telephoned
from the UFA nominating convention in 1921, asking that she stand as a
provincial candidate for the Lacombe constituency, she refused. "But,"
she was urged, "you have been advocating that women take a larger
place in public affairs." Irene accepted the nomination.
Irene never liked political campaigns. She could stand before an
audience and deliver a clear and convincing speech and she was good at
rebuttal. But she was never at ease when faced with rough argument or
rude heckling. She remembered the 1921 provincial campaign as having
been "nasty," with much abuse against herself. "The only thing
which seemed to concern my opponents," she said; "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!" Despite these declarations concerning her
unsuitability for the legislature, Irene was elected. "The farmers
put me in," she said.
The people of Alberta also elected thirty-nine other United Farmers
of Alberta candidates. The provincial legislature at this time had
sixty-one seats, and this gave their party majority power. In the UFA
government of 1921-1935, first under Premier Herbert Greenfield, then
Premier J.E. Brownlee, Irene was Minister without Portfolio. At the
time of her appointment, only one other woman—Mary Ellen Smith of
British Columbia—had ever held cabinet rank within the British Empire.
Irene represented Lacombe for 14 years. Minister Parlby established
traveling medical clinics and advocated for the principle of distance
education. She successfully sponsored the Minimum Wage for Women Act
(1925) and spent her life supporting initiatives to improve the lives
of women and children, especially through the “Persons” Case.
Irene's work as a politician earned her first provincial, then
national, and eventually international respect. Some people called her
the "Minister of Cooperation." This title recognized her ability to
work cooperatively with others to benefit all people. In 1928 Irene
gave a speech, "What Business Have Women in Politics?" In it
she voiced her conviction that women were needed in politics. She
believed in learning by doing. She said that by entering politics,
women would learn politics. In recognition of her years of service on
the Board of Governors at the University of Alberta, this nation
builder was also granted an honorary law degree.
Despite her success and the respect of her peers, Irene did not
enjoy her political involvement. Her motivation was a strong sense of
duty. Before she retired from politics in 1935, Irene served her
adopted country internationally when Prime Minister R.B. Bennett made
Irene a Canadian delegate to the League of Nations, the forerunner to
the United Nations.
After her retirement, Irene continued to live where she and Walter
Parlby had originally settled. The woman whose reluctant efforts
contributed so much to Alberta's early days, died at the age of 97 on
July 12, 1965, on the ranch she and her husband had built many years
before. Her gravestone reads: "Irene Parlby, LLD."
For more information on the life and accomplishments of Irene
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