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Divorce Inheritance Law

Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource.ca and The Famous Five Foundation

Reading: Irene Parlby on Matrimonial Property Laws


Laws regarding property were some of the most harmful to women. Married women held few rights to the money or property they shared with their husbands. As a result, a husband could legally sell a woman's home out from under her, and abandon her and their children. As the reading "Western Wife" demonstrates, a cruel husband could torment his wife with such a threat.

If a woman left her husband, no matter what her reasons for doing so, she automatically forfeited all claim to any and all marital property. Although physical abuse was considered sufficient reason for divorce and entitled ex-wives to more compensation, it was difficult to prove. As a result, women endured unfulfilling and abusive marriages because provincial laws governing shared family property and spousal support offered them little upon separation from their husbands.

Divorce was uncommon in the early 20th century, not only because property laws discriminated against women, but also because marriage was considered sacred and divorce was viewed as socially unacceptable.

Henrietta Muir Edwards, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, and Nellie McClung worked hard to change discriminatory laws and to convince MLA's to support socially-just legislation. The Dower Act, drafted by Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise McKinney, was introduced to the Alberta Legislature by Louise McKinney, and finally passed in 1917. This established a wife's right to one-third of her husband's estate, but it was many years before authorities enforced its provisions.

Irene Parlby and Nellie McClung worked closely together on issues that affected women, such as marital and property disputes, and loss of nationality—though, as members of opposing parties, they were also known to disagree. In total, the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) government passed 18 acts relating to the welfare of women and children, including:

  • A new Dower Act, protecting the interests of the wife in case her husband attempted to sell her home
  • A Minimum Wage Act for Women
  • A bill to increase Mothers' Allowance—which assured a reasonable income to a single mother
  • An act declaring illegitimate children, whose parents later married, to be legitimate

Parlby was also responsible for an amendment regarding the support of children of unmarried parents, which, in cases when paternity was not clearly established, gave the Trial Judge power to make one, or all, of the men who might have fathered the child to pay for its support.

Some issues regarding women's finances and property that Nellie McClung took an interest in include:

  • Providing occupational training for female prisoners, so they would have the skills to earn a living upon their release from prison
  • Wages for male prisoners—to be directed to the support of their families
  • Resisted UFA government attempts to reduce allowances paid to needy widows and single mothers
  • Objected to a UFA plan to deprive widows who remarried of the pension benefits earned by their previous husbands

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