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United Farmers of Alberta (UFA)

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The UFA was formed in 1909 to promote the interests of Alberta farmers. At first it did not act as a political party seeking seats in the legislature, but as a lobby group. UFA locals elected delegates to represent them at the annual convention, where the UFA set policies and proposals, which it then presented to the governing Liberals. This system worked quite well for the group in the early years; the Liberals were very responsive to the UFAs demands and membership grew to 30,000 by 1920. However, when the socialist Non-Partisan League (NPL) won two seats in the 1917 election, many believed the UFA had to enter politics or lose influence to the NPL. So, in 1919, the UFA became a political party, absorbing the NPL and, in 1921, it ran for seats in the provincial election. To its own surprise, it won 38 of the 61 seats and formed the new provincial government.

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The Sterilization of Leilani Muir - © 1996 national Film Board of Canada

Emily Murphy and the United Farm Women's Association proposed the eugenic sterilization of the "feeble-minded" in Alberta, among other methods to reform society.

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Despite the political inexperience of its MLAs, the UFA managed to make some important reforms under the premiership of Greenfield and Brownlee. In 1922, the government extended credit to various farm-owned co - operatives, including the Alberta Wheat Pool, allowing them to pay farmers partly in advance for selling their crops or livestock. It also sold Alberta's railways, which had become a money-vacuum for the government, to the CPR and Canadian National and achieved provincial control over the province's natural resources. However, the UFA government was not prepared for the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression. A number of bad monetary decisions and a scandal involving the premier caused a decline in popularity for the party and, in 1935, it lost the election to the Social Credit Party.

UFWA Board.  Glenbow Archives.Women played quite an important role in the UFA right from its early beginnings. In 1913, wives and daughters of farmers were officially admitted into the organization and, in 1914, a separate women's auxiliary, the United Farmers Women of Alberta (UFWA), was formed. The UFWA became an autonomous organization in 1916, with its own provincial executive led by president Irene Parlby. The UFWA was immediately popular, as many farmwomen were interested in discussing and contributing to policies that directly affected their livelihood. Membership reached a peak in 1921 with 4,536 members in 309 locals. In this same year, Parlby was appointed Minister Without Portfolio to the UFA cabinet, becoming the UFWA's and women's main representative in government.

Before and during the UFAs governing years, the UFWA introduced proposals calling for reform in three major areas: education, health care and women's property issues. These issues were brought up by other women's organizations, but the UFWA put a distinctive rural spin on them. In the first of these areas, education, the UFWA focused first on the education of farmwomen. To this end it sponsored many guest speakers to lecture at meetings and created Farm Women's Week, a four-day conference, in both cases women received information on politics, domestic topics and farm management. 

The UFWA then turned its attention to the education of youth. It wanted to see the improvement in the quality of rural education, including better teacher training, stricter attendance laws, more uniform textbooks and more frequent school inspections. Members of both the UFA and UFWA wanted a more progressive form of rural education in which schools moved away from their focus on classical studies, memorization and matriculation, and towards teaching more practical and scientific skills. The new schools should "instruct the boys in animal husbandry, economics, sociology, farm mechanics, and farm management, and instruct the girls in domestic science, home economics, home nursing, and all the other phases of everyday rural life." 1  The UFA did succeed in first pressuring the Liberal government and then in introducing its own school reforms that improved the quality of and introduced new curriculum to rural schools. The UFWA supported these reforms and constantly pressed for new ones.

In the second area, health care, the UFWA was also very active in advocating reform. Health care was of particular concern to farmwomen since institutionalized medical care was slow to develop in rural areas and, thus, women had to pick up the slack. One of the UFWA's goals was the establishment of municipal hospitals in rural areas and in 1917 it passed a resolution asking the government to support them. The provincial government responded by creating the Department of Health in 1918 that would decide where to build new hospitals. In 1919, the UFWA also convinced government to start funding municipal hospitals. Another of their goals was the increase in obstetrical care for nurses. This goal stemmed from their concern over high maternal and infant mortality rates and the realization that there was better chance of receiving local nurses before hospitals. They requested "that the government undertake to supply both medical practitioners and service nurses prepared to act as midwives wherever needed in all those districts not supplied by independent workers." 2  In 1920, the government agreed to the UFWAs demands, providing for the training of a certain number of nurses at government expense.

Irene Parlby.  Glenbow ArchivesThe final issue around which the UFWA strongly campaigned was women's property rights. The UFA and the UFWA had already been heavily involved in the suffrage movement - Parlby was one of the main suffrage leaders and both organizations helped the movement to gather support and lobby government. With women's achievement of the right to vote in 1916, the next step was to increase women's property rights. The UFWA worked towards this goal and played a large role in lobbying the Liberal government to pass the Dower Act that guaranteed a woman a proportion of the family estate when her husband died. Many felt the Dower Act did not go far enough in securing women's property status. Therefore, when the UFA came to power and Parlby entered government, she introduced Bill 54, An Act Establishing Community of Property as Between a Husband and a Wife. It proposed that women be allowed to own property in their own name, that husbands could not sell the family property without their wife's consent and that a wife receive a more equitable share of the property upon their husband's death. Parlby's own party, however, turned down the bill and in its place passed much weaker legislation that only increased the amount of property a women would receive upon her husband's death.

The failure of Parlby and the UFWA in this case may be due to the radical nature of the bill. For its time, the bill was very revolutionary; never before had an elected member in Alberta proposed that a woman own property in her own name and that she had a say in the family property before her husband's death. Many men felt threatened by the bill and even some women expressed unease with it. The failure of the UFWA in this case may also point to a larger trend in early Albertan politics and women's role within it. Historian Sheila McManus argues that the UFWA was successful in the areas of education and health care because these were traditionally regarded as feminine concerns and keeping within women's proper sphere, but was less successful in women's property rights issues because these directly threatened male domination of the legal and economic sphere. In other words, a woman was allowed to participate only in areas in which her domestic role already afforded her credibility and responsibility and even participation in these areas was limited. This argument may also explain why women in government, like Parlby, were never given portfolios - they could participate, but not hold responsibility nor make decisions in the political sphere.
 

Sources:

  • Holt, Faye Reineberg.  "Women's Suffrage in Alberta."  Alberta History 1991 39(4): 25-31.
      

  • Jackel, Susan, ed.  A Flannel Shirt and Liberty: British Emigrant, Gentlewomen in the Canadian West, 1880-1914.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1982.
      

  • Langford, Nanci.  Politics, Pitchforks and Pickle Jars: 75 Years of Organized Farm Women in Alberta.  Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 1997.
      

  • McManus, Sheila.  "Gender(ed) Tensions in the Work and Politics of Alberta Farm Women, 1905-29."  Telling Tales.  Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.
       

  • Rennie, Bradford James.  The Rise of Agrarian Democracy: The United Farmers and Farm Women of Alberta, 1909-1921.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

 

  
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