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The Famous Five: Heroes for Today
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Single Women

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

Work Opportunities and Restrictions

Becoming Married

Reading: Marriage Agencies


Mrs. CampbellDuring the early 20th century, at some point in their lives many women lived independently. Some women became engaged while living with their families, while others lived alone for a time before getting married. Still others remained single for most or all of their lives. Women who were single chose this course, for there was no shortage of men on the Canadian prairies. In fact, many women moved to the West in pursuit of marriage.

Sometimes even women who did not intend to get married fell in love, which was the case with Irene (Marryat) Parlby. Like many women of her time, she came to the Canadian West seeking adventure, but upon meeting Walter Parlby, agreed to marriage. Though her husband died in 1952, Parlby lived many years later, passing away at the age of 97.

Women tended to live longer than men, meaning that wives were more likely to become widows than men were to become widowers. A number of other factors contributed to this tendency. Mine accidents and war claimed many husbands prematurely. Also, as it was common for husbands to be 10 or more years older than their wives, so they were usually the first to pass away. On the other hand, as Nellie McClung observed, many wives died early due to overwork or childbearing. Another example of the pervasive gender inequity was that while widowed husbands were likely to remarry, most widowed women did not.

Divorce was uncommon in the early 20th century. Some women endured unfulfilling and abusive marriages because provincial laws governing shared family property and spousal support offered them little upon separation from their husbands. Physical abuse was considered sufficient reason for divorce and entitled ex-wives to more compensation, but was difficult to prove. Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby worked hard to change these laws by championing the Dower Act and other provincial legislation. Nonetheless, unhappy couples were unlikely to divorce because marriage was considered sacred and divorce socially unacceptable.

Heritage Trail: Irene Parlby and the Persons' Case
Irene Marryat was raised to be a proper young English lady. But as historian Merrily Aubrey explains, she gladly left behind the stuffy tearooms of Victorian England when she married an Alberta rancher by the name of Walter Parlby. Listen Now
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