If we instill tolerance, not hatred, developing a real
spiritual love of country, if we can do all this, we need be
afraid of no such little thing as a Latin text of an
American anthem tucked away in a text book.
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. A significant political figure, Parlby
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.
Parlby joined her fellow suffragists, Nellie McClung,
Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, and Louise McKinney in
the victorious fight to give women the right to vote and run
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 of Alberta (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, Parlby saw the need for
changes to improve the social and political status of women.
In 1916, she was a delegate to the joint UFA and UFWA
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." Whatever the case, Parlby accepted the
She never liked political campaigns. Parlby could stand
before an audience and deliver a clear and convincing speech
and even though she was good at rebuttal, 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 verbal abuse against her. "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
wildreness, could not possibly know anything about it!"
Despite these declarations concerning her unsuitability for
the legislature, Parlby was elected. "The farmers put me in"
The people of Alberta elected 39 other UFA candidates.
The provincial legislature at this time had 61 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, Parlby 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, during which time
she established travelling 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.
Parlby's work as a politician earned her provincial,
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, she delivered a speech, "What
Business Have Women in Politics?" In it she voiced her
conviction that women were needed in the political realm. A
firm believer in learning by doing, Parlby 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, Parlby
did not particularly enjoy her political involvement, but
was motivated by a strong sense of duty. Before she retired
from politics in 1935, she served her adopted country
internationally when Prime Minister R. B. Bennett made her a
Canadian delegate to the League of Nations, the forerunner
to the United Nations.
After her retirement, Parlby continued to live where she
and her husband Walter 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."