Parlby, Irene (1868–1965)

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Parlby, Irene (1868–1965)

Canadian politician, feminist and advocate of social reform. Pronunciation: I-reen-ee Parl-bee. Born Mary Irene Marryat on January 9, 1868, in London, England; died on July 12, 1965, in Red Deer, Alberta; first child of Colonel Ernest Lindsay Marryat (an engineer) and Elizabeth Lynch Marryat; had no formal education; married Walter Parlby, in 1897; children: Humphrey Parlby (b. 1899).

Irene Parlby was born Mary Irene Marryat on January 9, 1868, into a comfortable, middle-class family in London, England. Her father Ernest Lindsay Marryat had formerly enjoyed a distinguished career in the British army, rising to the rank of colonel in the Royal Engineers. Following his resignation from the army, he had become a civil engineer working for railroad companies in India. Her mother Elizabeth Lynch Marryat had returned from India to London for the birth of her daughter but, immediately following this event, rejoined her husband. The family was closely related to the famous author Captain Frederick Marryat.

The Marryats spent the next 16 years alternating homes in India (1868–71, 1881–84) and England. In India, Ernest was attached to the military base at Rawalpindi in the Punjab but, during the hot season, the family retired to Murree in the Himalayan foothills. During these years, Parlby's education (along with that of her seven siblings) was entirely in the hands of a series of governesses. The quality of her tutors varied considerably, but she did manage to establish an adequate grounding in such subjects as history, music, drawing, French, and arithmetic. Irene's father finally retired from India in 1888. He returned to England and bought a house at Lympsfield in Surrey but continued to serve as an official in the London offices of the Bengal North-Western Railroad and the Delta Light Railway.

Parlby greatly enjoyed the years she spent in India and left with much regret. Her new life in England, however, had its own attractions. The family's social position allowed her the opportunity to engage in a variety of sporting activities, such as tennis and field hockey, and she was also an enthusiastic equestrian. Meanwhile, in the evenings, there were many parties and dances to attend. Parlby occasionally traveled abroad to Europe and, when she was 17, spent six months in Germany with some family friends. During these months, she studied music and became fluent in the German language.

Despite her rich and varied social whirl, Parlby was dissatisfied and began to seek a vocation in life. In this, she was encouraged by her father who, singularly for a man in this era, approved of women attending college and entering the professions. Ernest suggested to his daughter a variety of careers but strongly recommended that she study medicine. He was disappointed when she declined this option but allowed her to make up her own mind. When, however, Irene suggested that she was considering becoming an actor or a writer, Ernest drew the line and politely, but firmly, said no.

In 1894, Parlby was taken seriously ill, and it was recommended that she spend some time in Switzerland until her health improved. After several months, she was able to return to England but her enforced convalescence had left her more dissatisfied than ever with her status in life. Not long after, however, she was introduced to an old family friend, Mrs. Westhead, who, with her husband, had just returned from Canada for a holiday in England. The Westheads, who owned a small ranch at Buffalo Lake, approximately 30 miles east of Edmonton in present-day Alberta, Canada, invited Irene to return to Canada with them and live on their ranch. With her father's approval, she left England in May 1896.

Once settled at the ranch at Buffalo Lake, Parlby thoroughly began to enjoy her life in a pioneer community. She helped Mrs. Westhead in various tasks around the house but had plenty of time to engage in her favorite hobby, horseback riding. As Parlby later recounted, she was "never homesick" for she felt "the exhilarating feeling of living where the world was really young … the freshness, the spaciousness, the extraordinary quietness of an unpeopled land."

Among the few neighbors at Buffalo Lake were two brothers, Edward and Walter Parlby. The former had arrived from England in 1886 to establish his own small ranch. His brother Walter had attended Oxford University where he had been noted as both an outstanding scholar and athlete. Originally, Walter had wished to enter the church but, when his father did not approve, had traveled instead to Assam in India to work on a tea plantation. Walter had come from Assam in 1890 in what was intended to be only a short visit to his brother, but he had been so impressed with life in the Canadian west that he had never left.

She has set a high standard in every way for Canadian women engaging in political careers.

The Edmonton Journal

Shortly after Irene's arrival at Buffalo Lake, she and Walter were introduced. She was impressed by this tall, quiet-spoken and witty man who combined a love of ranching with a love of scholarly investigation. They took to each other immediately and were married in March 1897. Following the ceremony, the couple moved into their own nearby ranch (located by what is now called Parlby Lake) and settled down to raising cattle and breeding horses. Despite the severe winters and the constant threat of an onset of stock diseases, the couple enjoyed their new life together. In late 1899, however, they left their ranch and traveled to England, where Irene gave birth to their son, Humphrey.

The family returned home the following spring accompanied by Gladys Marryat one of Irene's sisters. Shortly afterwards, their father Ernest paid them a visit, and he was so impressed by the country that he decided to move the rest of his family to the same location. For the next few years, the Parlbys and the Marryats settled down to expand their ranching interests. They were so successful that they quickly became among the most prominent families in the area.

The province of Alberta (along with the province of Saskatchewan) was created only in 1905, out of what was then the Northwest Territories. At that time, it lacked any provincial farmers' organization. This situation was only remedied four years later with the formation of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), to represent the economic and political interests of farmers to both the provincial and federal governments. Its main demands were for tariff reductions on the sale of agricultural products, financial aid for livestock marketing, an insurance program guarding farmers against the effects of bad weather, rural credit aid, and the creation of a cooperative distribution system for farm products.

At its convention in 1912, UFA delegates outlined a series of education programs that were designed to propagate their views more widely and to increase the organization's membership. More significantly, the delegates passed a strongly worded resolution supporting the principle of women's suffrage and urged women to organize themselves for their own betterment in particular and for the betterment of the farming industry in general. In the following years, the UFA made good on its previous resolutions by allowing women farmers to enroll on equal terms in the organization. So many women did so that it quickly became necessary to organize them in a special women's auxiliary.

Irene Parlby had always been impressed by how, in rural areas, women and men were able to act cooperatively on terms of relative equality. She was enthusiastically supported in these views by both her husband and father, who urged her to stand as secretary of the women's auxiliary club in their area. In this capacity, she was elected as a delegate to the 1916 UFA convention in Calgary, at which she read a paper entitled "A Woman's Place in the Nation." This performance so impressed her colleagues that they elected her the provincial president of the auxiliary movement. One of Parlby's first tasks was to increase the independence of the movement, and this was recognized by a change of name to the United Farm Women of Alberta (UFWA).

In June of the same year, Parlby conducted her first organizational tour throughout Alberta. She believed that increasing the number of UFWA branches would broaden the amount of social contact between farm women, who were still largely isolated. In addition, she began a program of close cooperation with leaders of the UFA in order to coordinate their approach on all matters of welfare affecting farm people. She also assumed a leading role in pressuring the provincial government to enact improvements in the standards of child welfare. Finally, Irene argued for the provision of a system of public health nurses in rural areas where the lack of doctors often put the lives of pregnant women and their babies in jeopardy.

Her reputation as an articulate advocate of the rights of farm women quickly gained Parlby a national reputation. In February 1918, she was invited by the Canadian government to attend the Dominion conference in the nation's capital, Ottawa. There, she was asked to advise on a variety of issues, including the role of women in war industries and the question of women's immigration. She was also asked to recommend appointees to sit on the Board of Governors at the University of Alberta (a position she herself held from 1919 to 1921) as well as on the executive committee of the Alberta Red Cross society. Two years later, in 1920, Parlby stepped down as president of the UFWA.

Since its inception, the UFA had enjoyed a tacit political alliance with the Liberal Party administration which then dominated Alberta politics. For many years, this alliance led to the implementation of several progressive pieces of legislation, including suffrage for women (granted in 1916), measures to extend rural credit, and the formation of cooperative ventures. The UFA had less success, however, when it came to influencing the policies of the federal Canadian government. Things came to a head at the end of World War I, when an increasingly weak provincial Liberal administration was unable to do anything to persuade Prime Minister Robert Borden to address the issues of rural poverty. At its convention in 1919, the UFA called for a more active policy of intervention in the political process.

Their chance came with the provincial election that was called in early July 1921. Much to their own surprise, the UFA won a majority of seats in the Alberta legislature with Parlby easily winning in the riding (district) of Lacombe. The new premier of Alberta, Herbert Greenfield, was an old friend of the Parlbys and one of his first acts was to appoint Irene a minister without portfolio in the new government. According to the official statement, she was chosen "primarily as representing the women of the province and to bring the woman's viewpoint to the discussion of governmental affairs." With this appointment, Parlby became only the second woman in Canadian politics to be nominated to a Cabinet post.

As a minister without portfolio, Parlby had no special area of responsibility under her jurisdiction. Rather, she was assigned the job of ambassador-at-large and charged with promoting government policy, particularly in the fields of welfare, education, and health. In addition, she was assigned a number of special duties by her Cabinet colleagues. For instance, in 1924, she was the official government observer to the first conference of the International Council of Women held in Washington, D.C. Four years later, the Alberta government sent her on a tour of Denmark and Sweden in order to study the organization and impact of rural cooperatives. Her subsequent report did much to promote the growth of similar enterprises in Alberta.

One of Parlby's most important contributions to the women's movement in Canada began in 1927. In that year, Emily Murphy , a police magistrate in Edmonton, invited Parlby, along with Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung , and Henrietta Muir Edwards , to petition the Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council in London (the supreme legal authority of the British Empire). At that time, women were not allowed to be appointed to the Senate, the upper house of the Canadian legislature. This was because Section 24 of the British North America Act stated that only "qualified persons" were eligible to sit in the Senate and, according to the Supreme Court of Canada, women could not be considered as qualified persons. After a long legal challenge (which was strongly supported throughout by Parlby and her other Cabinet colleagues), the Privy Council overruled the Supreme Court's decision. It was this ruling, the culmination of what is now known as the "Persons" case, which led to the appointment of the first female senator in Canadian history, Cairine Wilson .

In 1930, the federal prime minister R.B. Bennett, asked Parlby to represent Canada as a delegate to the Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. She later described this assignment as one of the "highlights of her life" for it gave her the opportunity to meet some of the most distinguished international leaders of the day. Unfortunately, on her trip home she became seriously ill, and this precluded her active involvement in politics for a considerable time. In 1934, she announced her intention to not seek re-election in the provincial election due the following year. This turned out to be a fortuitous decision. The economic circumstances of the Great Depression had taken a heavy toll on the popularity of the UFA; so much so that, in the election, every one of their members of Parliament lost his or her seat.

This event marked the effective end of Irene Parlby's public career. She retired to the family ranch, where she spent most of her time in what was now her favorite hobby, gardening. Nevertheless, Parlby did continue to take an active interest in farm women's organizations and rural affairs. She wrote occasionally for magazines (such as The Grain Growers Guide, The Canadian Magazine and The Country Guide) on such topics as gardening, current affairs, and the value of cooperation. In the 1940s, she participated in a number of radio broadcasts for the nationally based Canadian Broadcast Corporation.

Her husband died in 1952, and in the years that followed Parlby suffered increasingly from recurring bouts of ill health. She lived in quiet seclusion before passing away in her sleep in July 1965, only three years short of her 100th birthday.


Kaplan, Fred. "Irene Parlby," in Alberta Historical Review. Spring 1962.

MacLean, Una. "The Honorable Irene Parlby," in Alberta Historical Review. Spring 1959.

McKinlay, Claire Mary. The Honorable Irene Parlby. Edmonton: West Canada Graphic Industries, 1978.

Roe, Amy J. "Then and Now," in The Country Guide. January 1939.

suggested reading:

Aubrey, Louis. A History of the Farmers' Movements in Canada. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1924.

Cleverdon, Catherine Lyle. The Women Suffrage Movement in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950.

Morton, W.L. The Progressive Party in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950.


Private papers and letters held by the Parlby family.

Dave Baxter , Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada