Irene (Marryat) Parlby




Life and Work

On the evening before the United Farm Women of Alberta's (UFWA) annual convention in Calgary in 1916, Irene Parlby soaked her gardener's fingers in soapy water and pondered the text of the speech she would deliver.

With her English gentlewoman upbringing, she was not altogether at ease with farmwomen. She maintained the women of the Alix UFWA local were special... "We have always had more than our share of excellent minds," she said.

But the response to the speech resulted in her nomination as president of the UFWA, an organization committed to reforming the economic and legal framework of society. In time she was elected to the Alberta Legislature and became the first woman cabinet minister in the British commonwealth.

Irene was born into a military family in England. In 1896, she left for Canada in hopes of finding adventure and freedom from the structures of English society. She fell in love with the country and with a rancher named Walter Parlby. They married in 1897.

In 1929, she joined Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Henriette Edwards and Louise McKinney in the "Persons Case", asking the Supreme Court of Canada to rule on the question "Does the word person in Section 24 of the British North America Act include female persons?" The court's decision cleared the way for the appointment of women to the Senate and to fuller participation in political life.

After politics, Irene served as Canadian ambassador to the United Nations. She retired to writing, community work and gardening. Until her death in 1965, she often presided over tea at her home.

"Mrs. Parlby said "Pleasant places make pleasant people." So Irene made her house that kind of a home. She had been interested in her father's garden in England, but her she was free to do as she wished. She learned to tell the difference between our Canadian weeds and the seedlings of marigold and petunias ... she built up the flower beds with rocks, flowering trees and vines. Even today, it is a beautiful site looking from the driveway back towards the lake." - Alice Whitfield