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"The Woman's Minister"

For the week of Monday July 14, 2008

On July 18, 1921, Mary Irene Parlby was elected to the Alberta provincial legislature as a member of the United farmers of Alberta and appointed Minister without Portfolio. She was charged with matters pertaining to women. Mary worked to improve the lot of women and children, supporting increased wages for working women and married women’s property rights. She successfully sponsored the Minimum Wage for Women Act (1925) and advocated improving public healthcare by establishing municipal hospitals and travelling medical and dental clinics. Mary was re-elected in 1926 and again in 1930 making her the longest serving female cabinet minister.

Mary Irene Parlby
© Glenbow Archives NA-2204-12
Mary arrived in Canada in 1897, married and settled in central Alberta. It was during this time that she first became politically active. In 1913, she helped organize the Alix Country Women’s Club, a group focused on community improvement. In 1916, the club helped establish the United Farm Women of Alberta, an organization dedicated to the social welfare of farmwomen and their children with Mary as its president. When she became a Cabinet Minister in the male-dominated United Farmers of Alberta government, she continued trying to give females a bigger role in politics.

With that aim Mary joined four other women in 1927 who were trying to make it possible for women to sit in the Senate. Section 24 of the British North America Act (1867) stated that only “persons” could be Senators and women then were not legally considered “persons.” In 1928, they brought the matter before the Supreme Court, which confirmed that women were not “persons.” Not discouraged by this decision the five women appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain, the highest court of appeal for Canada at that time. Thanks to these women, now known as the Famous Five, in 1929 the Privy Council recognized women as legal “persons.” Mary’s wishes for women to participate more actively in politics were realized. 

Irene Parlby, in white, among fellow elected members of United Farmers of Alberta in front of the Lougheed Building in Calgary, Alberta
© Glenbow Archives NA 2204-4

She was appointed as a delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva in 1930 and, in 1935, she became the first woman to receive an honorary law degree from the University of Alberta.

For her role in the Persons Case, a National Historic Event, and her work as a legislator, Mary Irene Parlby was designated a National Historic Person in 1966.

For more information on the Persons Case, please see Women Are Persons...Aren't They?  in the This Week in History Archives. For more on the other women who made up the Famous Five, please see One of Five But Not The Least!, Birthday of Activist Emily Murphy, A Person of Principle and Winnipeg Women Hold "Mock" Parliament.

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