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In 1935, Irene Parlby became the first woman to be granted an honorary degree from the University of Alberta. Parlby was one of the "famous five" Albertan women (together with Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, and Louise McKinney) who successfully launched the "Persons Case.", one of the most important moments in the history of Canadian women.
The culminating episode of the Persons Case was October 18, 1929, when the Privy Council of England, the highest court of appeal at that time, rejected a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada the previous year and announced that women were indeed persons. Before 1929, Canadian women had been defined by an 1876 British Common Law ruling which stated that "women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges." The term "persons" was understood to mean men, which implied that women could not hold any positions which under law were to be filled by "qualified persons."
The groundbreaking decision of the 1929 Persons Case meant that women could now sit on the Canadian Senate. However, none of the "famous five" had the opportunity to become Senators. The first woman Senator was the Honourable Cairine Wilson who was appointed in 1930. By the end of the twentieth century, approximately one third of the 104 member body of the Senate were women.
Interestingly enough, Parlby was not the first of the "famous five" to be nominated for an honorary degree from the University of Alberta. A previous request had been made in 1925 to nominate Henrietta Muir Edwards, who was the co-founder of National Council of Women and the Victorian Order of Nurses. Henry Marshall Tory, the first president of the University, agreed to discuss the matter with University authorities at his first opportunity. In early 1926, the Local Council of Women in Lethbridge wrote a further letter, asking if petitions from various women's organizations would impress the deciding committee. To this, Tory replied, "I beg to say that I think it would be unwise to try and bring outside pressure in any public way upon the University Senate in connection with the matter mentioned in your letter." Finally, in April of 1926, Tory wrote to Susie Bawden of the Local Council of Women in Lethbridge with the following words, "I have been making enquiries concerning the matter and do not find on the whole any too favourable expressions of opinion." As Tory felt there was sufficient opposition to the matter, it was not submitted to Senate for a vote.
By 1935, six years after the 'Persons Case' ruling, three of the Famous Five (Edwards, McKinney and Murphy) had passed away. When the University of Alberta received the nomination for Irene Parlby, the conditions were more 'favourable' (to use Tory's words) to give serious consideration to the request than a decade before. Besides, Parlby, an elegant, inspiring, dedicated and energetic advocate for rural women in Alberta, was a very strong candidate for receiving that honour. Before being an active participant in the 'Persons Case', she had been appointed the first female cabinet minister in Alberta and the second in the Commonwealth (1921). She was also the first president of the United Farm Women of Alberta and a Canadian delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva in 1930. Irene Parlby died in Alix, Alberta, in 1965, at the age of 97.
An article on the Persons Case written by Nellie McClung for the Farm and Ranch Review, January 2, 1930.
The Famous 5 [online]. Available: http://www.famous5.org (February 22, 2001).
The Persons Case [online]. Available: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com (February 16, 2001).
Tory, Henry Marshall (1926). Personal correspondence. University of Alberta archives, Edmonton, Alberta.
For more information on the Persons Case see:
The "Famous Five" and the Persons Case: Early activists challenge conventional views to change Canadian history
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