"Curious, is it not, that we cull our flocks and herds, allowing only the finest and most physically perfect to breed, and yet when it comes to the human race we allow the mating of the most diseased and imperfect both mentally and physically?"
Irene Parlby (1868-1965) is remembered as one of the Famous Five, and a women's right activist. Parlby was involved with politics as the first female Cabinet minister in Alberta, and was also instrumental in organizing the United Farm Women's Association (UFWA) in Alberta. She served as president of this organization from 1916 to 1919. Parlby was a staunch supporter of eugenics and sterilization legislation, although, as Historian Erika Dyck has revealed, her case is particularly interesting due to the fact that she herself underwent a hysterectomy for medical reasons (as opposed to eugenic reasons), rendering her childless.
Irene Parlby, otherwise known as Irene Marryat and Mrs. Walter Parlby was a key player of the Famous Five, a group of women responsible for gaining recognition for Canadian women as "persons.” Yet that event remained a mere one of many accomplishments during her lifetime. In 1921 she was appointed to cabinet within the United Farmers' Government, becoming the second woman in Canada to hold a ministerial position. Appointed as minister without portfolio, she was the first female Cabinet minister in Alberta. Alongside her husband Walter, the Parlby's were instrumental in organizing United Farmer locals, and Parlby organized the first of the United Farm Women of Alberta Locals in Alix County.
A lifelong advocate for rural Canadian women and children, Parlby was president of the United Farm Women of Alberta from 1916 to 1919. As president of the organization, she shifted the mandate of the farm women toward a focus on the connections between health, cooperation, and nation building. She pushed to improve public health care services and establish municipal hospitals as well as mobile medical and dental clinics. Another progressive health movement that was fully supported by Parlby and the UFWA was the 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act. Parlby often warned the public of the growing rate of mental deficiency, and that the "great and only solution to the problem" was enacting sterilization of the feeble-minded (Marsh, 2013). The lobbying of the UFWA during Parlby's presidency helped bring sexual sterilization legislation to Alberta.
Parlby personally supported eugenic tools such as the regulation of marriage, the segregation of the feeble-minded, and sterilization. She believed that eugenics was a means of helping both women and families, as at the time, women and families had to deal with disease, poverty, and delinquency largely on their own. If eugenics could remove such problems, as farming did for agricultural stock, then the lives of women and family could be improved. Parlby was particularly interested in mental deficiency, and expressed sympathy for mothers of the mentally deficient, but felt that sympathy should not interfere with "commonsense" (Dyck, 2013, p. 52-53). Mothers in particular were responsible for the health of the race in Parlby's view, and she felt that deficiency should be carefully distinguished based on danger, weakness, and malicious intent (Dyck, 2013, p.52).
Parlby developed cysts on her ovaries over the course of her political career, and had a hysterectomy in 1918, under the advice of her gynaecologist (Dyck, 2013, p.23). This required Parlby to slow down her political career. Letters exchanged with her peers at the time show that many ambitious women had hysterectomies, usually due to health, but over time, sterilization procedures became a means of controlling one’s own reproduction (Dyck, 2013, p.23). As a result, more and more married women sought them out (Dyck, 2013, p.23). Parlby's operation and resulting childlessness did not affect her views on either motherhood or eugenics (Dyck, 2013, p.23). However, it does show how sterilization was emerging at this time not only as a means of eugenics, but as a means of contraception (Dyck, 2013, p.23).
-Sheila Gibbons and Colette Leung
Cavanaugh, C. A. (2000). Irene Marryat Parlby: An ‘Imperial Daughter’ in the Canadian West, 1896-1934. In Cavanaugh, C.A., & Warne, R.R. (Eds.). (2000). Telling Tales: Essays in Western Women’s History. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000.
Foster, M. (2004). 100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces. Toronto: Dundurn Press.
Marsh, J. H. (2013). Eugenics: Keeping Canada Sane. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/eugenics-keeping-canada-sane-feature/
Dyck, E. (2013). Facing Eugenics: Reproduction, Sterilization, and the Politics of Choice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.