Exhibit salutes early feminist Irene Parlby

Subtle irony surrounds a new exhibit at Alix’s Wagon Wheel Museum. Working with a grant from Dow Chemical, the museum’s board has created a permanent display honouring the accomplishments of Irene Parlby, best known as one of Canada’s Famous Five.

Mary Flexhaugh

ALIX — Subtle irony surrounds a new exhibit at Alix’s Wagon Wheel Museum.

Working with a grant from Dow Chemical, the museum’s board has created a permanent display honouring the accomplishments of Irene Parlby, best known as one of Canada’s Famous Five.

Parlby, already noted as the second woman in the British Empire to achieve a cabinet post, was one of four women fellow activist Emily Murphy recruited in 1929 to help fight the Persons Case.

Murphy, Parlby, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Edwards were able to prove to the Supreme Court of Canada and again to the British Privy Council that women should be legally defined as persons, which gave them access to privileges previously limited to men.

Key among those privileges was the ability to accept a Senate appointment. In winning the Persons Case, the Famous Five paved the way for Corine Wilson of Rockland, Ont. to become Canada’s first female Senator in 1930, at the age of 45.

As much as the Persons Case opened new doors for women, some remained closed.

They include the door to the games room in Alix’s former pool hall, now the home of the Wagon Wheel Museum.

The Parlby exhibit is placed immediately behind the door, with a commanding view of the games room Parlby would not have been allowed to enter.

Then again, that particular room probably did not hold much attraction for her.

Born into privilege in London, England on Jan. 9, 1868, Mary Irene Marryat was the eldest daughter of Col. Ernest Lindsay Marryat, who was stationed in India, says Alix resident Eve Keates, past-president of the museum and Parlby’s grand-niece.

Although they would never be expected to prepare their own meals or wash their own clothes, Marryat encouraged his daughters to learn the domestic arts, says Keates.

Her skills served her well in 1896 when, seeking adventure and with the encouragement of a friend, Alix namesake Alexia “Alice” Westhead, Parlby abandoned British high society to seek a new life in Alberta.

Her sister made the move shortly after and other family members, including their parents followed their lead.

Living in the New World was a far cry from the family’s stately homes in England and India.

“Can you imagine what that would have been like for her?” says Keates, pointing to a picture of the tiny cabin where Parlby would make a home with her new husband, Walter Parlby, at the north side of a small lake bearing his name.

Parlby adjusted well enough to the life of a ranch wife. But she could not accept the conditions awaiting newcomers, especially the dismal lack of schooling and non-existent health care.

Unable to get the help she needed with a difficult pregnancy, Parlby went to England temporarily to deliver her and Walter’s only child, Humphrey, under the care of the Queen’s surgeon.

Once back in Alix, Parlby would have preferred to stay home and look after her house, gardens and small family, says Keates. However, she was unable to accept the rustic conditions of her Prairie home and found herself investing a major share of her energy into making improvements.

Among her accomplishments, Parlby helped establish a new library, one of the first in Alberta.

Elected MLA for the Lacombe riding in 1921, Parlby was appointed minister without portfolio in United Farmers of Alberta, led by Premier Henry Wise Wood.

She was among the people selected to be part of Canada’s delegation to the League of Nations in Geneva in 1930.

Today, Parlby’s grandson, Geoff Parlby still lives in the massive home where his grandfather first established his cattle ranch in 1890.

Photos in the Parlby display show the various homes the family and relatives occupied over the years.

But after a series of moves, Walter and Irene came back to their little lake, north of Alix, where they lived almost to the end of her days.

Parlby’s health started failing during her last year. She died in Red Deer on July 12, 1965 at the age of 97.

“She had 96 good years,” says her grandson.

Alix Wagon Wheel Museum, located on the west side of Main Street, is open Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in June and September. Summer hours are Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.


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