United Farm Women in Politics

In 1914, a women’s section of the United Farmers of Alberta was formed, (later named the United Farm Women of Alberta (U.F.W.A.) in 1916), and they quickly began pushing for improvements regarding public education, healthcare, community well-being and equal rights. The U.F.W.A. would typically bring their concerns to the U.F.A. Annual Conventions, who would then lobby the provincial government on their behalf. This saw legislation passed in 1916 for some Alberta women, such as those who were married and of European descent, the right to vote in provincial elections. This taste for political freedom took hold among women in Alberta, and particularly U.F.W.A. members, some of whom pursued further involvement in politics. In the 1917 election, U.F.W.A. member Louise McKinney of Claresholm ran for the Non-Partisan League on a platform of prohibition and became the first woman elected to a Canadian legislature.

The U.F.W.A. Board of Directors 1921 (UF 2004.0037.48). Click the photo to view the names of the women in the photograph.

When the U.FA.’s political associations were first getting started, nine out of twelve elected had women vice-presidents, and several committees saw an equal number of male and female directors (Rennie, p. 186). Seeing that women were becoming more politically active, U.F.W.A. board member Violet McNaughton, authored a position paper in support of farm women entering politics, stating:

Something is required of the women of today. A great political movement has come to life, with a special appeal to women. It appeals to women because it is going to be a great co-operative enterprise worthy of their best efforts. Women love to be in on an undertaking, on the ground floor; and this is their position in the New Political Group. The future of this movement will be made or marred not by men, but equally by men and women.

(McNaughton, c. 1921, UF 2002.0036.15)
An excerpt on Louise McKinney authored by Nellie McClung in The U.F.A. March 15, 1930, p. 32 (UF 2004.0047.96).

In 1921, the first time the U.F.A. had a slate of candidates in an election, former U.F.W.A president, Irene Parlby, ran in the Lacombe district. She was so well-liked that despite showing up to a scheduled speaking arrangement hours late, the venue remained full of an audience insisting on waiting for her arrival to hear her entire speech (Tolton, p. 70). Parlby won her riding and became Alberta’s first female cabinet minister. Although without a specific portfolio, this was a position of influence and Parlby was able to bring issues relating to rural communities, healthcare and education into government focus. Irene Parlby remained in this position for 14 years.

Parlby was a popular MLA, with the United Grain Growers Guide dated September 14, 1921 stating “it was with a great amount of satisfaction and pleasure that the women of Western Canada learned of the election of Mrs. Irene Parlby to the Alberta Legislature. Mrs. Parlby through her wise and capable leadership in many organizations has won the respect and admiration of the men and women of the West” (in Cook, p. 7). John E. Brownlee stated in an oral history interview in 1961 that the influence of the U.F.W.A. in 1921 was “very, very strong” and that women were active in matters relating to them (Glenbow, p. 32).

Irene Parlby, ca. 1919-1935 (UF 2005.0044.69).

These are a few examples of women leading the way into politics, which further carved out space for others to do the same. However, during this time, there were prevalent attitudes, values and policies that worked to restrict the rights of some.

In 1921, a report on the Mental Hygiene Survey of the Province of Alberta was published by Dr. Hincks of the University of Toronto. This survey was used as justification for key members of the U.F.W.A. (including Irene Parlby and Louise McKinney), and Ministers of Health Richard Reid and George Hoadley, to push for eugenics legislation. Although Premier John E. Brownlee was reportedly reluctant to pass such a legislation, the U.F.W.A. gained public support for their campaign and the Sexual Sterilization Act was passed by the U.F.A. government on March 21, 1928 permitting the sexual sterilization of individuals “deemed to have undesirable traits” (Kersten, para. 1; Marsh, para. 7). The version put forward by the U.F.A. required patients to consent to being sterilized, but further amendments to the law after 1937 by the Social Credit Party did away with this (Ball, para. 6). The Act remained in place until 1972 and saw more than 2,800 people, many of whom were women and Indigenous, sterilized under its mandate (Kersten, para. 6). Undoubtedly a horrific government policy, there is much to be learned about this period in Alberta’s history. We encourage you to visit the Eugenics Archive (http://eugenicsarchive.ca) to learn more and reach out to us or another Archivist with any questions that you may have.

Excerpt from the Minutes of a U.F.W.A. Board meeting, January 15, 1923, proclaiming support for sexual sterilization legislation
(U.F.W.A. Executive, Board and Convention Minutes 1915 – 1925, p. 84).

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References and Further Reading:

Ball, N. (2013, September 13). United Farmers of Alberta (UFA). Retrieved June 18, 2021, from http://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/tree/5233a2305c2ec50000000058 

Cook, R.J.E. (1985). The UFA Experiment 1920-35. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Woodsworth House Association.  

Glenbow Library and Archives. (1961). United Farmers of Alberta Oral History Project John E. Brownlee M-4079. Calgary: University of Calgary. Retrieved from https://glenbow.ucalgary.ca/finding-aid/united-farmers-of-alberta-oral-history-project/ 

Kersten, L. (n.d.). Alberta passes Sexual Sterilization Act. Retrieved from http://eugenicsarchive.ca/database/documents/5172e81ceed5c6000000001d 

Marsh, J. (2015). “Eugenics: Pseudo-Science Based on Crude Misconceptions of Heredity” In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/eugenics-keeping-canada-sane-feature 

McNaughton, Violet. (c.1921). “Women and the New Political Group”. Fonds 2, Series 5, File 1. In custody of the United Farmer’s Historical Society.

Rennie, B. J. (2000). The rise of Agrarian democracy: The United Farmers and Farm Women of Alberta, 1909-1921. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Silverman, E., & McLeod, S. (2020). Louise McKinney In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/louise-mckinney

Tolton, G. (2009). Deep Roots. Promising Future. Calgary: UFA. Retrieved from https://archives.ufa.com/viewer/deep-roots-promising-future?p=12&type=static 

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