Edith Cowan was the first woman elected to an Australian parliament. She fought for social change against enormous odds, striving constantly to improve the lot of women and children. At the time, women were treated as second class citizens and Edith was a role model and symbol for many women of the time, continually advocating leadership for women.. Through her achievements, she gave great hope and encouragement to those who followed her.
Edith was born Edith Dircksey Brown in 1861 in Geraldton, north of Perth, Western Australia. Her father was the son of early settlers from York, a farming area east of Perth. Her mother was a teacher and daughter of the chaplain of the colony, J B Wittenoom.
When she was seven, her mother died in childbirth. Her father was unable to cope with the children and Edith and her older sister were sent to a boarding school run by the Misses Cowan.
Her father later remarried but, when Edith was fifteen, her life was turned upside down. Her father, after a bout of heavy drinking, shot and killed his second wife. He was tried, found guilty and hung within the year. Such an experience must have been traumatic in the extreme for a young person and it did have an effect on her, making her quite introverted.
Two years after this tragedy, in 1879, she married James Cowan, brother of the proprietors of the boarding school where she had been living. James Cowan was registrar and master of the Supreme Court. In 1890 he was appointed as Perth police magistrate. This was to give them social and economic security. It also gave her a broad insight into the social problems of the wider society.
During the 1890s, Edith joined the Karrakatta Women’s Club becoming its first secretary in 1894. She was later to become vice-president and president. The members of the club were all committed to campaigning for women to be given the right to vote. They sought to educate themselves in the issues of the day. They became proficient at speaking in public and shared their views and opinions on health, literature and women’s rights.
At the time one of the few public offices open to women was the Board of Education and Edith spent several terms on the North Fremantle Board. Over the years she also worked with the Ministering Children’s League and the House of Mercy for unmarried mothers. She gained no favours by approaching and talking to prostitutes, always gathering information and insight into all facets of society that affected women and children.
She was a foundation member of the Children’s Protection Society which was instrumental in passing the State Children Act, 1907. This brought about the establishment of a Children’s Court. In 1915, she was one of the first women appointed to its bench. In 1920, she was appointed a Justice of the Peace.
Edith Cowan had a place on almost every organization of any consequence.
In 1909 Edith initiated the Women’s Service Guild and was its vice-president till 1917. Thanks largely to Edith, fund-raising and government lobbyin
g by the Guild led to the building of the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women. Edith was appointed secretary of the new hospital's advisory board.
In 1903 and again in 1912, Edith visited Britain and Europe.
In 1911, she played a major role in the creation of the Western Australian National Council of Women and was its President from 1913 to 1921.
In 1916, she became a Foundation member of the State chapter of Co-Freemasonry. In the same year she was the first female member of the Anglican Social Questions Committee and in 1923 was co-opted as a member of Synod.
In 1920, Edith was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for her wide-ranging work supporting war causes. She had collected food, clothing and other articles for serving soldiers, she had ensured returning soldiers were welcomed and cared for and had assisted wherever she could as chairperson of the Red Cross Appeal Committee.
In 1925, Edith was appointed the Australian delegate to the 6th Convention of the International Council which was held in the USA.
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After the war, women’s organizations renewed their fight for civic rights. In 1920, the final obstacles preventing women from seeking election to parliament were removed. Edith was one of five women to nominate in the 1921 elections. She was now 60 years old. She sat as an endorsed Nationalist for the Legislative Assembly seat of West Perth and narrowly defeated T P Draper, the sitting Nationalist Attorney-General in Sir James Mitchell’s government. With this victory, she became the first woman member of an Australian parliament. There was much incredulity at the election of one of the female species. The public gallery was packed when Edith made her first appearance in parliament.
Edith used her term in office to promote infant health centres, women’s rights and migrant welfare. She also pressed for sex education in schools.
In 1923, she introduced, as a private member, The Women's Legal Status Act. This opened the legal profession to women.
As a political activist, Edith was an articulate and forceful speaker and soon proved herself able to sustain an argument against any male opponent. Her husband had retired by now and was a strong support to his wife.
The Nationalist Party during wartime had claimed to be a non-party organization. Edith took this claim at its word and gained little goodwill from her colleagues by voting sometimes with one party and sometimes with the other. In 1924, she lost her seat. She failed to win it back in 1927.
In 1926, Edith helped found the (Royal) Western Historical Society. She was an active contributor to its journal and her daughter, Dircksey, was its first keeper of records.
In 1929, she took an active role in planning the centenary celebrations for Western Australia.
Edith died in 1932 at the age of seventy-one. Her husband died in 1937. She had been in ill health for several years.
Two years later, a memorial clock tower was erected at the King’s Park gates as a tribute to her work. Her portrait hangs in the Western Australian Art Gallery and appears on the Australian $50 note. One of Western Australia’s universities has been named Edith Cowan University as a tribute to a remarkable woman and one of Australia’s finest daughters.