Edith Cowan (1861-1932)

Edith Cowan, ca.1895-1900. [Image courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia, BA2843/29]

Written by Elizabeth Heffernan, RAHS Volunteer

To celebrate Women’s History Month, the Royal Australian Historical Society will highlight Australian women that have contributed to our history in various and meaningful ways. You can browse the women featured on our new webpage, Women’s History Month.

Edith Cowan is familiar to most Australians as one of the faces on our fifty-dollar banknote, commemorating her achievement as the first Australian woman to serve as a member of parliament. Throughout her life she worked tirelessly to promote the rights and welfare of women and children, and used her political platform to further these aims through legislation. Edith’s beliefs and policies helped pave the way for the 1984 Sex Discrimination Act, which afforded people of all genders, sexual orientations, and relationship statuses the same legal rights and privileges in all areas of public life. [1]

Edith Cowan, ca.1895-1900. [Image courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia, BA2843/29]
Edith Cowan, ca.1895-1900. [Image courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia, BA2843/29]

Born in Glengarry, Western Australia, in 1861, Edith had a difficult childhood. Her mother, Eliza, died in childbirth when Edith was six years old, and ten years later her father, Kenneth, who suffered from depression and alcoholism, shot his second wife in a domestic dispute and was hanged for her murder. During these terrible years, Edith attended a boarding school in Perth run by the Cowan sisters, whose brother James she married in 1879. It was these experiences early in her life that steered Edith towards a career dedicated to the protection of women’s dignity and family welfare. [2]

In 1894, now the mother of five children, Edith was one of the founding members the Karrakatta Women’s Club, acting as its first secretary and later vice-president and president. The literature club encouraged the women of Perth to broaden their horizons by reading authors such as American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and quickly became synonymous with the women’s suffrage movement in Western Australia. [3]

In the new century, Edith helped establish both the Children’s Protection Society in 1906 and its successor, the Children’s Court, in 1907, in which she became one of the first women appointed to its bench in 1915. Edith went on to become one of the country’s first female justices of the peace in 1920. [4]

Edith was also actively involved in the Women’s Justice Association, the Western Australian League of Nations Union, the Western Australian National Council for Women, and the Western Australian division of the Red Cross Society. [5]

In 1921, at the age of sixty, Edith became the first woman elected to parliament in the seat of West Perth, one year after legislation prohibiting female parliamentary representation was lifted. She was elected despite her radical platform, which advocated for, among other things: state kitchens, child endowment payments to mothers, and day nurseries for working women. [6] Such a landslide victory as the one she achieved reveals just how important and overdue women in parliament were in early twentieth-century Australia.

Sadly, Edith’s stint in government did not last. She was successful in passing her landmark Women’s Legal Status Bill in 1923, but the controversy surrounding the at-the-time radical legislation cost Edith the support of her party and her victory in the next election. [7] Even as women’s rights were gaining more momentum in Australia, Edith was still ahead of her time.

Edith was remembered after her passing in 1932 as a woman who strived to work “unselfishly, unceasingly and constructively in the interests of her country… Nothing daunted, she blazed the trail.” [8] Her actions should serve as inspiration for all female Australian leaders today.

References:

[1] Clare Wright, ‘Cowan, Edith Dircksey’, The Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia, <http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0162b.htm>, accessed 26 March 2019.
[2] Margaret Brown, ‘Biography – Edith Dircksey Cowan’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, <http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cowan-edith-dircksey-5791>, accessed 26 March 2019.
[3] Wright, ‘Cowan, Edith Dircksey’.
[4] Rosemary Francis, ‘Cowan, Edith Dircksey’, The Australian Women’s Register, <http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/IMP0130b.htm>, last modified 12 September 2017.
[5] ‘Edith Dircksey Cowan’, Edith Cowan University, <https://www.ecu.edu.au/about-ecu/welcome-to-ecu/edith-dircksey-cowan>, accessed 26 March 2019.
[6] Wright, ‘Cowan, Edith Dircksey’.
[7] Ibid.
[8] ‘Memorial to Edith Cowan’, The Beverly Times, 9 December 1932, p. 1.

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