DAME EDITH COWAN


The family suffered further tragedy when her father’s alcoholism worsened, and when Edith was 15 her step-mother died suspiciously and he was found guilty of the murder and imprisoned. At 18 she married James Cowan, brother of the proprietors of her school and Registrar of the Supreme Court of Western Australia, on 12 November 1879. The couple had four children.

In 1921, at the age of 60, Edith Cowan became Australia’s first woman parliamentarian. She won the Legislative Assembly seat of West Perth for the Nationalist Party, narrowly defeating the sitting member, the State’s Attorney-General TP Draper.

An Act enabling Western Australian women to stand for their parliament had just become law on 3 November 1920; of the five women candidates at the election on 12 March, Edith Cowan was alone successful. She served only one term and was defeated at the next State election on 22 March 1924.

But Edith Cowan was a vigorous parliamentarian and used her historic victory to press for reform across the broad agenda of issues women’s organisations had pursued as strongly as the suffrage. She argued for child endowment and infant health centres, for the welfare of migrants, for a housewives’ union and for the legal and political rights of all women. Less popularly, she was a firm advocate of state schools introducing sex education.

In 1923 she introduced a Women's Legal Status Bill as a private member; this passed both Houses of Parliament and was enacted, enabling women in Western Australia to practice law.

Though a member of the Nationalist Party since WM Hughes formed it in 1917, Edith Cowan chose to vote with either Labor Opposition or Nationalist Government, depending on the issue.

When her Party supported a strong anti-Labor candidate standing against her in the 1924 elections, she lost the West Perth seat.

Politics before parliament



For three decades before her historic election, Edith Cowan had been prominently involved in women’s political organisations in Western Australia. She had been founding secretary of the Karrakatta Women's Club when her children were still small and subsequently served as vice-president and president of this Club, which fostered public speaking and discussion. At the same time she became active in welfare groups including the Ministering Children's League from 1891, and the House of Mercy for unmarried mothers from 1894.

In 1903 she had travelled overseas, keenly seeking information on political reforms in other countries. Back home, in 1906 she was a foundation member of the Children's Protection Society, campaigning for the day nursery for working mothers children established in 1909 and for the Children’s Court achieved with the State Children Act 1907.

Edith Cowan, Bessie Rischbieth and other women leaders founded the State’s Women's Service Guild movement in 1909, a fundraising and lobbying group that succeeded in having the government establish Perth’s King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women in 1916.

When she travelled to Britain and Europe again in 1912 she made contact with the international network of the National Councils of Women and Edith Cowan was prominent in the creation of the Western Australian National Council of Women in 1911. She served as NCW president from 1913 until she entered parliament in 1921 and as vice-president from 1924 when she lost the seat. During World War I Edith Cowan added voluntary war work to her activities; a substantial commitment recognised with her appointment to the Order of the British Empire in the 1920 Honors List.

As well as being a foundation member of Co-Freemasonry in Western Australia in 1916, Edith Cowan was the Anglican Church’s Social Questions Committee’s first woman member the same year. After her election to parliament in 1923 she was a co-opted member of the Church Synod.

Early in her public life Edith Cowan had served in one of the few public offices open to women, the North Fremantle Board of Education; in 1915 she was among the first women appointed to the Bench of the Children’s Court; in 1916 founding secretary of the advisory board for the new Women’s Hospital; and in 1920 one of the State’s first woman Justices of the Peace.

Before World War I Australia’s women's organisations generally worked co-operatively on causes of mutual interest. In Western Australia as elsewhere, women often belonged to several groups, such as the Women’s Guilds, the National Council of Women, and the Country Women’s Association. During the war, the issue of conscription split these alliances, as well as political parties, and even families. In Western Australia the conflict was sharpened by differences in lobbying over amendments to the State’s Health Act intended to control the spread of venereal diseases. Edith Cowan and the National Council of Women supported compulsory notification, while Bessie Rischbieth and the Women's Service Guild held firmly that education rather than control best protected women’s interests. Edith Cowan resigned from the Women’s Service Guild in 1917 and the split was permanent.

Politics after parliament



After losing her seat Edith Cowan stood at the state election in 1927, but was again unsuccessful. By then conflict between the leading women’s organisations, the State’s National Council of Women and the new Australian Federation of Women Voters, also weakened her support base. In 1925 however, the Australian Labor Party’s May Holman became the second woman to sit in the State’s Lower House. It was not until Ruby Hutchison won a seat in the Legislative Council in 1954 that a woman sat in Western Australia's Upper House.

Edith Cowan died aged 70 on 9 June 1932 and is buried at Karrakatta cemetery in Perth. Her place as Australia’s first woman parliamentarian is one of her many contributions to political history. Her name is now honoured in many ways, including Western Australia’s Edith Cowan University. A clock tower at the gates to King's Park in Perth was erected by her colleagues to honour her life and work.

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