Edith Cowan

Edith Dircksey Cowan (1861-l932), politician, was born on 2 August 1861 at Glengarry near Geraldton, Western Australia, second child of Mary Eliza Dircksey (born Wittenoom), teacher, and Kenneth Brown, pastoralist. Her mother died in 1868 and her father remarried. Edith was educated at a Perth boarding school run by the Misses Cowan. Her father became an alcoholic; he shot his second wife and was sentenced to be hanged. Edith became a solitary person committed to social reforms which enhanced women's dignity and responsibility.

On 12 November 1879 she married James Cowan, registrar and master of the Supreme Court. Four daughters and a son were born between 1880 and 1891. James was appointed police magistrate in Perth in 1890, giving them social and economic security. In 1894 Edith became the Karrakatta Women's Club's first secretary, later becoming vice-president and president. At the Club women mastered public speaking and shared their reading on health, literature and women's rights. Edith's reading included Olive Schreiner, J. S. Mill and Charlotte Perkins Stetson. She approved of state education for 'social mingling' and 'greater feeling of human sympathy'; she served several terms on the North Fremantle Board of Education (one of the few public offices then open to women).

She worked with the Ministering Children's League (which ran a convalescent home for children) from 1891 and the House of Mercy for unmarried mothers (Alexandra Home for Women) from 1894. She was a foundation member of the Children's Protection Society, which secured the passage of a State Children's Act in 1906 establishing the Children's Court, and she pioneered day nurseries for children of women in the workforce. Mrs Cowan was appointed a justice of the Children's Court in 1915 and was among the earliest women appointed justice of the peace (1920).

She was an initiator and vice-president (1909-17) of the Women's Service Guild, which among other work raised funds, organised meetings and lobbied the government to establish the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women; she served as secretary to its advisory board. She was prominent in the creation of the Western Australian National Council of Women in 1912, and president from 1913-21. She was also a foundation member of Co-Freemasonry in Western Australia and the first woman to be a member of the Anglican Social Questions Committee (1916) and a coopted member of synod (1923).

The Health Act of 1917, introducing compulsory notification of venereal disease, caused a bitter division in the women's movement. Mrs Cowan approved the act as 'the fairest yet offered as between men and women' and withdrew from the Women's Service Guild which opposed the Act. For her war work she was awarded OBE in 1920. Following the removal of the bar on women entering parliament, Edith Cowan stood as one of two endorsed Nationalist candidates for West Perth in 1921, beating the sitting member to become the first woman in an Australian parliament. She campaigned on her record for community service, law and order, and on the need for women in parliament 'to nag a little' on social issues. She used her term to promote migrant welfare, sex education in the State's schools, infant health centres and women's rights; she defended the idea of a housewives' union and argued that a wife should be legally entitled to a share of her husband's income; she was 'convinced of the necessity of motherhood endowment'. She introduced as a private member's bill the Women's Legal Status Act which opened the legal profession in Western Australia to women. She had taken seriously the Nationalist claim to be non-party, voting sometimes with the government and sometimes with the opposition, impressing neither. In 1924 elections and again in 1927 she was defeated.

In 1925 she went to the United States as an Australian delegate to the seventh International Conference of Women. She had twice before been overseas, in 1903 and 1912. Until her last illness she maintained her committee and social work and she helped found the Western Australian Historical Society in 1926. She died on the 9 June 1932. She had led a group of forceful articulate women who made the Western Australian women's movement a political force; while she shared its concern with purity, temperance and ameliorative social work, she gave it her own rational analysis of issues and an austere dedication.

Margaret Steadman

Peter Cowan A Unique Position 1978.