As it happened – beyond the stories – social champion Edith Cowan

Edith Cowan
Edith Cowan was 59 when she won the West Perth seat in the 1921 WA state election. State Library Of WA

One hundred years ago, Australia felt a political shock that led to significant social changes.

The sole cause was WA’s Edith Cowan who, in becoming the first woman to serve as a member of any parliament in Australia and most of the world, set about forcing doors to open in health, social welfare and politics.

Most Australians – even West Australians – are ignorant of what a ground-breaking social champion Cowan was.

Despite her name and image liberally spread around Australia, few people are aware of the drama, breakthroughs and achievements in her life story. 

Edith Dircksey Cowan’s image features on our $50 note and, previously, on stamps. There’s a memorial clock for her in King’s Park and she’s named on plaques in Perth’s St George’s Cathedral and in the city. A university and federal electorate are named after her.

She began making news from 1921 when legislation in Western Australia was amended, allowing women to stand for parliament. 

Born on a Geraldton sheep station in 1861, Cowan was nearly 60 when she stood as the Nationalist candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of West Perth on a platform of social reform.

Cowan’s election stunned half the world, including WA’s Attorney-General, Thomas Draper, whose seat she won. Draper introduced the change of law that enabled Cowan to stand.

Cowan was only seven when her mother died and she was despatched to a Perth boarding school. 

When she was 15, her father, Kenneth Brown, was hanged after shooting dead his second wife, Mary Eliza Wittenoom, daughter of J B Wittenoom, the colonial chaplain.

Cowan lived with her grandmother in Guildford until, at age 18, she married James Cowan, Registrar of the Supreme Court. Living between homes in West Perth and Cottesloe, they produced five children.

Cowan served only a single term but introduced several private member’s bills and then, with a high public profile, embarked on an exhausting range of actions for social reform.

Cowan co-founded the Karrakatta Club in 1894, the first women’s social club in Australia.

She lobbied hard until WA granted women the right to vote in 1899. A champion for the disadvantaged, she oversaw changes for disadvantaged children and prostitutes. She pushed for maternity hospitals and midwives rather than the normal home births.

Cowan was a co-founder of WA’s branch of the National Council of Women and the Women’s Service Guild. She was behind the creation of the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women and served on its advisory board after it opened in 1916. 

She was made a justice of the Children’s Court and a JP in 1920. She helped found the Children’s Protection Society and the Children’s Court. 

A champion for public education and the rights of children (particularly those born to single mothers), she served on a local board of education. She pushed for sex education in schools.

During World War I, Cowan collected food and clothing for soldiers overseas and co-ordinated care for returned soldiers. She chaired the Red Cross Appeal Committee. In 1920, she was appointed an OBE.

Cowan was Australia’s delegate to the 1925 International Conference of Women in the US, co-founded WA’s Royal Historical Society in 1926 and directed plans for WA’s 1929 Centenary celebrations. 

Illness stopped her whirlwind social activities and she died on 9 June 1932, aged 70. A large public funeral was held at Karrakatta Cemetery where she was buried.

In 1991, Edith Cowan University purchased the Cowan home and had it reconstructed on the Joondalup Campus with TAFE assistance. 

Cowan’s great-great nephew, David Malcolm, became Chief Justice of WA’s Supreme Court in 1988.

Researcher Hilary Silbert told Post Newspapers: “She’s under-appreciated. If you go over east they don’t acknowledge her at all in school books.”

Ms Silbert revealed that after her historic election, Cowan gave her supporters brooches depicting a cracked gumnut.

“She said getting elected as a woman was a tough nut to crack,” Ms Silbert said.