Edith Cowan

Edith Cowan

Edith Dircksey Cowan (née Brown), MBE (2 August 1861–9 June 1932) was an Australian politician, social campaigner and the first woman elected as a representative in an Australian parliament.

Edith Brown was born and raised in Glengarry Station near Geraldton, Western Australia on 2 August 1861. The second daughter of Kenneth Brown and Mary Eliza Dircksey née Wittenoom, she was born into an influential and respected family that included her grandfathers Thomas Brown and John Burdett Wittenoom, and an uncle, Maitland Brown. When she was seven years old her mother died in childbirth, and her father sent her to a Perth boarding school run by the Cowan sisters, whose brother James she would later marry. Her father remarried, but the marriage was unhappy and he began to drink heavily. When Edith was fifteen, he shot and killed his second wife, and was subsequently hanged for the crime.

After her father's death, Edith Brown left her boarding school and moved to Guildford, probably to live with her grandmother. There, she attended the school of Canon Sweeting, a former headmaster of Bishop Hale's School who had taught a number of prominent men including John Forrest and Septimus Burt. According to her biographer, Sweeting's tuition left Brown with "a life-long conviction of the value of education, and an interest in books and reading".

At the age of seventeen she married James Cowan, a career public servant who had held numerous positions and was at that time Registrar and Master of the Supreme Court. They lived in Malcolm Street, West Perth for most of their lives, but are also well known for having one of the first houses in Cottesloe, where they lived from 1896 to 1912.

Cowan became concerned with social issues and injustices in the legal system, especially with respect to women and children. In 1894 she helped found the Karrakatta Club, a group where women "educated themselves for the kind of life they believed they ought to be able to take". In time she became the club's president. The Karrakatta Club became involved in the campaign for women's suffrage, successfully gaining the vote for women in 1899.

After the turn of the century Cowan turned her eye to welfare issues. She was particularly concerned with women's health and the welfare of disadvantaged groups, such as disadvantaged children and prostitutes. She became extraordinarily active in women's organisations and welfare organisations, serving on numerous committees. The building of Perth's King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women in 1916 was largely a result of her efforts. She helped form the Women's Service Guilds in 1909 and was a co-founder of the Western Australia's National Council of Women, serving as president from 1913 to 1921 and vice-president until her death.

Cowan believed that children should not be tried as adults and, accordingly, founded the Children's Protection Society. The society had a major role in the subsequent introduction of children's courts. In 1915 she was appointed to the bench of the new court and continued on in this position for eighteen years. In 1920 Cowan became one of the first female Justices of the Peace.

During World War I Cowan collected food and clothing for soldiers at the front and coordinated efforts to care for returned soldiers. She became chairperson of the Red Cross Appeal Committee and was rewarded when, in 1920, she was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire.

In 1920 Western Australia passed legislation allowing women to stand for parliament. At the age of 59 Cowan stood as the Nationalist candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of West Perth because she felt that domestic and social issues were not being given enough attention. She won a surprise victory, ironically defeating the Attorney General, Thomas Draper, who had introduced the legislation that enabled her to stand. She championed women's rights in parliament, pushing through legislation which allowed women to be involved in the legal profession. She succeeded in placing mothers in an equal position with fathers when their children died without having made a will, and was one of the first to promote sex education in schools. However, she lost her seat at the 1924 election and failed to regain it in 1927.

In her final years she was an Australian delegate to the 1925 International Conference of Women held in the United States. She helped to found the Royal Western Australian Historical Society in 1926 and assisted in the planning of Western Australia's 1929 Centenary celebrations. Though she remained involved in social issues, illness forced her to withdraw somewhat from public life in later years. Cowan died in 1932, at the age of 71, and was buried in Karrakatta Cemetery.

Cultural references

Two years after her death, the Edith Cowan Memorial Clock was unveiled at the entrance to Perth's Kings Park. Believed to be the first ever civic monument to an Australian woman, it was built in the face of persistent opposition which has been characterised as "representative of a gender bias operating at the time" (Heritage Council of Western Australia, 2000). Opponents of the monument claimed that monuments were inherently masculine and therefore not an appropriate form of memorial to a woman, and that Cowan was not important enough to merit a monument in such a prominent location.

Cowan's portrait was featured on an Australian postage stamp in 1975, as part of the six-part "Australian Women" series. During the WAY 1979 sesquicentennial celebrations, a plaque was laid in St Georges Terrace in her honour. In 1984 the federal Division of Cowan was created and named after her, and in January 1991 the Western Australian College of Advanced Education was re-named Edith Cowan University. Her portrait appears on the Australian fifty dollar note, a polymer banknote that was first issued in October 1995. In 1996 a plaque honouring her was placed in St George's Cathedral. There are references to her in a public art installation in Kings Park that was unveiled in November 1999 to commemorate the centenary of women's suffrage, and in a tapestry that was hung in King Edward Memorial Hospital in 2000 to honour women involved in the hospital.

References

*Black and Bolton 2001
*cite book | author = Black, David and Phillips, Harry | year = 2000 | title = Making a Difference: Women in the Western Australian Parliament 1921–1999 | location = Parliament House, Perth, Western Australia: Parliament of Western Australia | id = ISBN 0-7307-4464-7
*cite book | author = Cowan, Peter | year = 1978 | title = A unique position: a biography of Edith Dircksey Cowan 1861–1932 | location = Nedlands, Western Australia | publisher = University of Western Australia Press | id = ISBN 0-85564-135-5
*Dictionary of Australian Biography | First = Edith | Last = Cowan | Link = http://gutenberg.net.au/dictbiog/0-dict-biogCl-Cu.html#cowan1
*cite web | date = 20 December 2000 | url = http://www.heritage.wa.gov.au/register/PDF_Files/E%20-%20A-D/Edith%20D%20Cowan%20Mem%20(I-AD).PDF | title = Edith Dircksey Cowan Memorial | format = PDF | work = Register of Heritage Places - Assessment Documentation | publisher = Heritage Council of Western Australia | accessdate = 2006-05-24


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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Cowan — I. /ˈkaʊən/ (say kowuhn) noun 1. Edith Dircksey, 1861–1932, Australian state politician and social worker; first woman in Australia to be elected a member of parliament, when elected to the WA Legislative Assembly in 1921. 2. Peter, 1914–2002,… …   Australian-English dictionary

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