Edith Cowan OBE

Edith Cowan was the first woman elected to an Australian parliament in 1921.

Honour Roll

Edith Cowan was born on 2 August 1861, at Glengarry near Geraldton, Western Australia. Her mother died in childbirth in 1868 and she was sent to a Perth boarding school. Tragedy struck again in 1876 when her father was tried and hung for the murder of his second wife. In 1879, she married James Cowan, registrar and master of the Supreme Court. They had four daughters and a son by 1891, when James had become the Perth police magistrate.

Edith became involved in voluntary organisations through the 1890s, most notably the Karrakatta Women's Club where Perth's leading women discussed women's rights and health issues among other topics. She served several terms on the Fremantle Board of Education, one of the few public offices open to women and worked with the Ministering Children's League and the House of Mercy for unmarried mothers. Through the Children's Protection Society, she pioneered its 1909 day nursery for the children of working mothers. She was involved in the establishment of the Children's Court (1907), the Women's Service Guild (1909), the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women (1916) and the Western Australian National Council of Women (1911).

During World War I her efforts for the war earned her an OBE. Edith believed in the need for women justices of the peace, lawyers and jurors and campaigned strongly for these changes. In 1920, legislation was passed which enabled women to enter parliament. In 1921, Edith was one of five female candidates in the Western Australian elections. Standing as a Nationalist for the Legislative Assembly seat of West Perth, she campaigned on her community service record and on the need for women in parliament 'to nag a little' on social issues. Her narrow defeat of the Attorney General, T.P.Draper, made her the first Australian woman to become a Member of Parliament.

The Age newspaper voiced concern, 'Were political office to become the ambition of the fair sex, and were standing for parliament to become the latest craze of fashion, there would be many dreary and neglected homes throughout the country sacrificed on the altar of political ambition' (15 March 1921). When in parliament, Edith succeeded in establishing some metropolitan baby health centres and playgrounds, as well as changes to legislation that paved the way for women to enter law and other professions. She lost the 1924 and 1927 elections. Unfortunately, Edith was also the victim of infighting within the women's movement.

Edith was a founder of the Western Historical Society in 1926 and active in the State's 1929 centenary celebrations. She died on 9 June 1931. A memorial clock tower was erected at the King's Park gates to commemorate 'one of Australia's greatest women'. In 1984, a new federal electorate was created in her name and in 1990 the West Australian College of Advanced Education became the Edith Cowan University.