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Edith Cowan

Edith Dircksey Cowan
Member of the
Parliament of Western Australia
for West Perth
In office
Preceded by Thomas Percy Draper
Succeeded by Thomas Davy
Personal details
Born 2 August 1861
Western Australia
Died 9 June 1932
Nationality Australian
Political party Nationalist
Spouse(s) James Cowan
Profession Politician
Religion Anglican

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


  • Biography 1
    • Early life 1.1
    • Philanthropy 1.2
    • Politics 1.3
    • Personal life 1.4
    • Death 1.5
    • Legacy 1.6
  • See also 2
  • References 3
  • External links 4


Early life

Edith Brown was born in Geraldton, Western Australia on 2 August 1861. She was 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, the sisters of James , whom she would later marry. Her father remarried, but the marriage was unhappy and he began to drink heavily. When Edith was fifteen, her father shot and killed his second wife, and was subsequently hanged for the crime.

After her father's death, she left her boarding school and moved to 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". Cowan mostly lived in West Perth, but is also well known for having one of the first houses in Cottesloe.


She 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, she 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.

In 1916, she became Freemason, admitted to the Australian federation of Droit Humain.

She 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, she became one of the first female Justices of the Peace. Her great great nephew David Malcolm followed in her footsteps, by becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia in 1988.

During World War I, she 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 (OBE).

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.


In 1920, Western Australia passed legislation allowing women to stand for parliament. At the age of 59, she 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.

Personal life

At the age of 18, on 12 November 1879, Edith married James Cowan, 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.

Edith was married in St Georges Cathedral, Perth. Her funeral service was at the Cathedral and she was one of the first women elected to the Anglican Synod in 1916.


Cowan died on the 9 June in 1932, at the age of 71, and was buried in Karrakatta Cemetery.

The Edith Dircksey Cowan Memorial, formerly known as the Edith Cowan Memorial Clock
Edith Cowan's portrait appears on the back of Australia's fifty dollar note.


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 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.

Her portrait was featured on an Australian postage stamp in 1975,[1] as part of a 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 renamed Edith Cowan University (ECU).[2]

Her portrait appears on the women's suffrage, and in a tapestry that was hung in King Edward Memorial Hospital in 2000 to honour women involved in the hospital.

In 1991, Edith Cowan University purchased the house at which Edith Cowan, her husband and family had resided at 71 Malcolm Street.[3] They resided in the house from 1919 for approximately 20 years.[3] The house was reconstructed on the university's Joondalup Campus with the assistance of the West Coast College of TAFE. The reconstructed house opened in 1997[3] and is Building 20 on the university's Joondalup Campus and currently plays host to the Peter Cowan Writer's Centre.[4]

See also

  • Cowan, Peter (1978). A unique position: a biography of Edith Dircksey Cowan 1861–1932. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press.  
  • "Edith Dircksey Cowan Memorial" (PDF). Register of Heritage Places – Assessment Documentation.  


  1. ^ Australian Women stamps series: Edith Cowan
  2. ^ History of Edith Cowan University and its Predecessor institutions
  3. ^ a b c Edith Cowan House:the reconstruction
  4. ^ Peter Cowan Writer's Centre

External links

  • Cowan, Edith Dircksey in The Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia
  • Biographical Register of Members of the Parliament of Western Australia
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