Edith Cowan was an Australian reformer, social activist and the first woman to be elected to the Australian parliament. Edith Cowan was an Australian pioneer in several fields. Edith Cowan championed the cause of women and children and was the founder of Children’s Protective Society.
Edith Cowan or Edith Dircksey Brown was born on 2 August, 1861 at Glengary near Geraldton in Western Australia. She was the second child of Kenneth Brown, a pastoralist and tutor Mary Eliza Dircksey. Edith Cowan’s childhood was not a very pleasant one as her mother died when she was just seven years old. After few years, his father even killed her step-mother and was hanged for the crime. Edith Cowan received her education in a boarding school of Perth. After the death of her father, she left her boarding school and moved to Guildford. There she attended the school of Cannon Sweeting. Then at the age of 17, on 12 November 1879, Edith Cowan married James Cowan, who was a Registrar and Master of the Supreme Court. In 1890, her husband worked as a Perth police magistrate and this provided Edith Cowan the chance to do social reform.
Edith Cowan started working for several social causes and was an active member of many voluntary organisations. In 1894, she became the first secretary of the Karrakatta Club, later became the vice-president and thereafter the president of the club. The club provided a platform for discussing the rights for women, current affairs, literature and others. From 1893 onwards, Edith Cowan started working for the House of Mercy which was meant for unmarried mothers. In 1909, she played an active role in the foundation of the Women’s Service Guild and acted as the vice-president of the Guild from 1909-17. With the help of public-meetings, fund-raising ceremonies and government lobbying, the Guild was able to establish the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women in 1916.
Edith Cowan was also involved in the establishment of the National Council of Women’s, Western Australian branch, which provided support to affiliated societies working for women’s, children and family rights. She was the president of this organization from 1913-21 and remained as the vice-president till her death. She made recommendations for amendments to the Health Act in 1915 which stirred a lot of controversy. From 1891, Edith Cowan started working for the Ministering Children’s League and was also the vice-president of Children’s Protection Society from 1922-32. Through the Children’s Society, her desire to set up a Children’s Court was fulfilled. In 1920, Edith Cowan became the first female Justices of the Peace.
During First World War, Edith Cowan worked with several organisations like the Red Cross Society. She was one of the strongest contenders for the democratic rights of women to enter parliament and the legislation was passed in 1920. In 1921 general elections, she was elected from West Perth and became the first female parliamentarian who stood for women’s welfare and rights during her tenure. Edith Cowan lost her parliamentarian seat in 1924 and was unable to regain it in the 1927 election. She was an Australian delegate to the International Conference of Women which was held in 1925 in USA. Edith Cowan played a major role in the establishment of Western Australian Historical Society in 1926.
Edith Cowan passed away on 9 June, 1932. In 1934, a memorial clock tower was set up at the entrance gate of Kings Park in Perth and a federal electorate and university was named after Edith Cowan.