Woman Cowan, Edith Dircksey

Charity worker, Parliamentarian, Social reformer and Women's rights activist

Written by Clare Wright, La Trobe University

Edith Cowan's remarkable leadership in overcoming obstacles to women's public participation was forged through personal tragedy. Born Edith Dircksey Brown on the remote station of Glengary in Western Australia in 1861 to parents, Kenneth and Eliza, who were both from original settler families in the district and were well-connected, pious and conservative, she led a happy, uninhibited early childhood. Everything changed in an instant when, six years later, Cowan's mother died in childbirth, along with her baby. The remaining siblings were separated, and Cowan was sent to a boarding school in Perth, run by the Cowan sisters, whose brother James she would later marry. Here she developed a strong will, self-sufficiency, and an imperious set to her mouth that divulged no emotion. When Cowan was 16 years old, her father - who had descended into alcoholism, depression and despair following the death of her mother - shot his second wife in a domestic dispute. Charged with murder, he offered no defense, and was sentenced to hang. The emotional effect of his shameful death rippled down through generations.

In 1879, at the age of 18 Cowan married James Cowan, a public servant and later a magistrate. She followed her husband's career assiduously, studying the sad and sorry cases that daily walked through his courtroom. Alive to the injustices created by poverty and lack of education, especially for girls and women, Cowan soon set her serious and critical faculties to relieving their distress. She read widely - John Stuart Mill and the American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman were among her library - and believed in the importance of economic independence and higher education for women. She raised her own four daughters (she had one son) to be autonomous and capable. The Cowan home was the centre of talk and argument.

In 1894, Cowan became one of the founding members of the Karrakatta Club, a women's literary circle intended to be an influential 'centre of opinion'. Indeed the club's name became synonymous with women's suffrage in Western Australia. For the next four decades she worked to champion social reform through the rather conventional mode of middle-class women's associations, fund-raising ventures and social networking. She fought against domestic violence, drunkenness and women's legal disadvantage and spoke openly about venereal disease, prostitution, contraception, illegitimacy and sex crimes at a time when such subjects were not discussed in polite company. She campaigned for a specialist maternity hospital for Perth and children's courts with female officers. By the late 1890s Cowan began to be elected to the Boards of public entities, such as the Cottosloe Education Board and the Women's Service Guild. She assumed active leadership of many social reform organisations, including the Children's Protection Society and the National Council of Women.

Cowan believed in enlightened and rational self-control and self-determination. She was known for her severe pragmatism, her skill, intellect, tact, untiring energy and indomitable courage. But such commitment took its toll. In 1902, and again in 1912, Cowan went to England and Switzerland to recover from debilitating health concerns, probably nervous exhaustion or depression. She travelled alone, attending suffragette meetings as a well-respected Australian sister, but did not take the opportunity to speak. After her husband's retirement in 1912, Cowan intensified her public activities, becoming one of Western Australia's first female Justices of the Peace. World War I led to a spate of tireless patriotic work, fund-raising for the Red Cross and starting up the Soldiers' Welcome Home. As an ardent pro-conscription campaigner, she was an active member of the Perth Recruiting Committee.

Cowan had always argued the need for women in public life rather than just their right to it, and, in 1921, one year after Western Australia lifted the legal bar to women's parliamentary representation, she stood for the seat of West Perth. Though her platform included many radical measures (including state kitchens, child endowment payments to mothers and day nurseries for working women) she stood as an endorsed Nationalist - the conservative party of the day. She had a shock victory, defeating, by 46 votes, the sitting member TP Draper, Attorney General in the Mitchell government and, ironically, the man who had introduced the very legislation that admitted women to parliament. One newspaper noted after her victory 'Mrs Cowan is in the remarkable position of being a Conservative, representing a conservative electorate, who has achieved a revolution in representation' (The Westralian Worker, 19 August 1921). She was also the first woman to be elected to a British legislature anywhere in the world.

As a parliamentarian, Cowan refused to toe the party line, amending legislation in ways that would benefit (or at least not discriminate against) women and their children. In introducing the Women's Legal Status Bill, which stated that no person be disqualified from any public, civil or judicial function by sex, Cowan paved the way for our current Sex Discrimination laws. The bill was passed without amendment. The price of Cowan's political courage was her seat. Having lost the support of her party she failed to win the next election and was unable to gain traction as an Independent.

It is poignant that the woman who most successfully pioneered women's political representation in Australia carried a demeanor so unlike the modern woman dancing across the public imagination on the cinema screens of the 1920s: loose, carefree, uninhibited, liberated. Cowan's face never showed a glimmer of lightness or humour. She remained reserved, stern and stoic, and even her own five children found her cold and aloof. Her childhood had forged a distrust of sentiment and vulnerability. Her public persona was repressed, abrupt, tactless and impatient. Cowan died in 1932. A university in Perth is named in her honour, and her image appears on the $50 bill.

Additional sources: The Westralian Worker, 19 August 1921, quoted in Peter Cowan, A Unique Position: A Biography of Edith Dircksey Cowan, 1861 - 1932, University of Western Australia Press, Perth, 1978.

Published Resources


  • Black, David and Phillips, Harry, Making a Difference: Women in the Western Australian Parliament 1921-1999, Parliament of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, 2000. Details
  • Cowan, Peter, A Unique Position: A Biography of Edith Dircksey Cowan, 1861 - 1932, University of Western Australia (UWA) Publishing, Perth, Western Australia, 1978. Details
  • Phillips, Harry C.J, The Voice of Edith Cowan, Australia's First Woman Parliamentarian, 1921-24, Edith Cowan University, Churlands, Western Australia, 1996. Details

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