Social worker, politician and feminist.
Edith Dircksey Cowan (nee Brown) was born on 2 August 1861 at Glengarry near Geraldton in Western Australia, the second child of pastoralist Kenneth Brown and teacher Mary Eliza Dircksey Wittenoom. Her childhood was marred by personal tragedy. When she was seven, her mother died in childbirth. Eight years later, her father, suffering from illness and jealousy, murdered his second wife.
On 12 November 1879, Edith married James Cowan at St George's Cathedral, Perth. They had four daughters and a son between 1880 and 1891. Her husband's work as Perth police magistrate from 1890 gave Cowan an insight into the problems of women and children, reinforcing her interest in social reform.
Cowan's schooling gave her a lifelong conviction of the value of education. She served several terms on the North Fremantle Education Board. She advocated for state schooling and for the inclusion of sex education in the curriculum.
From 1893, Cowan worked for the House of Mercy for unmarried mothers (later the Alexandra Home for Women). She became the first secretary of the Karrakatta Club, a forum for discussion of women's rights, current affairs, literature and other topics, later becoming its vice-president and president. In 1909, she was one of the founders of the Women's Service Guild and was vice-president until 1917. One of the aims of the Guild was to establish equal rights of citizenship for both men and women. This group was instrumental in opening the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women in 1916.
Cowan was involved in the creation of the Western Australian branch of the National Council of Women. She served as president from 1913 to 1921 and as vice-president until her death. Proposed amendments to the Health Act in 1915 caused a division in the women's movement and Cowan was prominent in the controversy. She supported clauses recommending compulsory notification of venereal disease.
From 1891, Cowan worked for the Ministering Children's League. In 1906, she was a foundation member of the Children's Protection Society, through which her hope for the establishment of day nurseries for the children of working mothers was realised, and served as vice-president from 1922 to 1932. The Society lobbied successfully for the passing of the State Children's Act in 1907, which established the Children's Court. Cowan was one of the first women appointed to its bench in 1915, and also became one of the first female Justices of the Peace in 1920.
During World War I, Cowan worked with the Red Cross and other organisations. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for this work in 1920. Cowan was the first female member of the Anglican Social Questions Committee and a co-opted member of Synod from 1923.
Cowan was a strong campaigner for women's democratic rights to enter Parliament. With legislation enacted in 1920 to remove the legal bar to women entering Parliament, Cowan stood for the 1921 state election. She became a member of the Legislative Assembly of Western Australia and the first female member of any Australian parliament. She used her term to promote women's rights, migrant welfare and infant health centres. Through a private member's bill, Cowan was successful in amending the Administration Act to give equal inheritance rights to mothers when children died intestate. The legal profession was opened to women as a result of her second successful private member's bill, which became the Women's Legal Status Act of 1923. Cowan lost her seat in 1924 and failed to regain it in 1927.
Cowan was an Australian delegate to the 1925 International Conference of Women held in the United States. She helped to found the Western Australian Historical Society in 1926 and was also active in planning the state's 1929 Centenary celebrations.
Edith Cowan died on 9 June 1932. A memorial clock tower at the entrance to Kings Park in Perth was created in her honour in 1934. In more recent times, a federal electorate and a university have been named after her.