In the 1890s, Edith Cowan became heavily involved in an extraordinary number of community organisations. She was a strong social advocate and campaigner for causes associated with improved social justice for women and children. She fought against domestic violence, drunkenness and women's legal disadvantage and spoke frankly about venereal disease, prostitution, contraception, illegitimacy and sex crimes at a time when such topics were not discussed in polite company.
Children and mothers first
One of Cowan’s first appointments was on the North Fremantle Board of Education. From 1891, Cowan worked with the Ministering Children's League and the House of Mercy for unmarried mothers. She also led many social reform organisations including the Children's Protection Society (1906) and established its day nursery for working women’s children. The society was key to the passing of the State Children Act, 1907 which set up the Children's Court. She campaigned for a specialist maternity hospital, later the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women, and became the secretary of the advisory board. By the late 1890s, Cowan was elected to public boards such as the Cottesloe Education Board and the Women's Service Guild.
‘King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women, Subiaco, Western Australia’, circa 1916.
Image courtesy of State Library of Western Australia: BA1272/22
RSPCA and Miss Best
On 2 August 1892, Cowan co-founded the Western Australian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now RSPCA WA) with teacher, Miss Best, Mrs Ethel Burt, Mrs Madeline Onslow and Miss Wigglesworth. The women were connected through the St Georges Reading Circle and the Karrakatta Club. The women formed the first committee of the RSPCA which had a membership fee of one shilling.
Karrakatta Club: ‘centre of opinion’
In 1894, Edith helped establish the Karrakatta Club, a women’s literary circle, a ‘centre of opinion’ which believed women ‘educated themselves for the kind of life they believed they ought to be able to take’. The group formed out of the St Georges Reading Circle. Edith was the club’s first secretary and later vice-president and president. The women of Perth’s high society developed their public speaking skills and encouraged reading on health and women’s rights. The club campaigned for women's suffrage in Western Australia which was achieved in 1899. On 14 October 1919, at a special meeting of the club, Edith was elected a life member by the members of the Karrakatta Club. She received a beautiful bound certificate which was signed by all the members.
‘Pioneer members of the Karrakatta Club’ . Edith Cowan is in the centre of the photograph. Image courtesy of RWAHS.
The Children’s Court was first established in Perth in 1907, as part of the State Children Act 1907. Edith advocated strongly for women to sit as justices of the court but it was not until 1915 that a concession was made to allow women to act in the court. The Scaddan government finally and reluctantly appointed Edith Cowan and four other women: Mrs Beadle, Mrs Rischbieth, Mrs Carson and Mrs Mellows to the Children's Court which gave them the right to sit in court.
Women's Service Guild
In 1909, Cowan helped establish the Women's Service Guild whose primary aim was to ‘educate women on moral, social and economic questions, and the disadvantages of the use of alcohol as a beverage’. It also sought to ‘establish equal rights of citizenship for both men and women’. Branches were formed in Fremantle, Albany and Port Hedland as well as the suburbs of Cottesloe, Claremont, Swanbourne, Carlisle, Gosnells and Nedlands. She was also a co-founder of the Western Australian National Council of Women, a non-political organisation. She served as president from 1913 until her election and she was then vice-president until her death.
World War I, Red Cross and an OBE
During World War I, Edith Cowan increased her charity work. She chaired the Soldiers’ Welcome Committee and the Soldiers’ Institute Committee. She was vice-president for the Divisional Committee of Foodstuffs for soldiers on hospital ships and convalescent homes. Edith worked in a variety of positions for the Red Cross. As a foundation member of the Divisional Committee in Western Australia, she was one of the first women on the executive committee. She became vice president and later president of the Central Branch, as well as a member of the Comforts Committee. She travelled extensively throughout Western Australia speaking to a large number of branches. She was also chair of the Greater Perth Red Cross Appeal Committee. Edith was a strong pro-conscription campaigner during the war and an active member of the Perth recruiting committee. For her war work she was appointed the Order of the British Empire - Officer (Civil) (OBE) in 1920.
Justice of the Peace
In 1920, Edith Cowan became one of Western Australia’s first female Justices of the Peace. She had firm ideas about what the new appointments to the Children’s Court would achieve. She objected to children being seen as criminals. She wanted to change the court’s approach from confrontational to consultative. She objected to the police’s attitude that sought conviction and the Magistrates who agreed with the police view that ‘if they possibly could’ they would convict.
Edith Cowan was the Anglican Church’s Social Questions Committee’s first woman member from 1916. In 1923 after her election to Parliament, she became a co-opted member of the Church Synod.
Country Women's Association
Edith Cowan was a founding member of the Country Women's Association in 1923. It was formed to meet the needs of the time to help women in isolated rural communities and to provide a voice to Government to seek solutions to the difficulties facing country families.
Royal Western Australian Historical Society
In 1926, Edith Cowan helped found the (Royal) Western Australian Historical Society and wrote for its journal. Her daughter, Dircksey was its first keeper of records. Edith was active in planning the state's 1929 centenary celebrations which included the Old Time Ball which she attended. According to the Daily News, 31 May 1929, ‘Mrs James Cowan was a dignified figure in plum-colored silk worn with a lappet headdress trimmed with box-pleated silk and a shawl in the same color of rich quality’. Until her last illness, Edith maintained her committee and social work.
Edith Cowan in fancy dress at the Old Time Ball, 1930 Image courtesy of State Library of Western Australia: BA2843/57.
NB The year is more likely to have been 1929.