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Edith Cowan Centenary: ‘no fit place for a woman’

Elected: 12 March 1921

Purple banner with image of Edith Cowan next to image of parliament house

‘Radical’ platform

In 1921, the year after Western Australia allowed women parliamentary representation, Edith Cowan stood for the Legislative Assembly seat of West Perth. It was a quarter of a century since Western Australian women had been given the right to vote. Cowan had always argued for women to be part of public life not just their right to it. Edith’s election committee thought that WA Parliament’s legislators had ignored social legislation following the war. Her platform included a fair rents bill, a housing scheme, state kitchens, child endowment payments to mothers, day nurseries, playgrounds, kindergartens and improved conditions for the Children’s Court. She also advocated for a reduction in the number of parliamentarians, compulsory voting, proportional representation and a ‘careful’ policy of immigration.

‘Bitterness and ridicule’ and West Perth

According to biographer and grandson, Peter Cowan, Edith made the decision to stand for parliament suddenly; it was ‘not part of a long-term plan’. She told a meeting of the Australian Women’s National League that until four weeks prior to the election she had not thought about standing. Edith did not want to expose herself to further ‘bitterness and ridicule’ that had plagued her public life. Despite her radical platform, she stood as an endorsed candidate for the Nationalist Party, a conservative party. Edith’s network of supporters, who were mainly women, backed her as a Nationalist candidate. Edith stood against TP Draper, the sitting independent Nationalist, Attorney General in the Mitchell Government and Ebenezer Allen, a Nationalist but previously a Ministerialist who had held the seat between 1911 and 1917. Harry Phillips, historian, argues that her candidature was agreed to by the Nationalist Party because they regularly endorsed more than one candidate and probably thought she did not stand a chance against Draper. Edith said herself: ‘she had little chance of success’. There was no ALP candidate as West Perth was considered an establishment seat. Her commitment to social causes may have earned her Labor voters. The seat also had a majority of women: 2,519 compared to 1,934 men.

Formally dressed men standing in a line

'After the swearing in of Governor Sir Francis Newdegate at Government House, Perth, 9 April 1920.'
TP Draper, sitting Nationalist, is on the far left.
Image courtesy of State Library of Western Australia: 4517B/6.

 

 

Campaign trail

Cowan campaigned on her impressive community service record, law and order as well as the need ‘to nag a little’ on social problems. Edith’s campaign included a circular-letter, a flyer and a near full page advertisement in the newspapers with a record of her service. She launched her campaign at St Mary’s Hall, Colin Street, West Perth outlining her ideas in detail. She also held numerous street meetings and was frequently told that she was ‘a disgrace to women’ and should be home looking after her husband and children, despite the fact they were adults. Edith’s husband, James Cowan ’worked tirelessly’ for her campaign.

Election ad from newspaper listing organisations Edith Cowan worked with

‘Electors of West Perth vote Cowan 1’, Daily News, 11 March, 1921.
Mrs E.D.Cowan’s election advertisement lists many of community groups that she held membership.
Image courtesy of Trove.

How to vote card with Edith Cowan's name and the number 1
‘How to vote cards for elections held on March 12, 1921 and March 22, 1924.’
Image courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia: ACC 9587AD/120.1.
 

Shock win: ‘First Australian Lady Parliamentarian’

Cowan had a shock win. She won the West Perth seat by 46 votes on 12 March 1921. Edith Cowan became the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament and was one of the first women to be elected to a British parliament in the world. In an interview with the 'Daily News' (14 March 1921, page 5), headlined ‘First Australian Lady Parliamentarian’, she said ‘I never thought I would win. I worked hard, and my committee supported me royally, as also did my husband, but really I never thought for one moment that I could really gain the day.’ Voting was not compulsory at the time however there was a turnout of 69% of voters. Ironically Edith defeated the man who had fought for the right of women to enter parliament. Edith thought that her victory proved that ‘women can and do stand by women’. The 'West Australian' editorial thought that some Labor voters voted against Minister, TP Draper ‘on a matter of principle’. The 'Westralian Worker' wrote after her victory that ‘Mrs Cowan is in the remarkable position of being a Conservative, representing a Conservative electorate, who has achieved a revolution in representation’. However Cowan is also quoted ('Daily News', 14 March 1921, page 5) as saying ‘I would not have the house filled with women for anything, even if that were possible. What is wanted is just a sprinkling of women, and I think if that comes about it will be a step in the direction of better legislation.‘

‘A tough nut to crack’

Edith’s daughter, Dircksey Cowan, wrote in 1955 that her mother gave small silver brooches to members of her Election Committee in 1921, as a token of her appreciation. A friend had written early in the election campaign that she had ‘a tough nut to crack’ and this signified that the gum nut had been cracked. The Australian $50 banknote which features Edith Cowan also includes an image of the gumnut brooch.

Silver brooch depicting gumnut and leaves

'Silver brooch given by Edith Cowan to members of her Election Committee in 1921'.
Image courtesy of State Library of Western Australia: BA2843/107.