'Edith Cowan, member of the Legislative Assembly for West Perth, Western Australia'
Image courtesy of State Library of Western Australia: 6004B
On 12 March 1921, the first woman was elected to an Australian parliament, a major event in Australian history. Edith Cowan was elected to the seat of West Perth in the Legislative Assembly of the Parliament of Western Australia. She was very mindful of the privilege afforded to her. At the age of 59, Edith had an impressive record in public life having been a member, often founding member, of over 40 community organisations and boards. She planned to continue her progressive agenda in Parliament, to improve women's position and to provide the best health care for children.
Maiden Speech: ‘...for the home’
Whilst Edith was elected in March, she did not give her maiden or inaugural speech until July. The government recognised the ‘symbolic significance of her presence’ and gave her the honour moving the Address-in-Reply speech (annual response to the Governor’s opening of parliament). On Thursday 28 July 1921, Mrs Cowan, Member for West Perth gave her maiden speech or inaugural speech: ‘a unique position’ to the Legislative Assembly:
‘I know many people think perhaps that it was not the wisest thing to send a woman into Parliament, and perhaps I should remind hon. members that one of the reasons why women and men also considered it advisable to do so, was because it was felt that men need a reminder sometimes from women beside them that will make them realise all that can be done for the race and for the home’.
Unfortunately some of the MPs in the chamber did not respect the historic occasion and frequently interrupted Edith contrary to the usual custom for inaugural speeches.
Sunday Times, 31 July 1921, page 14.
Cartoon by Leason: ‘The New “House” Wife’
Bulletin, 31/3/1921, page 13. Courtesy of Trove
The historic election of the first woman to an Australian parliament was widely commented on in the press. The conservative newspaper, ‘The Age’ (Melbourne) wrote that a ‘parliament composed wholly or mainly of woman politicians is not a prospect to be regarded with enthusiasm’ however the more liberal ‘Western Mail’ viewed Edith as ‘the spokesperson of a school of thought which has an undeniable right to representation in the legislature, and her record of honorary social service entitles her to the distinction’. During her career she was frequently the subject of satire in newspapers and magazines, especially the 'Bulletin'.
According to historian, Margaret Brown, Edith took literally the Nationalist claim of being an independent party and did not always vote on party lines. This stance was not appreciated by the party. She always voted so that it would benefit, or not discriminate against, women and children. Cowan lost the support of her party although she still stood as a Nationalist in the 1924 election. Her opponent was TAL Davy, a ‘Rhodes scholar from Hale School’, who had strong support of the Nationalist Party, and was driven by West Perth business interests. Cowan also had continuing conflict within two of her major women's organisations. The Labor Party fielded a candidate in the seat which is thought to have cost her votes and there was a decline in voter turn out. Unsurprisingly Cowan lost the election. Historian, Clare Wright argues Cowan lost her seat due to her ‘political courage’. Cowan also failed to win the seat in the 1927 election.
'T.A.L. Davy, George Lambert and Abraham J. Herman collecting firewood at Lake Preston Lodge'.
In 1924, TAL Davy won the seat of West Perth from Edith Cowan. Lake Preston Lodge was owned by James McCallum Smith, owner of the Sunday Times. The lodge was a weekend hunting retreat for his ‘coterie of professional mates’.
Image courtesy of State Library of Western Australia: BA1271/300.
Edith was not intimidated by the other members, all of whom were men. During her inaugural speech she was frequently interjected whereas normally no-one interjects an inaugural speech. At the end of her first session, Edith thanked the members for ‘their indulgence concerning her presence’. But towards the end of her parliamentary career she complained about the ‘lack of courtesy’ of some members. William Angwin, Labor Member for North-East Fremantle, constantly interjected her when she spoke in the chamber.
Edith Cowan was an ‘extremely active parliamentarian’ and contributed robustly to debates and the legislative process in parliament. She advocated strongly for women’s rights, migrant welfare, infant health centres, child endowment and sex education in schools. Cowan was responsible for two Private Member's Bills: the Administration Act Amendment Bill and the Women’s Legal Status Bill which both passed through parliament. It was very rare for significant Private Members Bills to be successful, especially those proposed by an inexperienced parliamentarian.
Administration Act Amendment Bill
Edith’s first Private Members’ Bill was the Administration Act Amendment Bill. On 7 September 1922, she gave a second reading speech to amend the Act, to give equal inheritance rights to mothers (ie the same as fathers), when children died intestate and without children of their own. She did not give a lengthy argument as she thought it was ‘self evident according to her perception of natural law’. It is believed that she was the first woman in the British Empire to initiate a bill. The bill was passed and she was congratulated by the Premier, Sir James Mitchell.
'Sir James Mitchell', circa 1923.
Image courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia: BA1059/885.
Women’s Legal Status Bill (1923)
In 1923, Edith Cowan introduced her second Private Members Bill: Women’s Legal Status Bill. The ‘radical’ bill aimed to open legal and other professions to women for the first time. Women had already been admitted to the bar in other states and many overseas countries. The bill stated that ‘A person shall not be disqualified by sex from the exercise of any public function, from holding civil or judicial office, from practising law or from entering any other profession’. It was modelled on the UK bill, Sex Qualification (Removal) Act, which was passed in 1919. There was opposition to the bill. ‘Lavender Bill’ Marshall claimed it would ’be cutting all the (men) solicitors and barristers out of their jobs’. The WA bill originally contained the phrase ‘by sex or marriage’ but the phrase ‘or marriage’ was removed to ’preserve the family structure’. Edith was pragmatic and accepted the amendment as she wanted to ensure the passage of the bill. Harry Phillips, historian, claimed the passing of the bill was a ‘measure of symbolic and practical significance’.
Children and women first
Edith Cowan continued her fight in parliament for women and children including pursuing child endowment and children’s rights in court and in health.
In the 1920s there was little government welfare in Australia despite abject poverty. Edith thought a family man’s basic wage was inadequate so she advocated for a child and maternity endowment. She was aware that NSW had introduced legislation for child endowment but it was still 20 years prior to the introduction by the federal government. In parliament, she quoted a newspaper article on endowment: ‘recognising the service rendered to the community by the mother in the care and nurture of the child, such payment to be a change on the whole community and recognised as a right, and not associated in any way with the economic circumstances of the husband and father’.
State Children’s Act Amendment Bill (1921)
The State Children’s Act Amendment Bill contained provisions that Edith had advocated for many years in her commitment to children’s welfare. She successfully moved an amendment that made it punishable to reveal a child’s previous convictions in the Children’s Court. She thought it was objectionable that a child convicted by the State Children’s Court was termed a ‘State Child’ until 18 years old.
Many of Edith’s parliamentary speeches were concerned with the health of women and children. She spoke of statistics that showed a higher child death rate in WA compared to Queensland and fought for more money to be allocated to saving children's lives, in particular training mothers in infant health.
One shilling pram levy
In Edith’s inaugural speech, she reprimanded the Minister for Railways for the fee of one shilling to take a pram into the city by train. Harry Phillips, historian, claimed that the Minister was impressed with Edith’s argument as he interjected her and said he would withdraw the levy immediately. Although it appears the fee was still being charged in December 1921, as Mr Corboy said in parliament: ‘To require me to pay a shilling every time I want to bring my ‘pram’ into town is a bit hot’.
Edith Cowan was a strong advocate for education. Although historian Harry Phillips claims that this was more apparent in Edith’s community work rather than in parliament. During Parliament’s Budget Estimates she sought more funds for education. She believed in the importance of domestic science for girls. Edith believed in ‘free’ university education to improve WA’s cultural society. She supported a motion to annul a University of Western Australian Statute designed to allow the university to charge fees for student attendance at lectures and classes. She was particularly concerned about rural education: ‘it does seem an anomaly we should be about to spend (£1400) on a gymnasium in the city while some of our teachers outback are living in canvas bedrooms containing at one end the season’s supply of bonedust’.
'Operation in progress, operating theatre Ward 10, Royal Perth Hospital.' Circa 1925
Image courtesy of State Library of Western Australia: BA2076/37
Edith Cowan argued at length on behalf of the Australian Trained Nurses Association and the returned Army Nurses in their aim to secure the passage of the 1921 Nurses Registration Bill. The bill aimed to improve the standards of training and registration for nurses, who were mostly women. Many parliamentarians argued against the Bill as they did not like the government having a regulatory role.
In Edith’s second Address-in-Reply speech, she suggested the financing of the proposed Hospital Bill should be achieved through a progressive income tax. Undoubtedly her West Perth business constituents would have been very concerned at the prospect as this was an era before progressive taxation. Edith said ‘no matter what an individual’s wage or salary may be, each one should be prepared to pay his or her quota pro-rata’.
Edith thought the government had a responsibility to regional development through taxation incentives and construction of infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, infant health centres and roads. She believed roads were more cost effective than railways. She argued for progress in the state’s north including oil prospecting and cotton farming. In particular, she supported the south west Group Settlement Scheme (south west of WA). She claimed the Bill for the scheme's package of taxation incentives to improve progress and generate employment was insufficient.