Social worker and politician, Edith Cowan was born on 2 August 1861 at Glengarry near Geraldton, Western Australia, second child of Kenneth Brown, pastoralist and son of early York settlers Thomas and Eliza Brown, and his first wife Mary Eliza Dircksey Wittenoom who was a teacher and the daughter of the colony's first chaplain, Reverend John B Wittenoom. Edith's mother, Mary Brown, died giving birth to her sixth child. Following her mother's death, Edith Brown, aged seven, was sent from Glengarry to Perth for her education. Unfortunately, Edith's adolescence was further troubled in 1876 when her father Kenneth Brown, went on trial for killing his second wife and was found guilty and executed. After her father’s death, Edith left boarding school and moved to Guildford where she attended the school of Canon Sweeting whose tuition left Edith with a life-long conviction of the value of education and an interest in reading.
In St George's Cathedral on 12 November 1879, Edith married James Cowan, Registrar and Master of the Supreme Court. Earlier in his career James had followed in his father, Walkinshaw Cowan’s (June 1845 to July 1848) footsteps as Clerk of the Council appointed 1 July 1874 to 15 January 1879. James appointment in 1890 as Perth Police Magistrate gave them permanent social and economic security and gave Edith an insight into society's social problems. They had four daughters and a son between 1880 and 1891: a daughter, Dircksey Constance, in 1880, followed by their only son Norman Walkinshaw 1882 and three other daughters, Hilda Edith 1883, Ida Marion 1885 and Helen May Burdett in 1891.
Entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography
Order of the British Empire
As a social reformer Edith Cowan was instrumental in improving the lives for so many Western Australians, particularly those living in Perth. In the 1890s Edith Cowan became involved in a number of voluntary organisations and over the following four decades became a strong social advocate and campaigner for causes very much associated with improved social justice for women and children. 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 Edith 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. In 1903 Edith Cowan went overseas and in 1912 she travelled to Britain and Europe. In 1925 she was the Australian delegate to the sixth convention of the International Council in the United States of America. During World War I, though already heavily engaged in social welfare, she took on a wide range of war work for which she was appointed The Order of the British Empire - Officer (Civil) - View OBE Citation Edith Cowan - OBE in 1920.
The Children's Court
The Children's Court was first established in 1907 as part of the State Children Act 1907. Edith Cowan was a strong advocated for women to sit as justices in the court, but this was not agreed to until 1915, where there was a concession on admitting women to act in the court. With some reluctance, in the last period of its reign, the Scaddan government appointed five women to sit in the Court - Mrs Cowan, Mrs Beadle, Mrs Rischbieth, Mrs Carson and Mrs Mellows. Women were allowed to sit in court, but without being made 'Justices of the Peace'.
A unique position: a biography of Edith Dircksey Cowan, 1861-1932 by Peter Cowan, page 143.
Justice of the Peace
As a Justice of the Peace, Edith Cowan had very strong ideas on what she hoped the new appointments to the Children's Court would achieve. She objected in the first place to the general attitude that prevailed in the existing Children's Court where children were made to feel like criminals. Due to this perception parents and children entered the court with an air of hostility. What followed would be confrontational and would achieve very little. Edith wanted to change the attitude to one of consultation and understanding to help resolve problems.
She was opposed to the attitude of the Police in the Children's Court to achieve a conviction and was against Magistrates who upheld the police position 'if they possibly could'. She also objected to lawyers appearing in the Children's Court as she felt they contributed unnecessarily and undesirably to technical arguments. She wanted proceedings to be undertaken with as little formality as possible and for it to proceed in the nature of free and informal discussion based on the real problems involved in the case.
It was not until 1919 that the Justices Act Amendment Bill before Parliament was widened to allow the appointment of women as Justices of the Peace, with the Bill passing the Legislative Council, 9 September 1919.
A unique position : a biography of Edith Dircksey Cowan, 1861-1932 by Peter Cowan, p. 141-143.
First female member of an Australian Parliament
Edith Cowan narrowly won the Legislative Assembly seat of West Perth in the 1921 general state election becoming the first female member of an Australian Parliament and only the second female elected to a British Imperial Parliament.
In her maiden speech to Parliament she was very mindful of the privilege afforded to her and that she was the first female elected to Parliament. She was not intimidated by the other elected members, all of whom were men. She had a very specific agenda that she want to achieve, namely to improve women's positions in Western Australia and to ensure children were provided with the best care.
|Edith Cowan as a young woman
||Edith Cowan as a bride
||Edith and James Cowan with their children
||Portrait hanging in the Western Australian Parliament
|| James Cowan
Edith Cowan In Australian Dictionary of Biography. Website accessed August 2015.
A unique position : a biography of Edith Dircksey Cowan, 1861-1932 [by] Peter Cowan. Nedlands, WA: University of Western Australia Press, 1978.
Australia On Net, Website accessed August 2015.
Legislation as Passed. State Law Publishing - www.slp.wa.gov.au
Trove Digitised Newspaper and more, National Library of Australia. Website accessed September 2015.
A number of these photos are courtesy of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society.