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Members’ biographical register

Edith Dircksey Cowan

Principal Honours
Officer of the Civil Division of the said Most Excellent Order (of the British Empire (OBE) for Voluntary Red Cross work, Western Australia, 22 October 1920
Date: 2 August 1861
Place: Glengarry near Geraldton, Western Australia
Daughter of Kenneth Brown, pastoralist (son of early York, Western Australia, settlers Thomas and Eliza Brown), and his first wife Mary Elizabeth Dircksey Wittenoom (a teacher and daughter of Colonial Chaplain JB Wittenoom)
Niece of Maitland Brown, cousin of
Sir Edward Wittenoom, and great aunt of Hendy Cowan
Marriage and Family
Married 12 November 1879, St Georges Cathedral, Perth, Western Australia to James Cowan (born 26 June 1848 and died 18 October 1937) (Registrar and Master of Supreme Court, Perth), son of Walkinshaw and Elizabeth Dyer
Children: one son and four daughters
Date: 9 June 1932
Place: Subiaco, Western Australia
Cemetery: Karrakatta Cemetery, WA
Church of England
Educated at Misses Cowan’s boarding school, Perth, and with Canon Sweeting (ex-headmaster Bishop Hale’s School)
Social worker
Date Elected
12 March 1921
Inaugural Speech
Cowan, Edith Dircksey, Inaugural Speech.pdf
Inaugural Video
Search for speeches by Edith Cowan
Year Retired/Resigned
West Perth
Parliamentary Service
  • MLA West Perth, 12 March 1921–22 March 1924
  • Contested West Perth 22 March 1924, 26 March 1927 (for WEL)
Historical Notes
  • First female member of any Australian Parliament and second female to take her seat in a Commonwealth Parliament (after Lady Astor in the House of Commons)
1890s involved in voluntary organisations
1894 first secretary of Karrakatta Women’s Club, later vice president and president
Advocate of State education, served several terms on North Fremantle Board of Education

From 1891 worked with Ministering Children’s League
From 1894 with the House of Mercy for unmarried mothers (Alexandra House for Women)
1906 a foundation member of Children’s Protection Society, pioneered its 1909 day nursery for working mothers’ children. The Society was instrumental in the passing of State Children’s Act, 1907, which established the Children’s Court.
1915 appointed to bench of Children’s Court
1909 foundation member Women’s Service Guild, vice-president to 1917
Prominent in Guild’s activities leading to opening of King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women in 1916, secretary of Hospital Advisory Board
Prominent in creation of WA National Council for Women, president 1913–1921, vice president until her death
1916 foundation member co-Freemasonry in WA
From 1916 first female member of Anglican Social Questions Committee
From 1923 a co-opted member of synod
1917 prominent in controversy in women’s movement over amendments to the Health Act, supported clauses recommending compulsory notification of venereal disease

c1918-1928 Chairman of the Foodstuffs Committee of the Australian Division of the Red Cross Society
1903 and 1912 in Britain and Europe
1925 to USA as Australian delegate to 7th International Conference of Women
1920 Justice of the Peace
1920 Awarded OBE as result of wide range of war work

Promoted migrant welfare, infant health centres, women’s rights
1923 introduced the Women’s Legal Status Bill as a private member, opened legal profession to women
1926 a founder of (Royal) WA Historical Society, contributed to its journal
1929 active in planning WA centenary celebrations, maintained her committee and social work until last illness
D Black and G Bolton, eds, Biographical Register of Members of the Parliament of Western Australia: volume one 1870-1930, Parliamentary History Project, Perth, WA, 2001, p. 54-55.
The London Gazette, 19 October 1920, p. 10096. Accessed 15 January 2018.
Western Mail, 20 December, p. 4. Accessed 15 January 2018.
Further Information
  • Margaret Brown, 'Cowan, Edith Dircksey (1861–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 December 2015.
  • R Erickson, ed, The bicentennial dictionary of Western Australians, pre-1829-1888, volume I. A-C, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, WA, 1987.
  • P Cowan, A Unique Position.
  • Making a Difference, p. 59–64.

Making a Difference chapter 5. Edith Cowan.pdfMaking a Difference chapter 5. Edith Cowan.pdf