2. Edith Dircksey Cowan (1861-1932), activist and politician
Edith Cowan was born into a York pioneering family. In 1868, when Edith was only seven years of age, her mother died giving birth to her sixth child. Edith and her older sister were sent to school in Perth. By the time she was 18, Edith had lost both parents and was married to James Cowan. The loss of both parents at a young age greatly influenced Edith and led to her commitment to protecting the vulnerable in society.
Edith and James had five children. During their married life they resided in Malcolm Street, West Perth and the beachside community of Cottesloe.
Edith Cowan was a leader of many social welfare and women’s rights organisations from the mid-1890s to her death. She is well remembered for her commitment to the Karrakatta Club, the North Fremantle District Board of Education, Children’s Protection Society, House of Mercy, Women’s Service Guild and the National Council of Women. Edith Cowan was a Justice of the Peace and a member of the bench of the Children’s Court.
During World War I, Edith Cowan worked for the Recruiting Committee, the Red Cross, and the soldiers’ welfare committees. She was awarded an O.B.E. for this work in 1920. She also joined with other women to claim the rights of full citizenship including the right to sit in Parliament. Full franchise was granted in 1920.
Edith Cowan was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1921 as a Nationalist member for West Perth. She was the first woman member of any Australian Parliament. Her considerable experience and career in public life and committees enabled her to work effectively in Parliament. She pursued women’s interests with dignity and determination, despite the inevitable derision and opposition from male representatives in the house. In the 1924 elections, the West Perth business interests opposed her, some of her reforms were opposed by previous women supporters, and Edith Cowan was defeated.
When she died in 1932, her colleagues erected a clock tower memorial in her honour at the gates of Kings Park, a prominent location that emphasised her stature as Western Australia’s most important woman of her time. In 1991 her contribution to public service was further memorialised when the Western Australian College of Advanced Education became the fourth university in Western Australia and was re-named Edith Cowan University.