Editor’s Note: As part of this series of women in history, we will potentially feature women who were racist, homophobic, transphobic or just generally bigoted. Where it’s known, we’ll note this in our writing however we still believe that these women’s achievements are worth celebrating.
Edith Cowan is best known for having a university (that was a former TAFE) in Perth named after her. That university is the home of WAAPA (yes, where Heath Ledger trained) and is where I obtained my post graduate communications degree. She’s also a face you see almost every day, even if you don’t realise it: she’s on the $50 note. Unlike The Queen, who got her royal mug printed on the coins and $5 note purely because of her birth, Cowan earned hers by being a pioneer for women in Australian politics and education.
I first heard of Edith Cowan when I moved to Perth as a teenager. She was a regular feature in history class, as was John Curtin and just about anything else that happened or came out of WA – no joke, West Australians are really proud of their own history and love to let you know which incredibly important people or events came out of WA. I actually know WA history better than I know general Australian history – and I wasn’t even born there!
Looking back at this obsession WA has with itself, I am both frustrated by it while also being incredibly grateful for it. Without it, I probably wouldn’t be aware of Ms Cowan or her incredible achievements – or at least, I might not have heard of her so early in my life.
Edith Brown was born in Geraldton, a rough town north of Perth in 1861 into an influential family. Following her mother’s death in childbirth, she was sent to a boarding school in Perth run by the family whom she would later marry into (the Cowans). She was orphaned at 15 when her father was hanged for the crime of killing his second wife, so she went to live with her grandmother, transferring to another school in the process – almost unheard of for her time.
This school embedded in her the value of education that she held until her death. She believed that education was the key to tackling social change and fought tirelessly to improve the lives of women, children, families, the poor, under-educated and elderly. She was a key part of the movement towards obtaining the vote for women in Western Australia and fought for sex education in schools, which makes me incredibly grateful for the comprehensive sex ed I received back in high school.
She established the Karrakatta Club, a key centre of social reform in the first three decades of Federation and was also Vice President of the Women Justices’ Association and the Western Australian League of Nations Union.
Her dedication to children was second to none, establishing the Children’s Protection Society, which later became the Children’s Court and found to establish an act of legislation that assisted women in raising their children if their husbands left.
She contributed to the war effort through the formation of the WA League of Nations Union and was awarded an OBE for her work for the troops and the home front.
Cowan’s biggest achievement was when, at the age of 60, she was the first woman elected to an Australian Parliament in the Western Australian State Parliament in 1921.
As a minister, she fought for women by having the Women’s Legal Status Bill passed in 1923, which opened up the range of professions women could enter for the first time in Australian history.
She also continued to fight for better education for young people, assisting them with funds to attend universities interstate when WA still didn’t have universities. In fact, this work is why she was named after a university in Western Australia – the very one I attended.
Her life ended at 71 in 1932, having advanced the social standing of (let’s be honest, mostly white) women and was honoured two years later with a memorial, suggesting she may have had a bit of an impact on the men too…
I’d say Ms Cowan was pretty badass, wouldn’t you?