Edith Cowan
State Library of Western Australia

Edith Cowan, Australian politician and social reformer, 1861-1932

Recognizable as the face on the reverse of the fifty-dollar note, Edith Cowan was the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament. She was a champion of women’s and children’s rights throughout her remarkable and progressive career. 

Born on a remote sheep station, Cowan’s tumultuous upbringing surely set the stage for her future as a women’s and children’s advocate and champion of social reform. Her mother died in childbirth and she was sent to boarding school in Perth. When Cowan was still an adolescent, her father was tried and hanged for the murder of his second wife.

When she married James Cowan in 1879, whose sisters had run her boarding school, her economic security was all but guaranteed, he being the master of the Supreme Court of Australia. After raising four daughters and a son, she was able to turn her attention to the challenges of wider society and the welfare of the less fortunate, including unwed mothers. Way ahead of her time, she founded a day nursery for the Children’s Protection Society in 1909 so that mothers could go to work. She was one of the first women to be appointed to the newly instated Children’s Court and was an early female justice of the peace. Her successfully lobbying led to the  opening of the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women in 1916.

In 1920, legislation ended the legal bar to women entering parliament, and Cowan ran the following year, narrowly beating the popular incumbent (interestingly, more women than men had been registered to vote in the election.) She used her term to fight for the rights of migrants, to establish infant care centers, further women’s issues and, quite progressively, sex education in schools. She also helped pass the Women’s Legal Status Act which allowed women to work in the legal profession. The Edith Cowan University of Western Australia is named after her.


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