Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cowan, Edith Dircksey (1861–1932)

by Margaret Brown

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Edith Dircksey Cowan (1861-1932), by unknown photographer, 1920s

Edith Dircksey Cowan (1861-1932), by unknown photographer, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23351616

Edith Dircksey Cowan (1861-1932), social worker and politician, 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, a teacher and the daughter of the colonial chaplain, J. B. Wittenoom. Edith's mother died in childbirth in 1868 and she went to a Perth boarding school run by the Misses Cowan, sisters of her future husband; she completed her education with Canon Sweeting, ex-headmaster of Bishop Hale's School. Her adolescence was shattered in 1876 by the ordeal of her father's trials and hanging for the murder, that year, of his second wife. These experiences made her a solitary person, committed nevertheless to social reforms which enhanced women's dignity and responsibility and which secured proper care for mothers and children.

On 12 November 1879 in St George's Cathedral Edith married James Cowan, registrar and master of the Supreme Court. His appointment in 1890 as Perth police magistrate gave them permanent social and economic security and gave her an insight into the wider society's social problems. They had four daughters and a son between 1880 and 1891.

In the 1890s Edith Cowan became involved in voluntary organizations: she was the Karrakatta Women's Club's first secretary in 1894 and later vice-president and president. There Perth's leading women mastered public speaking and shared their reading on health, literature and women's rights: Cowan's included Olive Schreiner, J. S. Mill and Charlotte Perkins Stetson (Gilman). A state education advocate, she served several terms on the North Fremantle Board of Education, one of the few public offices then open to women. She worked with the Ministering Children's League (from 1891) and the House of Mercy for unmarried mothers (Alexandra Home for Women) from 1894. A foundation member of the Children's Protection Society in 1906, she pioneered its 1909 day nursery for working mother's children. The society was instrumental in the passing of the State Children Act, 1907, which set up the Children's Court. She was among the first women appointed to its bench in 1915; also an early woman justice of the peace (1920), she constantly urged the appointment of women to such positions.

Cowan was an initiator of the Women's Service Guild in 1909 and was vice-president to 1917 when she resigned. Amongst other work, the guild undertook the fund-raising, public meetings and government lobbying, in which she was prominent, which led finally to the opening of the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women in 1916. She was secretary of the new hospital's advisory board. In 1911 she was prominent in the creation of the Western Australian National Council of Women; she was its president in 1913-21 and vice-president until her death. She was a foundation member of Co-Freemasonry in her State in 1916, and the first female member of the Anglican Social Questions Committee from 1916 and a co-opted member of synod from 1923.

Up to 1915 the many women's organizations co-operated confidently and harmoniously, with the same people prominent in several of them, like Cowan, Lady James, Jane ('Jean') Beadle, and Bessie Rischbieth and Roberta Jull. After a bitter controversy that year over amendments to the Health Act concerning venereal disease, the movement split: the National Council of Women and a group around Cowan, who supported the clauses recommending compulsory notification; and a more radical group around Rischbieth and the Women's Service Guild. The rift between these two women was never healed.

Cowan went overseas in 1903 and 1912 to Britain and Europe, and in 1925 to the United States of America as an Australian delegate to the sixth convention of the International Council. During World War I, already heavily engaged in social welfare, she took on a wide range of war work for which she was appointed O.B.E. in 1920. Immediately after the war women's organizations renewed their efforts for civic rights, as part of 'the full democratic re-generation of the world', and in 1920 legislation ended the legal bar to women entering parliament. In the 1921 elections Cowan was one of five women candidates. As an endorsed Nationalist for the Legislative Assembly seat of West Perth, she opposed an independent Nationalist and T. P. Draper, the sitting Nationalist attorney-general in Sir James Mitchell's government. The electorate had a majority of women on the roll, but was solidly wealthy with a few potential Labor voters. She campaigned on her community service record, the need for law and order, and for women in parliament 'to nag a little' on social issues. She narrowly defeated Draper to become the first woman member of an Australian parliament.

Cowan used her term to promote migrant welfare, infant health centres and women's rights: she 'was convinced of the necessity of motherhood endowment', even defended the idea, in parliament, of a housewives' union, and continued to press for sex education in state schools. The Women's Legal Status Act, which she introduced in 1923 as a private member, opened the legal profession to women. She had taken seriously the wartime Nationalist claim to be a non-party organization, and voted sometimes with the government and sometimes with the Opposition, impressing neither. In the 1924 elections West Perth business interests stood a strong candidate in T. A. L. Davy. A Labor candidate and the continuing conflict between the two major women's organizations further depleted her support and she lost. She failed again in 1927.

Cowan was a founder of the (Royal) Western Australian Historical Society in 1926 and contributed to its journal—her daughter Dircksey was its first keeper of records. She was active in planning the State's 1929 centenary celebrations. Until her last illness she maintained her committee and social work. Survived by her husband (d.18 October 1937), she died on 9 June 1932 and was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery. She left an estate of £161. Colleagues erected a clock tower memorial at the King's Park gates to indicate her place as 'one of Australia's greatest women'. She had led a group of forceful articulate women who made the Western Australian women's movement a model; while she shared its concern with purity, temperance and ameliorative social work, she gave it her own rational analysis of issues and an austere dedication. Her portrait is in the Western Australian Art Gallery.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Cowan, A Unique Position (Perth, 1978)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Western Australia), 1921, 1731
  • Children's Protection Society, Annual Report, 1909-32 (copy, Battye Lib, Perth)
  • Western Women, Aug 1915, Jan, Oct 1916, June 1917
  • Women's Service Guilds (Western Australia), Dawn, 15 June 1932
  • Western Australian Times, 13 June 1876
  • Western Mail, 12, 19 June, 2 Oct 1914
  • West Australian, 7 Sept 1919, 13 Mar 1920, 24 Feb, 29 Apr 1921, 20 Jan 1923, 22 Feb 1924, 11 Mar 1927, 10 June 1932
  • Australasian, 8 Apr 1922
  • R. Jull, papers, and History of the Karrakatta Club 1894-1954, and Supreme Court (Western Australia), files 741, 752a, and National Council of Women, minutes, 1911-13, 1916-19, 1919-22, and Women's Service Guilds, minutes, 1913-16 (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Margaret Brown, 'Cowan, Edith Dircksey (1861–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cowan-edith-dircksey-5791/text9823, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 30 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Edith Dircksey Cowan (1861-1932), by unknown photographer, 1920s

Edith Dircksey Cowan (1861-1932), by unknown photographer, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23351616