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Cowper, Robina Fordyce (1866–1948)

by Alison Head

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Robina Fordyce Cowper (1866-1948), church worker and women's rights advocate, was born on 18 August 1866 at Sandridge (Port Melbourne), eldest of twelve children of Scottish-born parents John William Inglis, Presbyterian minister, and his wife Mary, née Fordyce. Educated at Clarendon College, Ballarat, Robina trained as a teacher. On 10 December 1890 at St Andrew's manse, Parramatta, New South Wales, with her father officiating, she married Charles William Cowper, a ship-owner from Melbourne. The Cowpers were stalwarts of the Augustine Congregational Church, Hawthorn, where she became a member. A daughter, born in 1892, died in 1895; Robina and Charles had no other children.

A member of the Collins Street Independent Church by 1901, from 1912 Mrs Cowper was one of its delegates to the Congregational Union of Victoria. In 1913 she was elected to the union's home mission committee and the women's home mission committee executive. Her gifts were soon put to use as a speaker and as editor of the committee's journal, the Clarion. At the Congregational Union of Australia meeting in Adelaide in 1914 she gave a paper on home mission work, which work she maintained until 1921. She preached extensively in Victoria and in Congregational churches in New South Wales when she visited her parents.

In all her activities she advocated women's rights. She was the first woman on the Congregational Union executive committee (1922-25) and a founding member of the executive of the Congregational Women's Association in 1923. From 1921 she spent most of her time on the union's public questions committee as secretary and convenor. With delegates from other churches she lobbied the government on social justice issues such as the need for more women in the police force, protection of children, and temperance. As a representative of her Church she was the only woman on the united social services committee. She thought Congregationalists were to the fore in the representation of women, whereas some of the other denominations were 'pickled in sex as to their ideas'. She continued to preach and speak. A paper she presented at the union meeting in 1924 on 'The State and the Child Criminal' was published in the Woman (December 1924) and reprinted by the Honorary Magistrate, official organ of the justices of South Australia.

Cowper's temperance work began when she became an organizer for the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in August 1923. After a few months, funding for the post was cut and she was superintendent of the women's department of the Anti-Liquor (Prohibition) League until 1929. At the league's annual conference in 1926 it was reported that 'in a vigorous campaign amongst women and girls in factories', she had addressed '225 audiences as well as many church organisations'. In 1928 she was appointed a special magistrate of the Children's Court in Melbourne. Later that year she declined re-election as convenor of her Church's public questions committee.

In an era before women were ordained or admitted to church governance, Mrs Cowper was elected to pioneer leadership roles in the Congregational Union of Victoria, excelling as preacher and administrator as she put her Christian faith into action. After her husband died in 1936 she moved to New South Wales to live with her sister. Robina Cowper died on 3 August 1948 at Parramatta and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Victorian Congregational Year Book, 1925
  • Victorian Independent, 1 Sept 1914, 1 Dec 1921, p 229, 1 Apr 1925, p 71, 1 June 1925, p 104, 1 June 1929, p 105
  • Congregational Union (Victoria), records (State Library of Victoria)
  • WCTU records (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • St Michael’s Uniting Church archives, Melbourne
  • Clarendon College archives, Ballarat, Victoria.

Citation details

Alison Head, 'Cowper, Robina Fordyce (1866–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cowper-robina-fordyce-12865/text23231, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 January 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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