Cowan, Edith (1861–1932)

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Cowan, Edith (1861–1932)

Australian politician and the first woman in Australian Parliament, who worked on behalf of women's rights and services for children. Born on August 2, 1861, at Glengarry near Geraldton, Western Australia; died on June 9, 1932; daughter of Mary Eliza Dircksey (Wittenoom) Brown (a teacher) and Kenneth Brown (a pastoralist); granddaughter of Eliza Brown (d. 1896), a colonist who documented Australian colonial life through letters home to her family in England; married James Cowan, on November 12, 1879; children: four daughters and a son.

After the death of her mother Mary Eliza Brown in 1868, Edith Cowan's father, a pastoralist, remarried. But Kenneth Brown was an alcoholic, and he would later be sentenced to hang for the shooting of his second wife. Cowan would dedicate her life to social reforms to improve the status of women and enhance their dignity.

She married James Cowan on November 12, 1879, and the couple had four daughters and a son. James went from registrar and master of the Supreme Court to an appointment as police magistrate in Perth; the new position brought both social and economic security. Edith became the first secretary of the Karrakatta Women's Club, where women mastered public speaking and exchanged books on women's rights, health, and literature. She would later become vice-president and president of the organization. For a number of terms, she served on the North Fremantle Board of Education (which was among the few public offices open to women at the time); worked with the Ministering Children's League; and lent her efforts to the House of Mercy for unmarried mothers (Alexandra Home for Women). Cowan served as a foundation member of the Children's Protection Society and was a pioneer in the field of day nurseries for children of working mothers. In 1915, she was appointed a justice of the Children's Court and in 1920 became one of the first women to be appointed justice of the peace.

Instrumental in the creation of the Western Australian National Council of Women, Cowan served as president of the council from 1913 to 1920. When the women's movement was bitterly divided by the Health Act of 1917, which introduced compulsory notification of venereal disease, Cowan approved the act calling it "the fairest yet offered between men and women."

In 1920, she was awarded the OBE for her war work. After the ban on women in Parliament was removed, Cowan was an endorsed Nationalist candidate for West Perth (1921). She defeated the sitting member and became the first woman to enter Australian Parliament. During her term, she promoted migrant welfare, infant health centers, sex education in the State's schools, and women's rights, arguing that women should be legally entitled to a portion of their husbands' income. It was Cowan who introduced the Women's Legal Status Act, which opened the legal profession to women in Western Australian. She was defeated in the elections of 1924 and 1927.

Acting as an Australian delegate to the 7th International Conference on Women, Cowan traveled to the United States in 1925. She died on June 9, 1932, having been instrumental in making the women's movement in Western Australia a political force.

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