Edith Dircksey Cowan 1861-1932

Edith Cowan is the face on our $50 note. Do you know anything about her?

She was the first woman in Australia to have a seat in State Parliament, where she campaigned for social justice. The rights of women and children in relation to domestic violence were the main priority for Edith. This stemmed from her early experiences as a child. She lost her mother at seven and grew up in an increasingly violent household after her father remarried and began drinking heavily.

When she was fifteen, Edith’s father murdered her stepmother in a drunken rage. Her father’s aggressive, domineering persona, was perceived as the ‘norm’ at a time when women and children were seen as ‘property’, had no legal rights and violence and rape were commonplace in marriage. Her father was tried and hanged.

Edith became increasingly interested in education and read widely about political and social reform. She married lawyer James Cowan at nineteen and often attended court sessions with him. It was in these sessions that Edith realised the extent of battered wives and abused children. She became a public speaker, and a staunch advocate for women’s refuges, highlighted the need for government help for widows and single mothers, and most importantly, legislation to ensure women were no longer slaves and victimised in their own homes. She petitioned for adoption laws, sanitation in slums, and worked tirelessly to stop child prostitution in brothels, at a time when syphilis was rife. In 1906 her hard work helped pass the first Protection of Children Act. In 1920 she was voted into parliament, mainly by the women she worked so hard for. Discrimination and patriarchal attitudes were deeply ingrained at this time and Edith received little help from her male colleagues. She was continually criticised in the press and parliament, however this did not deter her. Edith Cowan was a woman whose ideologies were extremely progressive and fundamental to the rights that we enjoy today. She was a wife, mother, grandmother and an incredible role model to the women who were fighting for social justice at a time when patriarchy ruled supreme!

Edith Cowan 1925. photo: State Library of Western Australia.

De Vries, S. Great Australian Women from Federation to Freedom. Sydney: Harper Collins. 2001. pp. 179-183.