What we can learn from Edith Cowan, Australia’s First Female Parliamentarian

This is the transcript from the sixth episode of Individuate, Easygoing Digital’s podcast. Listen on the player below.

One of the things that I want to do with this podcast is to look into the lives and stories of those who’ve stood up for what they believe in and made a tangible difference.


I find it remarkable just how much humanity we can find in the stories of those who seem superhuman, and it’s empowering when their decisions and behaviours become tangible. 


Today, I’ve chosen someone for a very good reason.


I won’t elaborate too much, only to say that without wanting to make this podcast too political, I hope you understand why I’ve chosen to speak about this person today.


The first reason is quite auspicious in that we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of a huge milestone for this person on the 12th of March 2021, which happens to be the day after the release of this podcast.


But the main reason is that I think this person’s story should be told much more than it is and I think we’re seeing some of the ill-effects of the fact that this story doesn’t have more prominence in society today.


So, without further ado, let’s get into what is the incredible story that is the life and election of Edith Cowan, Australia’s first female parliamentarian.  


Now, before this week, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know much more about Edith Cowan than the fact she was on our $50 note and she has a university named after her in Western Australia.


Ironically, thanks to Ken Burns and his civil war documentaries, I could probably tell you much more about Ulysses S Grant, who’s on the American $50 dollar bill than Edith Cowan, or indeed David Unaipon (Yoonapon), the writer, inventor, public speaker and preacher whose story is one for another day.


But I don’t think I’m alone in Australia when I say that’s the case.


In my opinion, as we’ll find out today, Edith Cowan improved the fabric of Australian society so much that her story should be told more.


The first thing that really stood out to me about Edith Cowan, was an attitude that I still don’t think a lot of people have caught onto 100 years later.


In advocating for women to have a voice and be heard, she spoke about it in terms of being a requirement.


She saw back then, a century ago, that it wasn’t about being tokenistic. It’s actually about making society a better place.


Giving everyone the ability to be heard and contribute to the formal structure of society is actually better for everyone because there are costs to everyone in society if that’s not the case.


I think this is potentially something that’s been lost in the last couple of weeks in political discourse in Australia. And it’s part of what’s contributed to this podcast.


I think it’s on all of us to refine our voice so that we can all contribute to some of these broader conversations.


Then we can drown out some of the flat-out cognitive dissonances that we’ve seen on display from some members of the community who frankly should be better.


The other thing that Edith Cowan recognised is that the development of each individual was better for the development of the country.


It seems such a simple and obvious notion, but it constantly surprises me how many people seem to disagree with it. Rupert Murdoch is an obvious one.


She believed that education was fundamentally important in tackling the social issues of the day. In that it was the key to growth, change and improvement. 


So how did she come to adopt these attitudes?


Born in 1861 on a sheep station near Geraldton in Western Australia, she was the second of 6 children.


Although she wasn’t born into poverty, Edith had a tough childhood, with her mother dying in childbirth when she was 7 and her father was hanged for the murder of her step-mother when she was only 15.


After her father’s death, she went to live with her grandmother, where she attended tuition of Canon Sweeting, a prominent former headmaster who instilled her with a life-long conviction for the value of work and education and an interest in books and reading.


So even though she was orphaned in horrific circumstances at the age of 15, transferred to a completely new environment, she was able to develop a passion for learning and various socially-minded attitudes that she would hold and advocate on behalf of for the rest of her life.


Her ability to accept the situation and look forward must have been immense.


I think it’s worth pausing here to take a snapshot of the world Edith inherited in her childhood. Her mother died in childbirth, which would have been tragically common back then, she grew up in an atmosphere of domestic violence, it wasn’t until she was in her mid-30’s that women were allowed to vote and it wasn’t until she was nearly 60 years of age that women had a voice parliament. Changes that she herself was instrumental in bringing about.


One of the themes of this podcast that we expanded on a bit in episode two is the idea of the importance of finding a life narrative that fits in to the collective.


It just strikes me that although she would have been getting explicit and implicit messages all throughout her childhood about the role of women, she didn’t accept that, even though someone as close to her as her own father was so clearly implicated in forming an alternate attitude.


It certainly put it into context for me when people, particularly our leaders, elevate personal relationships and reputations over and above doing what they know to be right.


At the tender age of 18, Edith married James Cowan, who was then a registrar of the supreme court and she began a life of incredible public service.


It would take hours to go through all of Edith Cowan’s individual achievements, so at the risk of diminishing each of them to a list item, I’ll read them in a moment.


Before I do, I think it’s important to note that the Colonial population of Western Australia was about 16,000 in 1861 when Cowan was born. It got up to nearly 350,000 by time she was elected, so although this doesn’t count the indigenous population I think it helps to contextualises her sphere of influence and the size of her constituency and opposition she faced.


These are some of the positions that Edith Cowan held in her lifetime, many of which were at organisations she herself founded.


I think it speaks to the breadth of her abilities with the range of causes she contributed to.

  • Perth Hospital Board
  • King Edward Maternity Hospital Advisory Board – the building of the hospital in itself, largely a result of her efforts.
  • Chairman of the Perth Hospital Red Cross Auxiliary
  • President of the Military Nurses Home committee
  • President of Pageantry and sights committee — WA Historical Society
  • Vice President of WA League of Nations Union
  • Red Cross division committee
  • She helped found the Children’s Protection Society
  • Was on the Town Planning Association
  • The Housewives Association
  • Infant Health Association
  • Vice-President of the WA Historical Society
  • Nationalist Party Executive (which was an early ancestor of today’s Liberal Party)
  • Governor of St Mary’s Church School
  • General and Provisional Synods of the Church of England (council)
  • Bush Nursing Association
  • Centenary Committee
  • Women’s Immigration Auxiliary
  • Vice-President of the women’s justices Association
  • Girl Guides Council
  • Western Australia National Council of Women
  • Founding Member of the Bench of the Children’s Court
  • One of Australia’s first female Justice of the Peace
  • She represented Australia
  • An Officer of the Order of the British Empire
  • And she was a founder of the Karrakatta Club who became strongly involved in the successful campaign for women’s suffrage in 1899.


So, although it’s not even a list of all of her achievements, what strikes me is that she covers everything from health, education, town planning, child welfare, politics, law, broader social advocacy and the housewife’s association. For a colonial community in the late 19th and early 20th century, that’s pretty much everything covered as far as I can tell.

And all this is outside of her work in politics, for which she’s now most remembered.


What seems to me from all of this is that Edith Cowan could never have really had much of a plan.


Although she was obviously clear on her values and mission, most of her achievements came in areas that didn’t exist before she did anything, and she was the first, if not close to the first female in the British Empire to do a whole range of things.


In fact, she once told a meeting of the Australian Women’s National League in Hobart that she hadn’t thought of standing for parliament until 4 weeks before the election.


But she clearly recognised the value this could have given the pursuit of her broader mission.


On that theme of creating change, Cowan herself, amongst others, would have directly contributed to the parliamentary bill that allowed women to stand for parliament going through relatively unopposed in 1920. It seemed an inevitability after the decision to give women the vote in the late 1890’s.


The Attorney General summed up the general attitude of the day when he introduced the bill to parliament and said,


“no long discussion, I think, is necessary. In other countries the disqualification has been removed, as some recognition of the part which women have played during the last four or five years, during the critical times of the war. I confidently expect that this amendment of the Constitution Act will be passed without opposition”


Opposition Leader Collier agreed, when he said “I suppose that it is the universal opinion in this state that this right has been won by them, indeed it is a right which has been long denied.”


However, the bill passed with a majority of seventeen in favour, with 3 still against.


Although reluctant at first, Edith Cowan announced herself as a candidate for the seat of West Perth in the 1921 election.


It’s interesting to note, the two people she was running against, one was Thomas Draper, the Attorney General who introduced the bill which allowed her to run in the first place and had experienced an illustrious career in law and politics so far and the other was Ebenezer Allen who had held the seat for 6 years before losing it to Draper at the 1917 election.


So, these were no slouches that she was up against!


As a complete political newcomer, she was up against two experienced politicians, with established reputations amongst voters, both who’d proven they can win elections before and one was the sitting attorney General. Oh, and to make matters worse, they were all endorsed by the same Nationalist party. So, she couldn’t really stand on a different policy platform.


In the leadup to the election, Cowan was told, often by other women that she was a disgrace to women. She was told that she should be at home, looking after her husband and children and that she was encouraging other women to neglect their proper role as housewives and mothers.


The fact that her children were all adult, with three of them being married didn’t seem to matter to her critics.


The wider sentiment seemed to indicate that although given the new circumstances for women following the war, a candidate should perhaps be put forward, the challenge wasn’t to be taken too seriously.


Nearly all of the local media thought the sitting member was in no danger, with only one newspaper giving her a chance.


This paper was oddly enough The Australian Newspaper,


Their journalists claimed they had taken the trouble to ask the electorate and make extensive enquiries when they said,


“learning thereby that practically everyone admitted Mrs Cowan’s fitness and capacity for a seat in parliament, while fully half the electors, when questioned, stated frankly their intention to vote for her.”


When the results were in they were proved correct.


Cowan had achieved the seemingly impossible and won the seat of West Perth against the two much more fancied candidates on paper.


Although her election was seen by all to be a momentous occasion, the reactions were mixed.


Choosing to editorialise it negatively, The Age Newspaper in Melbourne said “a parliament composed wholly of women was something against which the good sense of the community will have to guard itself,’


The West Australian Newspaper had a broader view on the topic,


“It need not be apprehended that “with another couple of general elections, we shall have Parliament House half full of women,” unless women show a greater aptitude for the management of public affairs than has been displayed by exclusively male assemblies. If they do this, the country will not be the poorer, merely because 50% of our male politicians may have to seek other avenues of employment for which they may be better qualified.”


Now, one of the first things that I find so admirable about Edith Cowan, is that tangibly she faced more than any other politician before her. Before she could do anything in parliament she had to face the outright hostility and prove that women were in fact fit to take on parliamentary duties and privileges. 


All this was before she could participate in the policy process, where her decisions were likely to be held to a different standard. 


However big this task, it was one that she took on.


At the opening of the new Parliament, of which the West Australian reported:


“Never before did such a gathering witness an opening of parliament in this state. The feminine element predominated and it was obvious that the unprecedented demand for entry was due to the desire to witness the formal incorporation in the legislature of Mrs Cowan, the member for west Perth and the first woman to win a seat in the Australian Parliament.”


In her first speech as a parliamentarian, Cowan recognised this challenge that she faced. She said


“I stand here today in the unique position of being the first woman in an Australian parliament. I know many people think perhaps it was not the wisest thing to do to send a woman into parliament. It is a great responsibility to be the only woman here.


Although she faced great challenges, Cowan navigated her way through her political career with a collaborative attitude


She often stated that she didn’t see women as being in competition with men, but rather as co-operation with them.


For example, she believed that in Parliament only expressing a male viewpoint, it was a loss for the entire community, not just the men who would seemingly benefit from this lack of balance.


In not wanting to seem brash and presumptuous, Cowan didn’t launch into her career with the same brazen attitude that we saw from an American mature aged political newcomer in recent years. 


Although she may not have been quite as prominent as some of her paranoid critics feared she would be, Cowan still made a difference in Parliament. Successfully campaigning for a range of legislation governing causes that she cared about.


In one early example, she successfully gained admission for women into the speaker’s gallery, something which had been forbidden prior to her election.


In one of the more prominent episodes of Cowan’s political career, she was thrust into the spotlight when an amendment to a particular bill sought to recognise holidays, to stipulate hours that shops will be open on holidays, and to prevent an extension of working hours for women and young people.


Cowan was expected to support the bill on account of it seeming to make extra allowances for women, however she argued that the clause limiting the hours that women could work would be detrimental to their employment prospects.


It was a time when opportunities for women to find employment for limited and after some sections of trade and industry threatened to dismiss all their female workers, Cowan saw this as a real threat.


There were many examples throughout Cowan’s career that showed the benefit of her presence in parliament.


In a debate about the standardisation and training of nurses in which Cowan was arguing for the need for an increase in professional standards, she faced opposition from those who believed there shouldn’t be any more government regulation in the area.


Having lost her own mother in childbirth and having had 5 children herself, she said “some of us have had experiences that the honourable member could not have, and so we would appreciate some trained help.”


When pressed on the issue she explained they were trying to train the right type of nurses to send out into the country so that women were not left to suffer in the dreadful way that they had suffered in the past.


She argued for many causes throughout her political career, with some of the more noteworthy relating to the welfare of children and the recognition of women in society and in the home.


I won’t go into all of Edith Cowan’s political achievements because there is a lot, but if anyone is interested in reading more about her political career, I’ll put up a biography from the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, which I enjoyed reading through in research for today’s podcast.


In her first term in Government, Cowan successfully sponsored two private members bills, an admirable achievement for any parliamentarian.


This includes one when she was suffering from a serious illness. She, however, lost her seat at the election of 1924.


Her opposition in the Labor Party had grown bitter with her, thinking they could count on her support more often than she did, and even members of her own party had turned against her after she missed the voting of a bill that had been debated for two months and her Government lost by a single vote. She had intended to vote for the legislation but had missed the vote because she had attended an urgent meeting at the Maimed and the Limbless men’s hostel, a part of her continuing work after the war.


As the parliament ended, the press asked whether she had justified her position as the first female member. A bit of a ridiculous question considering it’s not asked of all members of parliament,


But the conclusion was that she had.


She had set an example of lively and intelligent debate. She effectively communicated and advocated on behalf of the causes she believed in and by the end of her term, her position in parliament was unquestioned. She had undeniably proven some of the doubters wrong as to her fitness to sit in the parliament in the first place and she successfully sponsored two private members bills.


She contested the seat of West Perth again in 1927, however, the elections subsequent to her joining the parliament had seemingly become more bitter.


She died on the 9th of June, 1932.


She is currently the only female to have an Australian University after her and the Federal Electorate of Cowan in Western Australia now bears her name. The seat currently held by Labor’s Dr Anne Aly.


So that is a very brief look into the incredible life of Edith Cowan and there are just a couple of things that I want to touch on.


First of all, born in 1861 and living until the age of 70, she catalysed so much change in her life.


From the world that she inherited to the world that she left behind, she had such an influence in what that looked like and I think we can take the tide of change for granted a little bit sometimes, because without people like Edith Cowan facing all they did and making the decisions on a micro-level to do the difficult thing and take the positive route, this is how change happens.


If we’re talking about standing on the shoulders of giants, well Edith Cowan is an absolute giant.


I almost think of these things in terms of positive chain reactions and negative chain reactions and I think what Edith Cowan really picked up on is that there is such a cost to inaction in some areas and that cost sets of a negative chain reaction that harms everyone. It’s only in breaking these cycles and set off more of a positive chain reaction that we’re able to turn the tide.  


To finish, I want to read my favourite poem.


I wanted to read this poem whilst talking about Edith Cowan today because I think she is a perfect example of someone who encapsulates the sentiment.


If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:


If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:


If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’


If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!


That poem is called If by Rudyard Kipling and although it’s a bit gender-specific, but if there’s anyone who I think encapsulates these notions more recently, it’s Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins.