First Woman Elected to Australian Parliament Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Edith Dircksey Cowan became the first woman to be elected to any parliament in Australia when she won a Nationalist Party seat in the Western Australian Legislative Assembly.

Summary of Event

After two decades of efforts throughout Australia by women’s groups such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, in 1894 South Australia became the first state to enfranchise women. In 1899, Western Australia became the second, although it excluded Aboriginals of either sex (unlike South Australia). By 1908, white women in all the Australian states were able to vote. This change was effected only because the male population had been convinced that women could make valuable contributions to the issues that most directly affected them: The suffragettes had argued that women’s roles as wives and mothers gave them special insights into the needs of women and children. However, Australian women were not expected to become legislators, lawyers, or justices of the peace, much less high-ranking state officials. Ironically, those opportunities were made available to them in large part because of the efforts of Edith Dircksey Cowan, the first woman elected to a state parliament in Australia. Australian parliament;first woman member Women;Australian parliament [kw]First Woman Elected to Australian Parliament (1921) [kw]Woman Elected to Australian Parliament, First (1921) [kw]Australian Parliament, First Woman Elected to (1921) [kw]Parliament, First Woman Elected to Australian (1921) Australian parliament;first woman member Women;Australian parliament [g]Australia;1921: First Woman Elected to Australian Parliament[05250] [c]Women’s issues;1921: First Woman Elected to Australian Parliament[05250] [c]Government and politics;1921: First Woman Elected to Australian Parliament[05250] [c]Social issues and reform;1921: First Woman Elected to Australian Parliament[05250] Cowan, Edith Dircksey Cowan, James Brown, Kenneth Brown, Mary Eliza Dircksey Wittenoom

Like her pioneer grandparents, Edith Cowan was spirited and tough. Her character was tested early: When Cowan was seven, her mother, Mary Eliza Dircksey Wittenoom Brown, died in childbirth. Afterward, her father, Kenneth Brown, was unable to regain his equilibrium, and when Cowan was fifteen, he was hanged for murdering his second wife. In 1879, Cowan married James Cowan, who eventually became a police magistrate in Perth. The pair often discussed James Cowan’s work, and their conversations inspired Edith Cowan to work for social reform. Although by 1891 the Cowans were the parents of five children, James Cowan supported his wife as she became active in new women’s groups, organizations that sought to improve Australians’ lives rather than simply being social entities.

In 1898, Cowan was elected to the North Fremantle Education Board, one of the few public offices open to women. She was an officer of the society that saw children’s courts established and was one of the first five women magistrates appointed to the children’s court. She campaigned for legislation that would enable women to become justices of the peace; this legislation was signed into law in 1919, and the following year, Cowan was herself appointed a justice of the peace. As a reward for her volunteer work with the Red Cross during World War I, in 1920 she was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire. That same year, the passage of a new law permitted women to stand for the state parliament; the act was in part a reaction to the general sentiment that women’s contributions to the country’s efforts during World War I should be rewarded.

If a woman were to be endorsed for candidacy in the 1921 election, Cowan was the obvious choice. She had worked for worthy causes for thirty years, and her achievements were impressive. She had been instrumental in efforts to build a maternity hospital and in ensuring separate trials for children and adults. However, since such projects were considered a woman’s province, Cowan seemed to pose no threat to an overwhelmingly patriarchal society. Had she been more overtly controversial, the Nationalist Party leaders probably would not have selected her.

However, although the Nationalist Party endorsed Cowan for the seat of West Perth, they also endorsed the sitting member, Attorney General T. P. Draper. Party leadership expected Draper to win, and leaders hoped that Cowan’s reputation as a supporter of social reform would draw votes away from the Labor candidate. Cowan herself was more optimistic than her own party’s leaders. She knew that there were more women voters than men voters in West Perth, and she firmly believed that the network of women that she had helped to develop over the last three decades, all of whom knew her or knew of her, would work to ensure her victory.

In her campaign, Cowan did not emphasize the rights of women, although she had always believed passionately in such causes. Instead, she stressed more acceptable ideas, particularly the idea that women could make unique contributions to public life and that they would not compete with men but simply cooperate with them. In accordance with custom, Cowan made personal visits to houses and addressed small gatherings on street corners and larger gatherings in halls. Women were needed in Parliament, she insisted, so that the laws concerning divorce, child custody, and inheritance could be improved and so that child-care centers could be established for working mothers. She also pointed out how important it was for women to be permitted to practice law.

In other areas, Cowan did not markedly differ from the other candidates. They all agreed on the need for slum clearance, improved housing, better education, special privileges for veterans, and a more effective civil service. Some men and women took issue with Cowan’s candidacy, urging her to go home and look after her husband and children. Neither her response, which was that her children were all grown, nor the presence of her husband in the crowd quelled such protests. However, when the votes were counted, Cowan had won.

Significance

During her three-year term, Edith Cowan spearheaded efforts to pass bills that established playgrounds and child health centers, forbade previous convictions to be revealed in children’s courts, and protected women’s inheritance rights. However, her most important achievement was the bill she introduced that became the Women’s Legal Status Act of 1923, Women’s Legal Status Act (1923)[Womens Legal Status Act] which enabled women to practice law and to enter other professions. Despite these accomplishments, Cowan was not reelected either in 1924 or in 1927. There were several reasons for her losses. One was that she lost the support of the party leadership by insisting on voting as she thought best. Another was that she had too often opposed the business interests that were so influential in West Perth by supporting measures introduced by the Labor party. Moreover, because the women’s groups that had brought her victory in 1921 had split over several issues, they could no longer deliver a solid women’s vote. Cowan may also have been the victim of a backlash: Conservative groups saw her election as evidence of moral decline.

After her death, a memorial clock tower was erected in Perth’s Kings Park, Edith Cowan University was named for her, and her image was placed on the Australian fifty-dollar bill. People throughout Australia and the world acknowledged that Edith Cowan had bettered the lives of innumerable women and children in her native state and helped to lead Australian women toward equal rights and first-class citizenship. Australian parliament;first woman member Women;Australian parliament

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clarke, Francis Gordon. The History of Australia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. A narrative history. Includes a timeline of important events and a bibliographical essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cowan, Peter. A Unique Position: A Biography of Edith Dircksey Cowan, 1861-1932. Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1978. A well-documented, detailed biography, written by Edith Cowan’s grandson. Notes, illustrations, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crawford, Patricia, and Philippa Maddern, eds. Women as Australian Citizens: Underlying Histories. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2001. Essays on the struggle for women’s rights in Great Britain, in colonial Australia, and in post-Federation Australia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haines, Janine. “Not for Want of Trying: Women in Australian and New Zealand Politics, 1893-1994.” In A Rising Public Voice: Women in Politics Worldwide, edited by Alida Brill. New York: Feminist Press, 1995. An excellent overview, written by a woman who served as an Australian federal senator in the late 1970’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sawer, Marian, and Marian Simms. A Woman’s Place: Women and Politics in Australia. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1984. Thorough study includes a useful appendix that lists the women who served in the various Australian parliaments from 1921 to 1983.

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Women’s Institutes Are Founded in Great Britain

First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress

National Woman’s Party Is Founded

Canadian Women Gain the Vote

British Women Gain the Vote

League of Women Voters Is Founded

U.S. Women Gain the Right to Vote

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