On this day, 100 years ago, a woman by the name of Edith Dircksey Cowan beat Western Australia’s attorney-general to become the first female member of parliament in Australia and the second in the British Empire.
Yet, even in her home town of Geraldton on the Mid West coast, not many people know about this champion of women’s rights.
At the age of 59, the Nationalist’s victory came as a surprise, when she beat Thomas Draper who, in a twist of fate, was the one to amend the state’s electoral act to allow women to stand for parliament.
While elected in March, Cowan did not make her inaugural speech until late July and was not afforded the traditional respect of an uninterrupted speech, with many opposing the presence of a woman in parliament.
“I know many people think perhaps that it was not the wisest thing to do to send a woman into parliament, and perhaps I should remind members that one of the reasons why women and men also considered it advisable to do so was because it was felt that men need a reminder sometimes from women beside them that will make them realise all that can be done for the race and for the home,” Cowan said.
She stood for women and children, and in her maiden speech, she made it clear she wanted change.
“As a woman, I desire class consciousness of every kind to be eliminated,” Cowan said.
“Better … to get on all together and work for the whole of the community than to be talking about class consciousness in an age and time like this.”
Tragic early life
Cowan did not have an easy start in life.
Born on August 2, 1861, at Glengarry, near Geraldton, her mother died during childbirth when she was just seven years old.
When she was 15, her father, Kenneth Brown, an alcoholic with a history of abuse, shot his second wife dead in their home in Geraldton.
He was found guilty of murder and hanged for his crime.
Geraldton historian Rita Stinson grew up in the same house on Glengarry Station where Cowan was born.
She said Cowan’s rough childhood arguably influenced her activism for women and children.
“The things that she fought for, for women were way beyond her time,” Mrs Stinson said.
“This was less popular — she was a firm advocate of state schools introducing sex education.”
Paving the way for women today
Cowan supported the establishment of the University of Western Australia and fought against the levying of university fees.
Prior to entering parliament, she advocated for day nurseries for women in employment. Cowan also helped in the development of the Children’s Protection Society, leading to the establishment of the Children’s Court in 1906.
In 1915, she was appointed one of the first justices of the court. She also campaigned for women to be appointed for the role of justice of the peace.
She successfully moved for the second reading of the Women’s Legal Status Bill, which eventually allowed women to become lawyers and solicitors.
Cowan only served one term in parliament, losing the seat of West Perth in both 1924 and again in 1927.
Calls for more recognition
In Perth, Edith Cowan University is named after Cowan and she features on Australia’s $50 note.
But in her home town, Geraldton, the only tribute to the woman who paved the way for so many others is a small park outside the police station called “Edith Cowan Square”.
Mrs Stinson said she deserved more than a square, which is the favoured site for protests and activism.
“All my life, Edith Cowan has been one of my heroes,” she said.
Miss Westralia comes to town
The new musical, Miss Westralia, will tour Western Australia, detailing the life of Geraldton born Beryl Mills, who was the first Miss Australia.
Geraldton-based creative producer Jody Quadrio said this production would allow them to highlight other prominent women in the region’s past, like Edith Cowan, who may not be recognised locally.
“There are not a lot of women who are recognised in history,” she said.
“There are so many women who have contributed to a number of causes, and there are number of things in society that [are] in place today because they worked hard for it.”
Despite growing up in Geraldton, Quadrio said she did not know Cowan was from the town until taking on the new project.
“She deserves a statue, Edith Cowan,” Quadrio said.