By Toni Church, Museum Curator, Old Court House Law Museum
On 28 July 2021, it was 100 years since Edith Cowan delivered her inaugural speech to Western Australian Parliament – the first woman in Australia to do so. To mark this centenary, an exhibition was held at the Old Court House Law Museum focusing on Cowan’s legacy of social justice. “The Women Should Have a Voice”: Edith Cowan’s legacy of social justice in Western Australia commemorated Cowan’s enduring influence in her community, displaying objects loaned by the organisations she established and supported that are still operating in Western Australia today.
Edith Dircksey Brown was born on 2 August 1861 at Glengarry, her family’s homestead on a large pastoral station near Geraldton, Western Australia.1‘Place Record: Glengarry’, City of Greater Geraldton Municipal Inventory of Heritage Places, 9 March 2005, https://www.cgg.wa.gov.au/Profiles/cgg/Assets/ClientData/Document-Centre/Planning/Heritage/Greenough/Greenough_Heritage_Place_Number-165-MCH126990.pdf ; ‘Glengarry Station Complex’, Heritage Council, 31 December 2016, http://inherit.stateheritage.wa.gov.au/Public/Inventory/Details/e4252b7f-ec8b-4a4c-88cd-815694c35082 The descendant of prominent colonial Swan River families, Brown and Wittenoom, Edith was raised in a well-regarded family and was sent to boarding school in Perth at the age of seven, after her mother died in childbirth.
In 1876, Edith experienced the life-altering personal tragedy of her father’s hanging after he was found guilty of the murder of Mary Ann Tindall, his wife and Edith’s stepmother. The emotional effect of such violence and the ensuing fight for justice in her early life had a profound influence on Edith Cowan’s later advocacy work.2Clare Wright, ‘Cowan, Edith Dircksey’, The Encyclopedia of Women & Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia, Australian Women’s Archives Project 2014, https://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0162b.htm
On 3 January 1876, Kenneth Brown shot Tindall, at the culmination of what was later proven to be years of shocking and sustained domestic violence by Brown. Criminal proceedings against Brown commenced from 5 April 1876 before Chief Justice Archibald Paull Burt at the Supreme Court of Western Australia – held in the Old Court House. The trial attracted national attention not only for its shocking content, but also for the rumoured perversion of justice by two hung juries populated by Brown’s influential friends and colleagues.3Aidan Kelly, ‘The Search for Kenneth Brown Esq (1837-76)’, Early Days: Journal of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, vol 14, part 4, 2015, pp.574-577
The Brown family were wealthy pastoralists, members of whom also served in the ranks of magistrates, and so held power and influence in the colony. Burt’s frustration at this influence culminated in the Chief Justice closing the court at the end of the second trial, selecting members of the jury himself from those in the public gallery before swiftly carrying out the final trial on the same day the former ended: 26 May 1876.4Burt’s manuscript of directions given to the jury of Brown’s third trial is held in the collection of the Old Court House Law Museum; Old Court House Law Museum collection 1989.33q, p.90 This third trial jury promptly returned a guilty verdict and Brown received his death sentence.5Old Court House Law Museum collection 1989.33q, p.128
On 12 November 1879, Edith Brown married James Cowan, a Registrar and Master of the Supreme Court of Western Australia (and the brother of her boarding school headmistresses). By 1891 Edith and James had five children, and James had been appointed Perth Police Magistrate.6Margaret Brown, ‘Cowan, Edith Dircksey (1961-1932)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1981, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cowan-edith-dircksey-5791 The Cowan’s household dynamic was unusually modern, with both parents working outside the home as Edith took an increasingly public role from the 1890s; engaging with social justice causes, establishing various societies and organisations to advocate for change in the wider community.
Among her many commitments and causes, Edith Cowan worked for over 30 years with the House of Mercy which provided ‘shelter and reformation’ for unmarried mothers from the early 1890s.7Jennie Carter and Bevan Carter, King Eddies: A history of Western Australia’s premier women’s hospital 1916-2016, King Edward Memorial Hospital Alumni, 2016, p.28; Brown, ‘Cowan, Edith Dircksey (1961-1932)’ Over a century later this organization has transformed into Ngala; an inclusive and diverse community service organisation, focused on the wellbeing and development of children and young people across Western Australia.8Information provided via email by Ngala
Concerned for the welfare of horses, Cowan and fellow female members of the St George’s Reading Society established the Western Australian chapter and objectives of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1892.9‘Our History’, RSPCA WA, https://www.rspcawa.asn.au/about/history.php Today the modern RSPCA WA continues to educate and advocate for the prevention of cruelty to animals in the community.10 Information provided via email by RSPCA WA
Cowan was a foundation member of the Children’s Protection Society in 1906, which highlighted the extent of child cruelty and neglect within the community; emphasising that children were victims rather than criminals. This advocacy work was instrumental in establishing the Children’s Court of Western Australia in accordance with the State Children Act 1907.11Brown, ‘Cowan, Edith Dircksey (1961-1932)’ Cowan was elected as a Magistrate of the Children’s Court in 1915 and the legacy of her focus on early intervention and rehabilitation continues in the modern work of the Children’s Court of Western Australia. 12Elizabeth Heffernan, ‘Edith Cowan (1861-1932), Royal Australian Historical Society, https://www.rahs.org.au/edith-cowan-1861-1932/ ; Debra Rosser, ‘Children’s Protection Society (1906-1994?), Find & Connect Web Resource Project for the Commonwealth of Australia , 9 January 2019, https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/ref/wa/biogs/WE00899b.htm
This ongoing work is represented by the pictured Tree of Life painting. It was painted by detainees at Banksia Hill Detention Centre to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Children’s Court of Western Australia Drug Court program in December 2020. The Drug Court, located within the Perth Children’s Court, is aimed at early intervention by breaking the cycle of disadvantage, drug-use and re-offending for young people in Western Australia.13Information provided via email by Children’s Court of Western Australia
Cowan significantly contributed to the establishment of the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women in 1916, the first maternity hospital in Western Australia. She served as the Honorary Secretary of the Hospital’s Advisory Committee from 1909, and was later appointed Secretary of the Advisory Board once the Hospital had opened.14Carter and Carter, pp.37-38 It was most important to Cowan that maternity care within the Hospital was extended to both married and unmarried mothers, regardless of their circumstances.15Carter and Carter, pp.25-26 Today, King Eddies (as the hospital is colloquially known in Perth) continues as a public hospital for all women in the community; accounting for twenty percent of all births in Western Australia and supporting thousands of premature and unwell newborns in the largest neo-natal unit in the southern hemisphere.16‘History’, King Edward Memorial Hospital, https://www.kemh.health.wa.gov.au/About-us/History
As a foundation member of the Western Australian Historical Society in 1926, Cowan played a prominent role in the state’s centenary celebrations in 1929 and contributed to a number of articles in the Society’s Early Days publication which highlighted the experiences of early colonial women well before Australian feminist historiography became established from the 1970s.17‘Edith Dircksey Cowan’, Members Biographical Register, Parliament of Western Australia, https://parliament.wa.gov.au/parliament/Library/MPHistoricalData.nsf/LookupName/80E6430BA5F9A786482577E50028A588?opendocument Today, the Royal Western Australian Historical Society continues to host events and advocate for history and heritage across the state, as well as operating a Museum with a unique art collection, extensive reference library and photographic archive for researchers.18Jack Honniball, ‘Royal Western Australian Historical Society: Three Score Years and Ten’, Royal Western Australian Historical Society Newsletter, October 1996, https://www.histwest.org.au/brief-history ; ‘The Society’, Royal Western Australian Historical Society, https://www.histwest.org.au/society
Cowan is most prominently remembered as the first woman elected to a Parliament in Australia. She served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for West Perth, representing the Nationalist Party in Western Australian Parliament from 1921-24. The election in 1921 was the first in which women were eligible to serve as parliamentarians in Western Australia. Notably, Cowan was one of four women to run for state Parliament in 1921 but only the second to become a female parliamentarian in the British Empire.19 ‘Defining Moments: Edith Cowan’, National Museum of Australia, 9 April 2021, https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/edith-cowan
During her election campaign and parliamentary career, Cowan received public admonishment from newspapers and commentators about the abandonment of her wifely duties at home, as well as from her political colleagues who frequently interrupted her addresses to Parliament.20Defining Moments: Edith Cowan’, National Museum of Australia In her inaugural speech, Cowan emphasised the necessity which existed for women to support one another and serve in positions of power in Western Australia, stating that “the women should have a voice”.21‘Inaugural Speech: Mrs Edith Dircksey Cowan, MLA (Member for West Perth)’, Parliament of Western Australia, 28 July 1921, https://www.parliament.wa.gov.au/parliament/library/MPHistoricalData.nsf/32e457f9ba7d7c5148257b5500242416/80e6430ba5f9a786482577e50028a588/$FILE/Cowan,%20Edith%20Dircksey,%20Inaugural%20Speech.pdf, p.1-4
Against custom, her inaugural speech was regularly interrupted by her parliamentary colleagues with sexist remarks. When addressing additional costs required to install a women’s toilet in Parliament for her use, Cowan was interrupted by Mr Lambert suggestively asking “Will you invite us to see how the money was spent?”.22‘Inaugural Speech: Mrs Edith Dircksey Cowan, MLA (Member for West Perth)’, p.2 Needless to say, Cowan’s dignity prevailed in this moment and she continued with a speech that foretold her parliamentary service; steadfast dedication to promoting migrant welfare, infant and maternal health centres, and women’s rights.23Brown, ‘Cowan, Edith Dircksey (1961-1932)’
Although she unseated the serving Attorney-General with her election in 1921, Cowan was not successful in gaining re-election in 1924. In fact, only three other women were elected to Western Australian Parliament until 1970.24Defining Moments: Edith Cowan’, National Museum of Australia Concerted efforts to increase female representation in Australian parliaments has meant that on 13 March 2021, Western Australians elected the 100th woman to the state Parliament. In stark contrast to 1921, about half of the Western Australian Parliament in 2021 are women.
Upon her death, aged 70 in 1932, Cowan was remembered as a trailblazing feminist who dedicated her life’s work to the welfare of women and children in her community.25Cowan, Edith Dircksey’, The Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians pre-1829-1888, vol 1, Rica Erickson (ed), University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1987, p.684 Her likeness adorns the Australian $50 note, her name given to Edith Cowan University and her memorial clock stands at the entrance to King’s Park, Perth. Cowan’s legacy is her social justice advocacy; work that is carried on by the organisations and institutions she established across her lifetime which continue to serve the Western Australian community today.
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