Edith Cowan (1861 – 1932)

Listen to John Hughes, Senior Subject Specialist at the State Library, discuss one of WA’s most famous and influential women, Edith Cowan.

Brief biographical sketch

Edith Cowan was a very significant figure in WA during the period of extensive population growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was born Edith Brown in Geraldton in 1861 into an influential settler family but had a disrupted childhood. Her mother died when she was seven and she was sent to a Perth boarding school run by the Cowan sisters whose brother James (Registrar and Master of the Supreme Court) she married when she was aged 18.

Throughout her life Edith Cowan championed social change, especially issues relating to women and children. She helped found the exclusively female Karrakatta Club which was active in the campaign for female suffrage. She was fundamental in the formation of Women's Service Guilds and was instrumental in the establishment of King Edward Hospital for Women.

She was one of the first women elected to the Anglican Synod, was the chairperson of the Red Cross Appeal Committee, and was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) all before being elected to WA Parliament in 1921.

6004B: Edith Cowan, member of the Legislative Assembly for West Perth, Western Australia, ca. 1922.

Parliamentary Career

Edith Cowan is best known as the first woman elected to an Australian parliament when, at the age of 59, she won the seat of West Perth in March 1921 for the Nationalist Party.

The West Australian newspaper at the time was very excited about the election of a female MP. The West talked about the Press galleries being ‘invaded’ as so many journalists wanted to catch sight of Edith Cowan.

The new member for West Perth commented:

“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.’

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Recorded live on ABC Radio Perth on 5 March 2021.