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Edith Dircksey Cowan OBE (née Brown; 2 August 1861 – 9 June 1932) was an Australian social reformer who worked for the rights and welfare of women and children. She is best known as the first Australian woman to serve as a member of parliament. Cowan has been featured on the reverse of Australia's 50-dollar note since 1995.
Cowan was born at Glengarry station near Geraldton, Western Australia. She was the granddaughter of two of the colony's early settlers, Thomas Brown and John Wittenoom. Cowan's mother died when she was seven, and she was subsequently sent to boarding school in Perth. At the age of 15, her father, Kenneth Brown, was executed for the murder of her stepmother, making her an orphan. She subsequently lived with her grandmother in Guildford, Western Australia until her marriage at the age of 18. She and her husband would have five children together, splitting their time between homes in West Perth and Cottesloe.
In 1894, Cowan was one of the founders of the Karrakatta Club, the first women's social club in Australia. She became prominent in the women's suffrage movement, which saw women in Western Australia granted the right to vote in 1899. Cowan was also a leading advocate for public education and the rights of children (particularly those born to single mothers). She was one of the first women to serve on a local board of education, and in 1906 helped to found the Children's Protection Society, whose lobbying resulted in the creation of the Children's Court the following year. Cowan was a co-founder of the Women's Service Guild in 1909, and in 1911 helped establish a state branch of the National Council of Women.
Cowan was a key figure in the creation of the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women, and became a member of its advisory board when it opened in 1916. She was made a justice of the Children's Court in 1915 and a justice of the peace in 1920. In 1921, Cowan was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Western Australia as a member of the Nationalist Party, becoming Australia's first female parliamentarian. She was defeated after just a single term, but maintained a high profile during her tenure and managed to secure the passage of several of her private member's bills. ...
In 1984, the federal Division of Cowan was created and named after her, and in January 1991 the Western Australian College of Advanced Education was renamed Edith Cowan University (ECU). ...
In 1991, Edith Cowan University purchased the house at which Edith Cowan, her husband and family had resided at 71 Malcolm Street. They resided in the house from 1919 for approximately 20 years. The house was reconstructed on the university's Joondalup Campus with the assistance of the West Coast College of TAFE. The reconstructed house opened in 1997 and is Building 20 on the university's Joondalup Campus and currently houses the Peter Cowan Writer's Centre.
Cowan, Mrs E. D. [Edith Dirksey] 1927, 'Letters of early settlers', Early Days, vol. 1, part 1: 55-58.
Cowan, Mrs E. D. [Edith Dirksey], 'Early social life and fashions', Early Days, vol. 1, part 3.
Cowan, Mrs E. D. 1930, 'Bishop Hale and secondary education', Early Days, vol. 1, part 7: 1-16.
'The late Mrs Edith Cowan, O.B.E.', Early Days, vol. 2, part 12, 1932.
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