Edith Cowan’s Enduring Legacy of Social Justice
Edith Cowan made an inaugural address to Parliament a century ago. Her tireless work furthering the rights of women and children formed an important legacy, one which continues to underpin the Western Australian Justice System.
This year, the month of July in fact, marks the 100th anniversary of Edith Cowan’s inaugural address to Western Australian Parliament. She was the first woman to be elected to Parliament in Australia, a year after the Western Australian Parliament passed legislation allowing women to stand for Parliament.
Her life was spent championing the rights of women and children. And she used her political platform to further these aims through legislation, advocating for child endowment payments to mothers, and day nurseries for working women.
Making laws to improve the lives of women
She was also successful in passing her landmark Women’s Legal Status Bill in 1923, but her support of this controversial bill cost her the support of her party, and her political career ended after only one term. Another of her Private Member’s Bills which was successfully passed gave inheritance rights to women whose adult children died without having made a will and without having had children of their own.
Prior to her time in Parliament, Edith was very involved in social issues facing women and children. She openly campaigned for many issues, even those that were considered ‘taboo’ including domestic violence, drunkenness and spoke openly about venereal disease, prostitution, contraception, illegitimacy and sex crimes.
She campaigned for homes for unwed mothers, a specialist maternity hospital, which later became King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women, and was also a strong voice for improving education.
Animals were not beyond her compassion either, and in 1892, Edith Cowan co-founded the RSPCA in Western Australia.
Edith Cowan University
Fighting for Women’s right to vote
In 1894, She helped to establish the Karrakatta Women’s Club. As a founding member, she acted first as its first secretary and later vice-president and president. The literature club encouraged the women of Perth to broaden their horizons by reading authors such as American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The group has always been considered a significant part of the women’s suffrage movement in Western Australia, which lobbied for women to be able to vote, and finally won the right in 1899.
Also importantly, Edith helped to establish both the Children’s Protection Society in 1906 and its successor, the Children’s Court, in 1907. She went on to become one of the first women to be appointed to the bench of the Children’s Court several years later in 1915. Her focus on early intervention and commitment to rehabilitation, holding a view that children are victims rather than criminals, and should not be tried as adults, principles which underpin the work of the Children’s Court of Western Australia as we know it today.
Edith also campaigned for women to become Justices of the Peace and was made one herself in 1919.
Edith Cowan is well known as the face on Australia’s $50 banknote, but very few Australians are familiar with all of the significant achievements she accomplished throughout her life which shaped and paved the way for many of the rights we have today.
PLEASE NOTE: The material in this blog post is for informational use only and should not be construed as legal advice. For answers to your questions regarding this or other topics, please contact a professional legal representative.