On this election day I am grateful to be a working, voting citizen of Australia, a democratic and lucky country. I owe thanks to the women before me who made this possible.

Among other pioneering women who helped forge a more democratic Australia, I’ll be raising a glass to Edith Cowan today.

Cowan did not have it easy. She was only 7 when her mother died in childbirth. Her father remarried and sent his daughter to a boarding school in Perth. When she was only 15 her father shot and killed his second wife while drunk. He was hanged for his crime, leaving Cowan orphaned.

Cowan overcame those personal tragedies to help form the Women’s Service Guilds in 1909 and become a co-founder of the Western Australia’s National Council of Women. She believed that children should not be tried as adults – something we take for granted today – and she founded the Children’s Protection Society.

Edith Cowan believed that if you really wanted something changed, you had to run for parliament. So she did.

At the age of 60, she broke existing gender stereotypes by becoming Australia’s first ever female parliamentarian, winning the seat of the incumbent Attorney General, Thomas Draper in 1921. By becoming the first woman elected to an Australian parliament, she paved the way for a more democratic and representative parliament, but more than 90 years later there is still some way to go. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women comprise just over half of Australia’s total population (50.2 per cent as of 2010) but comprise less than one-third of all parliamentarians and less than one quarter of cabinet members. Many have argued that the leadership of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, (Julia Gillard, 2010-2013) was derailed in part by gender-based stereotypes and criticisms, among other difficulties including division within her party.

As the The Constitutional Centre of Western Australia points out, the initial press response to Cowan in the 1920s was openly demeaning. ‘Cartoons in The Bulletin portrayed Edith Cowan interrupting the important affairs of parliament with a woman’s `housewifely instincts’.’

This did not stop her. Among other achievements, she proposed the formation of a housewives union, and childcare nurseries for working mothers. She also got the Women’s Legal Status Act through in 1923, making it possible for women to work in the legal profession in Australia for the first time. She successfully championed women’s rights, migrant welfare, social justice and infant and child health and protection.

Cowan passed away in 1932, aged 70, and her house, which was directly across from parliament, was moved in the 1990’s to its current location sitting by a lake in the middle of Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. You may recognise her as the face on your 50 dollar bill.


Edith Dircksey Cowan (née Brown), MBE (2 August 1861 – 9 June 1932).

Today I am going to raise a glass for this iconic Australian heroine of democracy and justice.