The alumni of Edith Cowan University’s Perth Graduate School of Business have gone on to great things but one of the university’s most inspirational stories relates to the woman who it is named after.
The trailblazing Edith Cowan in 1921 became the first woman to be elected to the Australian Parliament.
Born in Western Australia in 1861 to the influential Brown family, which had strong links to the local church and political establishment - just as Perth Graduate School of Business alumni now take up positions at the very centre of public affairs - Edith Brown’s early life was marked by tragedy.
At the age of 7, her mother died in childbirth, and her father sent her away to boarding school, where she met James Cowan, who she would later marry.
Further tragedy struck when, at the age of fifteen her father, who after her mother’s death had turned to drink, shot and killed her stepmother.
He was executed and young Edith had to leave boarding school to live with her grandparents in Guilford, Western Australia. There, she was educated by Canon Sweeting, who instilled in her a life-long passion for learning and social reform.
In 1879, she wed Cowan, who held various offices in public service, but marriage did not halt Edith’s passion for social justice and political reform, particularly where it concerned women and the young.
In 1894, she was a founder-member of the women’s society, the Karrakatta Club, which educated and politicised women and was a key hub in the campaign for women’s suffrage, contributing to the enfranchisement of women in 1899, a development which paved the way for female enfranchisement across the democratic world.
With the right to vote won, Edith began to focus on social issues, campaigning to build a women’s hospital in Perth – which is still standing today – and serving as founder and President to the National Council of Women. She campaigned for the introduction of children’s courts and served for almost two decades on the first courts in Australia to try children separately from adults. Due to her war service, she was awarded an MBE.
Political office came late and briefly to Edith; a 1920 change in the law allowed her to stand for the seat of West Perth, and she won a surprise victory over the Attorney General, Thomas Draper.
Despite losing her seat in the following election, in her brief three years in Parliament she introduced and helped pass legislation that allowed women to be equalised women with men in their rights over their children.
Although illness forced her to retire from public life, she remained a passionate voice for the rights of women and children until her death in 1932. In 1991, Edith Cowan University took on her name in recognition of her work serving the community and her efforts in breaking new ground; attributes which can still be found amongst the members of the University and Business School today.
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