Groundbreaking, Rule Breaking and Move Making Australian Women – Edith Cowan

Amongst the forgotten figures hidden in our vast Australian history are the suffragette; some of the first women in the world to agitate for women’s right to vote. Its a wonder this has largely been forgotten and even more astonishing that the suffrage movement isn’t discussed more at a primary school level in schools given its significance on a global scale. Australia was the first country in the world to allow women to vote, the second to have women voting in national elections and the first nation to mandate that women could stand for public office.

In fact, Australia has a rich tradition of rule breaking women, particularly in the political and suffrage arenas lead by the likes of Edith Cowan – our first woman elected to parliament. Suffragettes were more than just groundbreakers though. They fought for women to be granted every aspect of equality, both politically, democratically and in their access to education. Indeed, Edith Cowan was a considerable force in children’s advocacy as well at a tie when children were legally and socially considered possessions.

In 1894 Cowan founded the Karrakatta Club, with the aim of encouraging women to “educated themselves for the kind of life they believed they ought to be able to take.” The organisation was instrumental in the suffrage campaigns of the late nineteenth century; South Australia became the first place in the world where women were allowed to vote, and following Federation in 1901 the rest of the country followed suit at both a state and federal level. Importantly, the movement was able to achieve their objectives peacefully and legally, and had many male supporters.

But Cowan wasn’t finished fighting against social injustice, and turned her attention to welfare and health campaigns. Passionate about the wellbeing of children and women – particularly those in desperate financial situations – she lobbied and helped fundraise to build theKing Edward Memorial Hospital for Women in 1916, and was active on a number of  charity boards. Later, Cowan founded the Women’s Service Guilds and the National Council of Women. Among her more notable achievements was the Children’s Protection Society which had a considerable impact on the eventual decision to establish children’s courts. Cowan was a strong believer that children should not be tried as adults.

Not only was Cowan the first woman to be appointed a Justice of the Peace in Australia, she was also the first woman to be elected to Parliament, serving as Member for the Parliament of Western Australia representing West Perth; she passionately championed social and domestic issues in parliament. Cowan was fundamental in presenting legislation that allowed women to serve in the legal profession and promoted sex education in schools. She also succeeded in achieving equal parenting rights for mothers and raised funds for the Red Cross during World War 2, chairing the war time appeal efforts.

It’s not surprising that Cowan has a forgotten place in history and has been relegated by many to being ‘the lady on the $50 note.’ Her story, however, is one our girls and our boys should know. Australia loves an underdog who champions the cause of other underdogs, and moreover hers is a story that proves that tenacity, open-mindedness and kindness can change the world.

What Your Girls and Boys Should Know About Edith Cowan:

  • Edith Cowan is on the $50 note because she helped make big changes to Australia, and was one of the first suffragettes in the world. She has a lot of firsts to her name in fact!
  • She was the first woman elected to parliament in Australia, serving as a member for parliament in WA.
  • Edith Cowan helped present legislation that helped women to serve in the legal profession. She raised funds for the Red Cross during World War 2 and and achieved equal parenting rights for mothers.
  • In part because of her efforts, South Australia became the first place in the world where women could vote.
  • Edith started many charities, one of which later funded the children’s courts.
  • Edith Cowan was brave and wanted to change the world around her. She was kind, caring for and raising money for people less fortunate than she was. And she was smart, able to convince others that change needed to happen for our country to function at its best.


















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