History Detective

$50 Note Edith Cowan the First Woman Elected into Australian Parliament

Episode Summary

Ever wondered who was featured on the Australian Money, well today's episode looks at the life of Edith Cowan the first woman to be elected into Australian parliament who is featured on the $50 note.

Episode Notes

Edith Cowan was the first woman to be elected into Australian parliament who is featured on the $50 note. This episode looks at the early achievements of her life before she was elected. 

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All theme music written and performed by Kelly Chase.

Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history and this series is called All Cashed Up where I explore the people that have made it onto the Australian money. Today I am looking at the flip side of the $50 and exploring the extraordinary life of Edith Cowan.

I know I keep banging on about sheep in this series, but it just seems to be a bit of a theme on our money. First with Banjo Patterson on the $10 note basing Waltzing Matilda about a sheep thief, then on the flip side with Mary Gilmore supporting the sheep unionists. David Unaipon on the $50 invented more efficient sheep sheers and now, you’ll never guess where Edith Cowan was born. On a sheep farm in Western Australia. And she was born in that decade where the majority of the people on the currency was born, the 1860s. 1861 to be exact. But I must be honest, that is probably the least interesting thing about her. Edith Cowan was a huge advocate for women’s rights and many other social justice issues, and of course, the was the first woman to be elected into an Australian parliament just over 100 years ago.

You know what, when she was elected as the first Australian woman in parliament ever, she was 60 years old. It just goes to show that you are never too old to make a difference and to make your mark on history. 

Today, I would like to take a look at the early years of Edith Cowan and the amazing work she did in those years before she made the history books.

Edith had a bit of a rough start to life. When she was 7 years old, her mother died while giving birth to her baby sister. The baby also died and as a consequence she was shipped off to boarding school in Perth for the rest of her schooling. 

Her father remarried, and when she was around 15 years old, he shot and killed her stepmother in a drunken domestic violence incident. Her father was convicted of murder and was sentenced to death by hanging. So, by the time she was 15, she had lost, her mother, her sister, her stepmother and her father.

The boarding school that I mentioned earlier, was run by the Cowan sisters and this was how Edith met her husband. He was their brother. James Cowan and Edith got married when she was 18. He was actually 31 at the time, 13 years older than she was. They had 5 children together and stayed together until Edith died of pancreatic cancer in 1932.

But Edith was not content to just be a housewife and raise children. She saw that there were many injustices in the world and worked hard to bring society’s attention to them and raise money to try and fix these problems.

You see, her husband did a lot of work in the courts, he started as clerk to the Police Magistrate, he also was the registrar for the Supreme Court and became a Police Magistrate himself. A magistrate is someone who decides whether cases should go to trial and also, they preside over minor cases. This work exposed his wife Edith to the many injustices that were happening to women and children within the legal system and drove her to become involved in many community organisations. 

She was a foundation member of the Children’s Protection society in 1906. Often the society of the time, saw neglected children as criminals, but the Children’s Protection Society saw them as victims. The society organised for children to be placed in foster homes and also made sure that father’s paid maintenance for their children. They also investigated cases of cruelty to children and organised adoptions if needed. Another service that they advocated for was providing day care for children so working mothers were able to continue earning money to support their families.

The Children’s Protection Society lobbied to have a new law brought in called the State Children’s Act.Before this Act, children who committed offences were sent to reform school and industrial schools. This new Act ensured that these children were protected rather than punished and regulated some of these harsh institutions they were sent to.

Also, at this time, if children were to commit a crime, they were tried in the adult court system, but the Children’s protection society established the Children’s Court. In the time there was a role in the court called a Justice of the Peace- we still have Justices of the Peace today, but their role is a little different to what it was back then, they played a more active role in the court proceedings. Of course, there were no female Justices of the Peace. Again, Edith campaigned to have women appointed as Justices of the Peace and she herself was the first woman to hold this job.

And if you search the newspapers in the Trove digital archives, she wrote a lot of letters to the editor expressing her views on the lack of justice that children were experiencing in the court system.

Other work that she did was to work for the House of Mercy for unmarried mothers. She served on the Freemantle Board of Education and perhaps one of my favourite facts about her is that she was one of the founding members of the Western Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or what we might know today as the RSPCA. I adopted my beautiful malamute cross husky, Belle, from the Toowoomba RSPCA 8 years ago. 

Seriously, there are so many guilds, clubs, leagues, hospitals, associations and councils that she was a part of that it would take me too long to list them all. And remember she also raised 5 kids at the same time. This lady was an absolute powerhouse.

But there is one organisation she was a part of that I need to mention, because it was her work with them that earned her an OBE, Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Yes, that’s right, even before she was elected into parliament, she had the accolades of being the first female Justice of the Peace in Western Australia and an OBE under her belt. 

It was her humanitarian work with the Red Cross during World War One that earned her the OBE. She did fundraising and she started up a Soldier’s Welcome Home committee for returning soldiers. 

So, wow! Although she is most popularly remembered for being the first woman elected into parliament in Australia, there was a reason she won that election. Because she had been working tireless less in the community for decades. Spearheading committees and campaigns and genuinely caring for those in the community who did not have a voice. She deserves a spot on that $50 note. And I have to admit she has to be one of my favourites. Oh and I forgot to mention that I think she is the only woman in Australia who has had a university named after her. That’s right, most of the unis are named after blokes.

I will finish with a quote that was printed in in the newspaper about her when she died.

Edith was remembered … as a woman who strived to work “unselfishly, unceasingly and constructively in the interests of her country… Nothing daunted, she blazed the trail.” 

This Kelly Chase, on the Case.

You can follow me on Twitter @historydetect, on Instagram @historydetective9 or you can email me any questions at historydetective9@gmail.com

If you would like to hear other stories about pioneering Australian Women in politics, Case 15 was about Irene Longman the first woman elected into a Queensland Parliament. Or you might like, “Ladies in the House”, the collaboration series I made with the Museum of Australian Democracy. You will find all of those episodes if you scroll back in my podcast feed. 

If you would like to support the podcast there are a few ways to do this. Firstly, if you are a teacher and would like supporting teaching resources for all of the History Detective episodes, you can head to Amped Up Learning or Teacher’s Pay Teachers to buy accompanying resources. Or you can simply Buy Me a Coffee using the link in the show notes. But if you would like a non-financial way to support the podcast, the best thing to do is write a 5-star review on Apple podcasts or Podchaser. As this is a completely independent podcast, so your support helps me to keep producing episodes

Next time on History Detective, we will get started on the $100 meet the other person on the notes who has a university named after them. General Sir John Monash.

See you next time.