Wednesday, 7 November 2011, 5.30pm
Western Australian Education Minister, the Hon Dr Liz Constable MLA, has had a long and successful career. She was the first woman to be elected into State Parliament as an Independent in 1991, and in 2008 became the first woman to be appointed to a Ministry as an Independent.
Born in New South Wales, she graduated from the University of Sydney with a degree in history and psychology and a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology. She holds a Diploma in Education from the University of New England; a Masters degree in Child Development from Harvard University; and in 1985 Dr Constable was awarded a doctorate from the University of Western Australia for her thesis on cognitive development in gifted children.
As Education Minister, Dr Constable's key objective is to provide high-quality education to all young West Australians, regardless of where they live. She has also presided over the implementation of the Independent Public Schools initiative, giving principals the autonomy to meet the needs of their individual school communities.
Ms Denise McComish, Pro-Chancellor, Edith Cowan University and members of the University Council
Professor Kerry Cox, Vice-Chancellor, Edith Cowan University
Emeritus Professor Patrick Garnett, Edith Cowan University
Richard Strickland, CEO Department of Education Services
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen
I acknowledge that my remarks tonight draw on Peter Cowan’s biography of Edith Cowan, the work of Professor Harry Phillips, of Marian Sawer and Marian Simms, Margaret Brown and Ian McAllister.
I would like to thank Richard Miles from the Department of Education Services for his expert assistance.1
I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we are gathered, the Noongar people, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.
I begin my remarks this evening by thanking Professor Cox for affording me the honour of presenting the Vice-Chancellor’s oration this year.
In 1889, at the inaugural meeting of the Dawn Club in Sydney, Louisa Lawson, Henry Lawson's mother, is recorded as saying
A woman's opinions are useless to her, she may suffer unjustly, she may be wronged, but she has no power to weightily petition against man's laws, no representatives to urge her views, her only method to produce release, redress, or change, is to ceaselessly agitate.2
In the context of this quote from one of the leaders of the suffragette movement in Australia, it is difficult to overstate the achievements of Edith Cowan as the first woman to be elected to an Australian Parliament, and only the second in the British Empire.
I feel truly honoured to be asked to speak about Edith Cowan at the University which bears her name – especially as this year commemorates a host of significant anniversaries related to her life.
2011 marks 150 years since her birth, 90 years since her election to Parliament, and 20 years since this university was graced with her name.
These significant anniversaries invite us to consider Edith Cowan's contributions to women, the State, and Australia as a whole.
Edith Dircksey Cowan was born Edith Brown on 2 August 1861, at Glengarry Station near Geraldton, Western Australia.3
Her father was Kenneth Brown, a pastoralist, and the son of early York settlers.
Her mother was Mary Wittenoom, a teacher and daughter of the colonial chaplain, JB Wittenoom.
Edith experienced great sadness and tragedy as a child. When she was seven, her mother died in childbirth and her father then sent young Edith to a Perth boarding school.
Kenneth remained on the station for the next four years, after which he decided to lease the property, being unable, or unwilling, to manage it himself.4
He travelled to other colonies following his passion for racing, and has been said to have withdrawn into social isolation, despite remarrying and returning to Geraldton with his new wife.5
The relationship was known to have problems, with Kenneth accusing his wife of affairs, and she in turn charging him with heavy drinking.
When Edith was fifteen, her father shot and killed his second wife and was subsequently hanged for his crime.6 Her father's trial attracted a great deal of publicity which was impossible to evade.
The fact that Edith overcame this tragedy, and indeed sought a public life, speaks volumes about her courage and determination.
Following this tragedy, Edith Brown left her boarding school and moved to Guildford to live with her grandmother and complete her education.
On 12 November 1879, at the age of eighteen, Edith Brown married James Cowan, a public servant who was at the time a Registrar and Master of the Supreme Court.
Edith grew increasingly interested and concerned with social issues and injustices in the legal system, especially with regard to women and children.
Her earliest involvement with community issues was her volunteering for the Ministering Children's League from 1891, and the House of Mercy for Unmarried Mothers from 1893.
She was deeply concerned with the legal status of women and began to read widely within these areas of interest.
It is known her reading included texts such as Olive Schreiner's Women and Labour and John Stuart Mill's Women.
Edith Cowan was active in the foundation of the Karrakatta Club in 1894, which was the first women's club in Australia.
Through the Club she continued her fight for the wider participation of women in public life.
Her suggestion for the Club's motto, which was accepted, was spectemur agendo – Let us be judged by our actions.
This was very appropriate for a woman who was a tireless worker and campaigner, constantly in pursuit of all that she felt was right and just.
At an early meeting of the Karrakatta Club, Edith read a paper on universal franchise and urged women to prepare themselves for it by educating themselves on public issues.7
She was a very powerful and persuasive public speaker, and was one of the leaders of the movement in Western Australia to obtain the vote for women. This was achieved in 1899.
She furthered her interest in educational issues through her election to the North Fremantle Education Board, which was one of the few boards for which women were eligible in 1898.8
Edith continued her efforts in the pursuit of women’s and children's interests through a variety of institutions.
This list shows 45 of the organisations which she was actively involved in, during her lifetime:9
It is evident from this list that Edith Cowan pursued her belief in a socially just and equitable society through all the institutional means available to her.
Through these organizations she made a significant contribution to the development of education, particularly in government schools.
She helped found the Children's Protection Society, which led to the establishment of the Children’s Court in 1906.
She pioneered day nurseries for the children of women in the workforce.
She was involved in women's health through her association with King Edward Memorial Hospital.
When no organisations dedicated to a particular cause existed – as was often the case, given the pioneering nature of her work – she helped to found them.
It is fair to say that it was this extensive community involvement that readied her to enter the political realm in 1921.
To truly appreciate Edith Cowan's accomplishments, they must be seen in light of the historical context in which she lived.
Western Australian women had been granted suffrage in 1899; relatively early compared to women in other states and abroad.
The right to stand in elections was then granted in 1920; a year before she ran for public office.
Western Australia's stance was relatively progressive at a global level, with some countries not having granted suffrage when Edith was preparing to run for election.
For example, it was only in 1921 that women's suffrage was attained in Sweden.
Despite the relatively advanced nature of Australian laws at the time, the role of housewife was regarded as natural, and women were expected to fulfill their domestic responsibilities.
Nothing is more emblematic of these ingrained social values than the advertisements of the time.
An example of this is the 1921 advertisement for 'Clements Tonic' that appeared in The Bulletin:10
It is entitled there is no 8-hour day for housewives, and proceeds to sell its wares on the basis of the average housewife toiling at least 16 hours a day.
Edith Cowan's decision to run for Parliament at the age of 59 and contest the 1921 election was made only four weeks before the poll.
During her campaign, she was accused of being a disgrace to women and heartlessly neglecting her husband and children. This was despite the fact the youngest of her five children was then 30, and her husband was out canvassing for her.11
In any case, the press was largely dismissive of her prospects and those of the other four women contesting the election.12
It seems her own party, the Nationalists, were also sceptical of her prospects for success.
One theory is that the party was prepared to endorse Edith because they thought she posed no electoral threat to the other endorsed Nationalist candidate for West Perth,13 the then Attorney General Thomas Draper.
The delicious irony in Edith's victory is that Thomas Draper was responsible for the very legislation that had enabled women to run for Parliament.14
The unexpected election of a woman into the State Parliament left many seeking reasons as to how this could be the case.
Talent, and a wealth of experience, did not appear to be obvious conclusions.
Rather, Edith's unexpected victory in West Perth has been attributed to a range of factors, including the preponderance of women within the electorate (2519 women compared to 1934 men), and the Labor Party's decision not to run a candidate in what was considered an 'establishment' seat.
Her commitment to a plethora of social causes is said to have enabled her to attract some of the Labor vote, while Draper is said to have lost credibility by openly declaring he intended to move to the Supreme Court.15
The West Australian newspaper suggested that some voters would have voted against Draper purely 'as a matter of principle.16
The amount of scrutiny as to the reasons behind her election is indicative of the absolute shock it created.
The scope of Edith Cowan's achievement in being elected the first Australian female parliamentarian is reflected as much in the reactions of the day as in the feat itself.
Much of the press coverage of Edith's election concerned itself with the dangerous precedent she was alleged to have set.
The Age newspaper commented on March 15 1921 that -
Were political office to become the ambition of the fair sex, and were standing for office to become the latest craze of fashion, there would be many dreary and neglected homes throughout the country sacrificed on the altar of political ambition.17
Similar fears were expressed graphically in The Bulletin through a page of cartoons entitled The New House Wife, which sought to reassure male readers by depicting Edith Cowan demonstrating housewifely 'instincts' within the Parliament:18
The West Australian of 28 March 1921 was largely dismissive of the milestone, arguing that it was unlikely that after a few general elections Parliament would be full of women, unless women show a greater aptitude for the management of public affairs than has been displayed by exclusively male assemblies.19
Sadly only eight women were elected to our Parliament between 1921 and 1983.
Despite such criticisms, Edith did receive some positive publicity, with the Western Mail of 17 March 1921 emphasising women's undeniable right to representation and that her record of honorary service entitles her to the distinction.20
On 29 July 1921, The West Australian published an article entitled 'Mrs Cowan's Debut', following the opening of the first session of the 11th Parliament into which she was elected.21
The article outlines how Premier Sir James Mitchell had commenced the session by congratulating the Speaker on his re-election to the Speakership; the Premier suggested that he might claim to be the father of the House.
He then proceeded to announce that the Parliament now had a lady who might claim to be the 'mother of the House.'
While it was generally positive, the article in The West reflects the anticipation and curiosity surrounding the election of Australia’s first female parliamentarian:
The West went on to say that -
There was an air of curiosity about members concerning just what the first woman to be elected to an Australian Parliament would do on the first day of a new session.... If the members expected Mrs Cowan to do anything unusual or extraordinary they were disappointed. If the situation held anything of an unexpected nature it was the lady's self-possession under circumstances which would have been trying even to a hardened member of the Legislature.
The fact that the only 'unexpected' part of the event was 'the lady's self-possession' is indicative of the dominant attitudes of the day and the environment in which Edith Cowan was operating – an environment in which characteristics such as composure were presumed to be lacking in females.
The new member for West Perth was afforded the honour of moving the address in reply to the governor's speech; and
The West article also recounts Edith's wry scriptural citations in her maiden speech, and appears to appreciate her sense of humour.
After criticising the Parliament for its treatment of an amendment to the State Children's Act, she commented -
I know the honourable members of the House will be only too pleased to do anything in these matters when they are reminded of them. Then again, the Scriptures tell us it is not good for man to be alone.
At this point laughter was said to have 'filled the Chamber', her apparent impudence too much for the House to accept.
Edith Cowan's career in both the community and parliamentary realms reveals a breadth of passions and interests. A comprehensive analysis of her achievements is beyond the scope of this one presentation, but I would like to reflect on some key themes that emerge.
She was passionate about the environment and electoral reform.
Her stances on these issues were in many ways ahead of her times.
This contrasted with her conservative views on alcohol, gambling and the 'pictures' that led many to label her a 'wowser'; a tag she willingly accepted.
Edith was a strong proponent of electoral reform. She believed in one vote one value, and she argued that metropolitan Perth was under-represented in Parliament – a point that was to remain controversial until the early years of this century.
One vote one value electoral reform legislation was passed only in the last decade when Jim McGinty was the Attorney General.
Edith also advocated for proportional representation, and seemed to have been influenced by John Stuart Mill in her thoughts on the topic.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the era in which she lived, she also seemed to support what in contemporary times would be called environmental issues.
While the concepts of 'green politics' may not have existed, she hinted at the need for public space and (somewhat) restricted development.
In her Third Address-in-Reply Speech on 9 August 1923, Edith praised the Government's plans to build a mental detention facility, but strongly criticised its proposed riverfront location.
She stated that, our reserves, especially those with river frontages, should in my opinion be left for the people of all time.22 Such sentiments are still heard today.
She later supported the Swan River Board, leading Harry Phillips to contend that she would be a strong supporter of modern environmental causes.23
A recurrent theme in Edith’s parliamentary career was the idea of her being a 'wowser.'
While this cannot be added to a list of 'passions' or 'interests', to ignore it is to look past one of her well-recognised (and self-acknowledged) characteristics.
Although Edith was not a member of the Temperance League, she admitted that her views on alcohol, gambling and censorship led her to be termed a 'wowser.'
She was strongly opposed to lowering the drinking age below 21 and to extending trading hours, especially to Sundays.
Ironically, given her stance on gender equality, Edith criticised licensing legislation for not including the abolition of barmaids, claiming that it is not a suitable employment for women.
Furthermore, Edith greatly disapproved of 'indecent' books and postcards. She described their existence as 'evil', and emphasised the need to establish a board of censors.
She also reflected similar views in her opposition to a 1921 bill that sought to legalise lotteries for charitable purposes, exclaiming that she could not believe that humanity has fallen so low.24
Despite her interests in electoral reform and her progressive stance on public spaces and 'environmental issues', it is Edith Cowan’s views on education, women, mothers and children, health and the democratic process that truly characterise her social conscience, and demonstrate that she would be at home in debates on these issues in the 21st Century.
Edith Cowan's interest in promoting education was apparent long before she entered Parliament.
I have already mentioned that she was elected to the North Fremantle Education Board in 1898.
In the years before Western Australia had a university, she worked tirelessly to raise funds for scholarships for Western Australian students to attend universities in the Eastern States, and she obtained government support for her scheme.
In the legislature she supported a motion to annul a UWA Statute that would have enabled the University to establish attendance fees.
In supporting the annulment of the statute, she demonstrated what Harry Phillips has described as her occasional capacity to annoy some of her Parliamentary colleagues,25 by reminding them of their recent near unanimous agreement to provide an additional £8000 per annum for increases in members' salaries.
Edith concluded, if we can do that, we ought to be able to fund the small amount required by the University.26
Her strong commitment to education was not limited to what was deemed acceptable in her day.
She was a strong proponent of sex education, and continued to lobby for its inclusion into state schools long after her term in Parliament came to an end.
Now we all know that Edith Cowan was a firm believer in the necessity of enhancing the position of women in society.
Unlike some latter day feminists, she emphasised the distinctive contribution women could make, rather than exact equality between men and women.
In her maiden speech to the Legislative Assembly, she suggested that her election was evidence of the fact that women can and do stand by women, and emphasised her 'unique position' of being the first woman in an Australian Parliament.27
She argued that one of the reasons it is advisable to include women in Parliament was because (again in her words)
it was felt that men need a reminder sometimes from women beside them, that will make them realise all that can be done for the race and for the home.
Edith went on to suggest that combining male and female perspectives would result in much better work in the community than was ever done before.28 Edith practically demonstrated the value of a female perspective in Parliament in this very same speech, by chastising the Minister for Railways for the recently imposed a pram levy of one shilling – a large sum in those days – to carry prams on trains and trams.
The Minister promised to withdraw the charge immediately. However, Mrs Cowan decreed that the Minister must suffer appropriate punishment. She suggested he should be made to –
...parade the streets of Perth for the whole of one afternoon with a heavy infant on one arm and a bag of groceries on the other.
Edith Cowan's work in her one term in Parliament reflected her unique position through its insight into the many practical issues facing women and families in the community.
Her most significant achievement in the pursuit of equality and social justice for women was her private member's bill that became the Women's Legal Status Act 1923.
The Women's Legal Status Act 1923 was introduced in a similar form to the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act passed in Britain in 1919: it laid down that a person should not be disqualified by 'sex or marriage' from exercising any public function, from holding civil or judicial office, or from practising law, or from entering any other profession.29
During the course of its passage through t Parliament, the Bill was watered down to outlaw exclusion only on the grounds of sex.
In defending allowing exclusion on the basis of marriage, the Premier Sir James Mitchell spoke of the need to preserve the good old custom of the men providing for the women.
In a similar vein the Hon. Charles Latham asked, surely you do not want generally to bring women down to the level of men?
To which Edith wittily responded, no, I want to raise men to the level of women.30 Although she had to compromise on the ground of marriage, the legislation was nonetheless a breakthrough allowing women to enter law and other professions.31
She also sought to argue for women's access to the professions, through following her male legislative counterparts' arguments of female incapacity to its logical conclusion – that in such a case women should also be incapable of domestic chores.
This brief excerpt from the Second Reading Debate reflects her view:32
Mrs Cowan: I have not heard anyone suggest the necessity of a law to prohibit women, when the necessity arises, from going out charring or washing or doing any other unpleasant work. No one has suggested that should be disallowed.
Mr Latham: You would suggest that men should do that work?
Mrs Cowan: Why not? They are as capable as we are… I want to know why we do not object to women washing and charring?
Mr Latham: You do not expect a man to do that sort of thing?
If Edith was to visit either of my son's homes today, I think she would be pretty pleased to see both of them cooking, cleaning, washing, grocery shopping, and sharing the care of their children.
Before entering Parliament, Edith Cowan had been deeply involved in children's issues, in particular the injustices in the legal system directed at disadvantaged children.
This passion continued into her parliamentary career from her maiden speech onwards.
She criticised the previous all-male legislature for passing an amendment that meant that all children convicted before the State Children’s Court would become state wards until they were 18. She suggested that this legislation indicated the need for a female perspective within the Parliament.33
Edith was also involved in having playgrounds established in West Perth and baby health centres in various metropolitan areas.
In the same speech, she argued for child and maternity endowment.
Such efforts reflect the manner in which Edith Cowan was well ahead of her time with regard to ameliorating the social injustices facing women and children.
The progressive nature of her policies is made more striking by the fact that such issues remain contentious in contemporary Australian politics – such as the debate surrounding the Australian Paid Parental Leave Scheme.
Edith Cowan's first private member's bill, the Administration Act Amendment Bill, also reflected her concern for the welfare of mothers.
The Act gave equal inheritance right to mothers where a child died intestate and without issue.
Edith referred to mothers whose sons had died intestate during WWI, and moved the bill in the interests of the mothers of Western Australia.34
As with other issues, Edith Cowan had an approach towards health that was well ahead of her times.
She supported amendments to the Health Act that required the reporting of venereal disease.
Whilst the merits of such a policy may remain open to question, it was her comments during parliamentary debate that revealed her liberal approach towards addressing sexual health issues.35
In arguing for the amendment she stated that society needed (in her words) to put aside the idea that venereal disease is a crime... the idea that disease is a 'crime' should be got rid of.
However a disease was acquired, curing it was the priority.
Such an approach towards the stigma of venereal disease would have appeared progressive during the early era of the HIV epidemic of the 1980s, and was extraordinarily so for 1920s Australia.
Edith Cowan was a strong believer in the institution of Parliament and the necessity for independence within it.
In her Third Address-in-Reply speech, she encouraged leaders in community interest groups to stand for election in Parliament.36
In encouraging them to do so, Edith stated that it is a much nicer role' to be the power behind the throne than to stand up here and be the target of all sections of the community.37
She was a firm believer in the utility of Parliament, and believed that the Parliament taught members to be 'balanced' in their views.
Edith Cowan was also renowned for her independent voice within the Parliament and her refusal to toe the party line.
This stance, or 'unreliable' voting pattern, contributed to her receiving less support from the Nationalist party in the 1924 election.
In her maiden speech she paradoxically stated, I am a Nationalist, and I belong to no party in this House.
This philosophy was certainly evinced during her time in the legislature.
She noted that there are too many members possessed of the old party spirit, and emphasised she would be beholden to her constituents rather than the party cadre.38
Let me conclude by commenting that Australia was highly progressive in granting political rights to women at the turn of the 19th century.39
However, as with many Commonwealth countries, Australia saw a considerable 'time lag' between the granting of these rights and the election of female parliamentarians in most jurisdictions.
Although women were granted the right to stand for Commonwealth elections in 1902, it was not until 1943 that the first woman was elected.
In South Australia, it was not until 1959 that the first woman was elected.
Edith Cowan's election to the West Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921 – just one year after the legislation enabling women to stand – is all the more impressive in the light of these well-established trends.
Edith's electoral success is known to have inspired others, such as the later West Australian MP Florence Cardell-Oliver, who went on to become the first woman Cabinet Minister in Australia.
It is not only Edith Cowan's accomplishment in gaining election in a context in which women were resigned to the domestic sphere that is impressive.
It is also the invaluable work she achieved both in the community organisations with which she was involved and whilst in Parliament.
Her two private member’s bills were significant pieces of legislation, and her Women's Legal Status Act 1923 arguably laid the foundations for what would eventually become the West Australian Equal Opportunity Act 1984.
This amazing women had a social conscience and this conscience helped to shape her passions in public life.
She was fearless in her actions – if there was not a means to address an identified need, she helped to create one.
And, she was prepared to break convention – in this she was, and continues to be, an inspiration to others.
These qualities are, of course, enduring ones and are some of the reasons why we remember her.
The passion, tenacity and competence with which Edith Cowan pursued first her community service aims, and later her legislative career, continue today to serve as inspiration, not just for women and legislators, but for the community as a whole.
Hers is a powerful example for us all. In a sense then, she was not just a woman of her time, but a woman for our time as well.