Edith Dircksey Cowan, who was born in 1861 at Glengarry near Geraldton, Western Australia, believed that education was fundamental to tackling the social issues of the day and, further, that it was the key to growth, change and improvement. She fought tirelessly to improve conditions for women, children, families, the poor, the under-educated and the elderly. She promoted sex education in schools, migrant welfare and the formation of infant health centres.
In 1894, Edith Cowan was one of the founders of the Karrakatta Club, which became the centre of a movement for reform, making Edith Cowan the best known woman in Australia in the first 30 years of the 20th century.
Among her many achievements, Edith Cowan was instrumental in obtaining votes for women in WA. She was Vice-President of the Women Justices' Association and the Western Australian League of Nations Union. She helped found the Children's Protection Society, which was the precursor of the Children's Court and helped create the Western Australian National Council for Women, of which she was President from 1913 to 1921.
The Guidance of Infants Act (1922), which allowed women to apply to the courts if their husbands left them without adequate maintenance, was amended by the efforts of Edith Cowan and she also argued that a woman should be legally entitled to a share of her husband's income. In 1923, she was appointed to the Anglican Synod, which was predominately male; the press commended the church for moving with the times.
Her contribution to Australia’s efforts in the First World War was vast; she worked on many committees and on the formation of the WA League of Nations Union. Awarded an OBE in 1920 for her work during the war, she was elected as an endorsed Nationalist, defeating the previous Attorney General. In 1921, at the age of 60, she was elected to the WA Parliament, the first woman elected to parliament in Australia. Her most important feat as a parliamentarian was her contribution to the passing of the Women's Legal Status Bill, which became an Act in 1923. The Bill opened legal and other professions to Western Australian women for the first time.
Edith Cowan contributed significantly to the development of education, particularly in government schools. She worked tirelessly to raise funds for students to attend universities in other states, prior to a university being built in Western Australia, obtaining government support for her scheme. Her work in this area was acknowledged by naming WA's oldest tertiary education institution and newest university after her, as well as her image being added to the Australian $50 note.
Edith Cowan died on 9 June 1932 aged 71. A memorial to her in the form of a clock tower was unveiled in Kings Park on 9 June 1934.