15 March 2021
It is serendipitous that the first speech I give in this chamber upon my return from parental leave, after the birth of my twins, is a speech about Edith Cowan, who was elected 100 years ago on the weekend, and that I give it on the day of the March 4 Justice in Canberra. I know many if not all of us on this side of the House will be marching down to the grass as soon as we take our leave from this chamber. I think Edith Cowan would want to know that, 100 years on, we still fight for and advance her legacy. If anything, it's disappointing that we have only gotten this far. Let's take stock of where we are.
Edith Cowan was a trailblazer. She dedicated her life to promoting and advancing the rights and welfare of women and children, guided by her belief that economic independence and higher education were an avenue of hope, something we still fight for, day in and day out, in this place. She also argued for the need for women in leadership, rather than just their right to see it—a debate we continue to have today, 100 years on. When she stood as a Nationalist candidate for the Legislative Assembly in West Perth, her election pamphlet, in accordance with the practice of the day, referred to her as Mrs James Cowan, after her husband. At least we've got rid of that! Despite being endorsed by the conservative party of the day, Edith Cowan felt that domestic and social issues were not being given enough attention. She campaigned on her impressive community service record and said that we all needed to 'nag a little' on social problems. Here we are, 100 years on, nagging still.
Cowan won a surprise victory, winning by 46 votes. She defeated the Attorney-General, who had actually introduced the legislation that enabled her to stand. That's politics! In 1921, at the age of 60, she became the first woman elected to an Australian parliament. The fact that her presence in the chamber was uncomfortable for some members was evident in their refusal to even accord her the tradition of silence for her maiden speech, even when she emphasised the necessity for more women in the chamber. And yet, here we are today, still talking about the culture of this place and what needs to be done for more women to feel more welcome.
As a parliamentarian, Cowan admirably pursued her policy objectives without concern for electoral consequences—how novel—or the favour of her party colleagues. She always voted in a way that would benefit, or at least not discriminate against, women and children. That is an absolute credit to her. She fought for the motherhood endowment and she defended the idea of a housewives union. It sounds like she belonged on our side, to be honest. She argued for the right of wives to access the arbitration court. She also pressed for sex education in state schools, a debate we are somehow still having in 2021, and she chastised the minister for railways for the one-shilling tram levy imposed on mothers who were travelling to the city for their shopping. The minister interjected during that debate—it got pretty rowdy—but agreed to withdraw the fee that same day. She successfully introduced and passed without amendment her second private member's bill, the Women's Legal Status Bill. It was radical at the time. It allowed women in Western Australia to practise law and other professions for the first time, and as a lawyer myself, 100 years down the track, I thank her. In introducing the Women's Legal Status Bill, which stated that no person could be disqualified from any public, civil or judicial function by sex, she paved the way for our current sex discrimination laws.
Two years after her death, the Edith Cowan memorial clock was unveiled at the entrance to Perth's Kings Park, believed to be one of the first civic monuments dedicated to Australian women, built in the face of persistent opposition which has been characterised as representative of the gender bias operating at the time. While a memorial clock is nice, the real monument to Edith Cowan's legacy is in this place, right here, with the member for Cowan, the member for Lalor, the member for Warringah, the member for Curtin and the member for Reid. It is only because of the trailblazing work of women like Edith that we all stand here today, and I think we owe it to her, to her legacy, to take our part in that ongoing legacy and fight for those same principles that she fought for a hundred years ago.
It is at the same time horrifying and galvanising that, a hundred years on, we must still fight for those principles—that, today, those principles are still at stake—but they are, so we do. We march on, we march out of this place and we march down to the grass and we stand with women from across the country, who ask us as their elected representatives to speak for them in this place. This isn't a political issue; this is a critical issue, and we are at a moment of reckoning across the country. It is we in this place who must listen to our people and must act to make sure that it actually means something to them back in their homes.