Cowan a shining light for women of today

Headshot of Elise Van Aken
Elise Van AkenGeraldton Guardian
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Edith Cowan Illustration
Camera IconEdith Cowan Illustration Credit: Don Lindsay/The West Australian

On the centenary of Edith Cowan’s election to WA Parliament, I was a bit disappointed in myself at how little I actually knew about this great woman in Australian history who was born right here on the outskirts of Geraldton.

My now-fiance had given me a tour around campus when he was studying at Edith Cowan University, but I admittedly glossed over the plaque detailing her significance in my 17-year-old ignorance. I knew she was an important lady but it wasn’t until I moved to Geraldton that the stars aligned to highlight her significance.

Just a day after the 100th anniversary of the Glengarry Station-born politician becoming the first woman elected to an Australian Parliament, Lara Dalton was elected as Geraldton’s first female MP.

I’m not saying Ms Cowan has been completely ignored by our leaders, with many nods given to her in various forms throughout the decades.

She has peered at us from the Australian $50 note since 1995, been honoured with the Edith Cowan Memorial Clock at the entrance to Perth’s Kings Park — believed to be the first civic monument to an Australian woman — and had a plaque laid in her honour on St Georges Terrace in 1979.

Memorial clock tower in honour of Edith Cowan, at Kings Park.
Camera IconMemorial clock tower in honour of Edith Cowan, at Kings Park. Credit: Unknown/Supplied by Author

The Federal electorate of Cowan was also created and named after her, and in January 1991 the Western Australian College of Advanced Education became Edith Cowan University.

You may be thinking “what rock has this silly girl been living under?”, but looking back, this important part of our State’s and nation’s history was not once mentioned in my school history lessons.

Instead, I can recall quite a few facts and dates about World War II and the invasion and colonisation of Australia, and I didn’t handle that many $50 notes back then (or now, actually) to regularly ponder who was emblazoned on them.

Amid growing calls for Ms Cowan to be honoured with a statue in Perth, it admittedly makes sense for her to be honoured there, as she left Geraldton when she was just seven years old, and was elected to the seat of West Perth.

But as a newcomer to our city, it took a bit of digging to realise we do have a dedication to this great woman who spent many of her formative years here.

I do wonder, though, how many residents and visitors are aware the beautiful green space opposite the Geraldton foreshore and courthouse is in fact Edith Cowan Square?

The Rotary Club of Geraldton celebrating its 109th anniversary at Edith Cowan Square.
Camera IconThe Rotary Club of Geraldton celebrating its 109th anniversary at Edith Cowan Square.

In a time when female empowerment, participation in the workforce and leadership roles, and the interests of marginalised women and children who are victims of violence and abuse are urgent issues in our society, the recognition of pioneers like Ms Cowan, nee Dircksey Brown, and fostering an understanding and appreciation of how far we’ve come among schoolchildren should be a high priority.

And while the curriculum may come, a statue would be a great starting point, likely to prompt conversation and inquiry into who she was.

When I asked Mayor Shane Van Styn if he thought there should be more recognition of her in the city, he told me he would be supportive of the idea, but paying for it may not be as straightforward as a generous benefactor coming forward to offer $50,000 for the Perth CBD bronze tribute to this staunch suffragette.

While the opportunity to mark the centenary has been missed, in Perth and locally, the door is still open for some sort of more prominent tribute in our CBD square paying tribute to this trailblazing woman who spent her first formative years in Geraldton.

Elise Van Aken is deputy editor and a senior reporter at The Geraldton Guardian

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