By Karen Kidd, PM
(I speak only for me)
Edith Dircksey Brown Cowan was an Australian politician, social reformer, women’s and children’s rights advocate and much, much more.
She also was a Co-Freemason.
Nope, I’m not making that up. If I was making it up, I’d certainly think up a better last name. For the nonMasons reading this, a “cowan” is someone who pretends to be a Freemason but who really isn’t.
Bro. Edith was no cowan.
I wish my little blog could do her justice, she really deserves a far more exhaustive biography than I can provide here. I’m not even going to pretend to offer an exhaustive listing of Edith’s achievements. I’m not convinced such a list exists.
She was born Edith Dircksey Brown on 2 August 1861 to Kenneth and Mary Eliza Dircksey Brown on the sheep station Glengarry, near Geraldton in Western Australia. Her mother died in 1868, and Edith was sent to a boarding school in Perth.
On June 10, 1876, when Edith was less than a month shy of her 15th birthday, her father was hanged for murdering his second wife. She left the boarding school and moved in with her grandmother in Guildford, Western Australia. She continued her schooling until, on 12 November 1879 when she was 18, Edith married James Cowan, then registrar and master of the Supreme Court.
About a decade later, her husband was appointed Perth police magistrate. The couple had five children, four daughters and a son, between 1880 and 1891.
Most of her biographers comment that her husband’s career helped open her eyes to wider societal problems, particularly the problems of women and children and the great need for social reform. No doubt it did.
However, it also should be noted that Edith cleared some interesting hurdles that would have – as it, too often, still does – acted like a lead weight on her personal evolution.
Her father’s inglorious end would have been bad enough but marriage and motherhood, what in my time has been referred to as the “mommy track,” relegated a good many late 19th and early 20th century women to obscurity. Not that there’s a single thing wrong with being a good mother, but it was difficult to combine that with public service at the time.
Edith’s life was anything but obscure but there was a pause.
In 1891, the year her last child was born, Edith began work in the Ministering Children’s League. Two years later, she became active the House of Mercy for unmarried mothers, what later became the Alexandra Home for Women.
Those experiences led to her helping to found and becoming first secretary, later president, of the Karrakatta Club for women in 1894, which today is he oldest club for women in Australia.
“Club” doesn’t really live up to what the group actually is because it isn’t all about tea and cake (don’t get me wrong, I love tea and cake). The Karrakatta Club provided – and provides – a forum for discussion and networking about various topics, including women’s rights, current affairs and literature. In that way, the club more resembles the 18th Century salons of France, from which adoptive Masonry ultimately sprang.
I’m not saying Edith Cowan was an adoptive Mason (though I’m sure someone out there will say I did).
I am saying she was on a parallel path that has lead many women into prominence and Freemasonry. The networking within the Karrakatta Club would prove to be a spring board for Edith as she and other members were prominent in the women’s suffrage movement.
Karrakatta Club members, quite notably Edith Cowan, were among the strongest supporters of women’s suffrage in Western Australia, which happened in 1899.
In 1906, Edith became a founding member of the Children’s Protection Society in 1906 and it was through this group that Edith help establish, in 1909, a day nursery for the children of working class mothers children. The society was also was instrumental in passage of the State Children Act of 1907, which set up the Children’s Court, to which she was appointed as a judge in 1915.
Meanwhile, in 1909, Edith co-founded of the Women’s Service Guild, of which she was vice-president from 1909 to 1917. The Guild worked for equal rights of citizenship for both men and women and was instrumental in opening the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women in 1916.
Oh, and in 1916, Edith was made a Freemason.
Edith was initiated 14 October 1916 and she was a founding member of St. Cuthbert’s Lodge No. 408, which was founded in Perth the same year. So I suppose she might have been a founding Entered Apprentice in that lodge or she was made a Master in a hurry. The latter isn’t impossible as such things happened in the early days of worldwide Co-Freemasonry. That certainly isn’t how it’s done in the order to which I belong today but I’m pointing it out because for all I do know about her – or think I do – there’s still a lot I don’t know.
I do know that St. Cuthbert’s wasn’t the first Co-Masonic Lodge in Australia. That started with Victorian Lodge No. 403 in 1911 and Sydney Lodge No. 404 in 1912. Co-Freemasonry remains active, if a bit obscure, in Australia today.
Moving through the blue lodge degrees did not slow Edith down. The same year she was initiated, there was a World War on and edit was in the midst of her four years working with the Red Cross, for which she later was appointed as a member of the Order of the British Empire.
Also the same year she was initiated, Edith became one of the first women elected to the Anglican Synod, of which she became a co-opted member in 1923.
In 1921, when she was 59, Edith became the first woman elected as a representative in an Australian Parliament, as a Nationalist member for West Perth, a year after Western Australia passed legislation that allowed women to run for parliament.
In 1925, she was a delegate to the Sixth International Conference of Women in Washington.
In 1926, she helped found the Western Australian Historical Society.
Cowan died 9 June 1932, survived by her husband. Her funeral took place in the same cathedral in which she’d been married and she is buried in Karrakatta Cemetery in Karrakatta, Nedlands City in Western Australia.
Four years after she died, her mother Lodge built its own premises, becoming the first purpose built Co-Masonic Temple in Australia.
A stone clock tower, the Edith Dircksey Cowan Memorial, stands in her honor at the gates of Kings Park in Perth.
In 1975, Edith was featured on an Australian postage stamp.
Her great-great-nephew, David Malcolm, became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Western Australia in 1988.
In 1991, Western Australian College of Advanced Education became the fourth university in Western Australia and took on a new name: Edith Cowan University.
And an idealized engraved portrait of Edith Cowan has featured on the reverse of Australia’s 50 dollar bill since 1995.