First up is Australia’s first female Parliamentarian Edith Cowan, who served during the 1920s (incidentally, the same period during which Evergreen Falls is set). She is the only woman who has had an Australian university named after her, and she appears on the Australian fifty dollar note.
Cowan, the second of six children, had a childhood straight out of the pages of a novel. When she was seven, her mother Mary died giving birth to the couple’s fourth child. Her father, pastoralist and explorer Kenneth Brown, subsequently remarried, but the marriage was not a happy one and he started drinking heavily. By 1871, he had run up a number of debts, and was forced to mortgage his property. He shot and killed his second wife on 3 January 1876 and was hanged for the crime on 10 June 1876. Young Edith Brown did not witness any of this, as she was sent to boarding school in Perth after her mother’s death. The school was run by the sisters of the man she later married, James Cowan. After father’s death, however, she left the school to live with other relatives.
She busied herself with philanthropic work, and campaigned for women’s suffrage. Because her husband was a Master of the Supreme Court, she became aware of the many injustices meted out to women and children in the system, and after women gained suffrage in 1899, she went on to campaign for welfare for the disadvantaged, as well as founding, and heading, various charitable and political groups, such as Western Australia’s National Council for Women. She raised funds for the building of the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Perth (which opened in 1916), founded the Children’s Protection Society, and as a result was appointed to the bench of the new children’s court in 1915. She became Australia’s first female Justice of the Peace in 1920, as well as being awarded the Order of the British Empire in the same year.
After entering Parliament, Cowan pushed for legislation that gave women the same legal and inheritance rights as men, as well as inheritance rights to mothers of children who died intestate. She also promoted the teaching of sex education in schools.
And all of this with four children!
(compiled with the assistance of my fabulous research assistant Heather Gammage)