Vida Goldstein

Vida Goldstein


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Vida Goldstein was born in Victoria, New South Wales on 13th April 1869. When she was a child the family moved to Melbourne and she attended the Ladies' Presbyterian College. As a teenager she helped her mother collect names for a petition that demanded votes for women.

Goldstein ran a co-educational preparatory school. In 1899 she became the leader of the United Council for Women's Suffrage. She immediately wrote to the National Union of Suffrage Societies in London to ask if her organisation to be affiliated. Millicent Fawcett agreed to this proposal.

In 1900 Goldstein founded the Australian Women's Sphere. In 1902 she was elected secretary of the International Women's Suffrage Alliance in Washington. According to Elizabeth Crawford, the author of The Suffragette Movement (1999): "Vida Goldstein... spoke at a hearing before the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives at which Carrie Chapman Catt asked that the House should appoint a committee to investigate the results of women suffrage in operation."

In 1903 Goldstein stood as Woman's candidate in the first Australian Federal Elections, the first woman candidate in the British Empire ever to stand for parliament. Although unsuccessful, she polled 51,497 votes. Over the next 14 years she unsuccessfully tried on five occasions to be elected to the legislature.

In 1911 Goldstein visited England and spoke at several meetings. The Men's League For Women's Suffrage gave a dinner in her honour. This was attended by Millicent Fawcett (National Union of Suffrage Societies), Christabel Pankhurst (Women Social & Political Union) and Charlotte Despard (Women's Freedom League).

On 17th June, 1911 Vida Goldstein attended the Women's Coronation Procession to the Royal Albert Hall. The speakers included Goldstein, Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Annie Besant.

While in England she visited Eagle House near Batheaston, the home of WSPU member, Mary Blathwayt. Her father, Colonel Linley Blathwayt was sympathetic to the the cause and on 23rd July, 1911, he planted a tree, a Ilex Aquifolium Nigrescens, in her honour in his suffragette arboretum in a field adjacent to the house.

During the First World War she joined forces with Adela Pankhurst to establish the Australian Women's Peace Army. Adela believed that her actions were true to her father's belief in international socialism. She wrote to Sylvia Pankhurst that like her she was "carrying out her father's work". Emmeline Pankhurst completely rejected this approach and told Sylvia that she was "ashamed to know where you and Adela stand." Edgar Ross, a fellow campaigner against the war in Melbourne later recalled: "What I remember most about her was her courage. She would stand, unfearing, in front of jingo-mad soldiers heckling her when speaking on the platform."

In 1919 Vida Goldstein represented Australia at the Women's International League for Peace & Freedom Conference in Zurich. On her return to Australia she campaigned for birth control clinics and for world disarmament.

Vida Goldstein died of cancer in South Yarra on 15th August 1949.

This afternoon took the tram to the Embankment. we formed up for the Women's Coronation Procession at 4.30 and started at 5.30. Got to the Albert Hall about 7.30. The meeting began at 6.30. Speakers were Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, Vida Goldstein and Annie Besant.

Now the WSPU have passed their £100,000... Mary was in the Albert Hall, where Vida Goldstein among others spoke very well. Mary met such numbers of people she knew. she says she seemed to spend her time shaking hands with people.


Vida Goldstein: The Woman Who Won The Right To Vote In Australia

Australia’s Vida Goldstein was instrumental in getting equal rights for women. She helped win the right to vote for Australian women, two decades before Britain.

Yet while the name Emmaline Pankhurst is still well known in the UK as the woman who helped British women get the vote -- the name Vida Goldstein is not as well known in Australia.

Historian Clare Wright is the writer and presenter of ABC documentary Utopia Girls (about how women won the vote in Australia) and the Associate Professor in history at La Trobe University. She told The Huffington Post Australia the name Vida Goldstein should be celebrated by all Australian women.

Vida in London (white dress). Picture National Library of Australia

“Even though New Zealand won the right to vote the year before us (1893), in Australia, we not only won the right to vote but we also won the right to run for parliament which is something New Zealand didn’t achieve at that time. So there are two huge reasons Vida Goldstein should be a household name here,” Wright said.

Clare Wright. Picture Susan Papazian

Goldstein started her campaign as a young woman, helping her mother, Isabella Hawkins a suffrage campaigner from Victoria. Hawkins was part of a very progressive movement in the late 19th Century that included feminists, federalists, spiritualists and people known as non-conformists.

Isabella Hawkins got involved in the suffrage movement through doing slum work -- going into the slums of Collingwood and Fitzroy and helping working class women. That’s how they were able to exercise a public role at a time women didn’t have other outlets.

"Hawkins collected signatures for the Monster Petition in 1891 which was a huge accomplishment. The Victorian Government had said: ‘If you show me women want the vote, we’ll introduce a bill into parliament.’

"So, within six weeks, 30,000 signatures were collected all over Victoria. So women like Hawkins pasted all the petitions onto a long roll of cotton and dragged it into Parliament. At that time it was the largest petition ever presented to Victorian parliament," Wright said.

. The Monster Petition. Picture Supplied

"Goldstein earned her political stripes there by helping her mum collect the signatures for the Monster Petition. Then she stepped up further. The petition was unsuccessful it passed the lower house but not the upper house. This happened about 20 times. The irony was that Victoria was the first state to start the process but the last state to succeed, due to the conservative upper house.

"But that’s when Goldstein decided this is what she wanted to devote her life to improving the lives of women. She sacrificed a lot. She turned down marriage proposals because she reasoned the only way to work to improve women’s lives is not to become a wife or mother."

. Vida Goldstein. Picture Supplied

Goldstein became a very active campaigner. She set up the newspaper The Woman Voter and, by the time Australia had federated and become the first country in the world to give women full voting, she was the women's leader of the Suffrage movement in Australia.

. The Woman Voter newspaper. Picture Supplied

By 1902 Goldstein went to the U.S. as the Australian representative, to the first International Women’s Suffrage Conference in Washington DC. Wright said Goldstein was treated like a rock star.

"She was giving lecture tours around the country, meeting President Roosevelt who invited her to the Oval Office. She managed to achieve what progressive women all around the world had been fighting for," Wright said.

"After her 1902 tour she came back to Australia and became the first woman to stand for Parliament. She lost but tried four more times. The reason she didn’t win is she insisted on being an Independent. It’s believed if she’d run with Labor she would have been successful. But she was concerned if she stood as a member of the Labor party her message would be watered down. She was there to represent the interests of Australian women and children. She was a purist, not a pragmatic."

Goldstein was the woman British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst turned to for guidance. She was invited in 1911 to speak at all the British rallies. More than 10,000 people heard her speak at Albert Hall.

. Emmeline Pankhurst. Picture Supplied

"She was feted as being the embodiment of the modern woman. She was known for being a fabulous public speaker, beautifully spoken, funny, charismatic, whip-smart, well read and a great writer. She contributed a huge amount and was also involved in the passing legislation in Australia that improved the lives of women and children, the Sunshine Harvester Decision, setting the minimum wage," Wright said.

Wright's essay, Birth of a Nation, has been published in the latest edition of the Griffith Review

"Vida Goldstein was a national hero as well as an international hero and it really is puzzling why, in Britain, the name Pankhurst is so well known and associated with the suffragette movement while, in Australia, not everybody knows about Goldstein's incredible achievements. It's time we celebrated her life and her accomplishments."


Vida Goldstein was one of the first women in the western world to stand for parliament. Her fight still resonates today

V ida Goldstein, born in the Victorian city of Portland in 1869, was the first woman in the western world to nominate for a national parliament. If that was all she stood for, her name would simply be the answer to a pub quiz question. But Vida was one of Australia’s foremost women of courage and principle. All her life she fought for women’s equality – and her battles resonate to this day.

When Australian women were granted the right to vote by an act of parliament in 1902, the rest of the world recognised this new country as extraordinarily progressive. Women all over the world envied their Australian sisters – Vida was even invited to the US as a representative of “Australia, where women vote”. In her five months there she formed friendships with prominent suffragists, gave many speeches and even met the newly elected president, Theodore Roosevelt. (The leaders of the US women’s suffrage movement impressed her more than he did.)

On her return to Australia she stood for the Senate in Victoria in the 1903 election as a progressive independent, declaring that only women could properly safeguard their own interests and those of their children. Her overall message was also clear: “We women want the same freedom of thought and action as extended to men.”

Writing Vida Goldstein’s life story was a surprisingly emotional experience. Photograph: National Library of Australia

Much of the popular press found the idea of a female parliamentary candidate hilarious lawyers rushed to the constitution to see whether Vida was even eligible, and much of the press commentary was hostile. None of this fazed her, and three other women also nominated for election that year.

For two months she toured Victoria, attracting record crowds wherever she went. On the hustings, she was witty and nimble. “Woman is referred to as the clinging vine and man as the sturdy oak,” she said. “Well, I have seen the clinging vine bending over a washtub and the sturdy oak trying to hold up a lamp post in the street.” And she gave no quarter to hecklers. When a man interjected with, “Don’t you wish you were a man?” her reply was, “Don’t you wish you were?”

In her first election, Vida received about half the votes of the most popular Victorian Senate candidate. She made four more unsuccessful attempts to be an MP, both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. She was unsuccessful each time, but she remained fearless in her pursuit of her principles.

Her last campaigns took place during the first world war she vehemently opposed the then prime minister Billy Hughes’s two attempts to introduce conscription for overseas service. Defying not only the government but a large part of the population, she led public meetings – returned soldiers set fire to her platforms several times – and took steps to see that women and children did not starve while men were away fighting. When conscription was twice defeated, she felt vindicated.

For some years, Vida was an international celebrity. Among her friends she counted the English suffragettes, including the Pankhursts (whose militant methods she basically supported) and the prominent Americans who supported the suffrage, as well as women from Germany, Turkey, France and elsewhere.

Writing Vida’s life story was a surprisingly emotional experience. It’s impossible to research and write about everything she did, all she faced and achieved, without cheering her on. But her story is also enraging.

Vida Goldstein was a woman of great ability, courage, intellectual force and determination: surely an asset to any parliament. Had she lived in the US or the UK, where she was lauded and admired, I believe she would certainly have been a member of the national legislature. Both countries had women in parliament or congress within five years of them gaining the vote in Australia though, it took 40 years after women won the vote to see them take a seat in parliament.

This is no coincidence. In October 2019 Tanya Kovac, the national convenor of Emily’s List Australia – a political network supporting progressive Labor women seeking election to political office – said, “It’s as if [party organisation] is men’s business. It’s handed out along factional lines and not based on competency. Men have been the primary beneficiaries of that.”Women from all sides of politics would surely agree.


Vida Goldstein (1869�)

GOLDSTEIN, VIDA JANE MARY (1869�), feminist and suffragist, was born on 13 April 1869 at Portland, Victoria, eldest child of Jacob Robert Yannasch Goldstein and his wife Isabella, née Hawkins. Jacob, born at Cork, Ireland, on 10 March 1839 of Polish, Jewish and Irish stock, arrived in Victoria in 1858 and settled initially at Portland. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the Victorian Garrison Artillery in 1867 and rose to the rank of colonel. On 3 June 1868 he married Isabella (1849�), eldest daughter of Scottish-born squatter Samuel Proudfoot Hawkins.

After living at Portland and Warrnambool, where Jacob ran a general store, the Goldsteins moved to Melbourne in 1877. There Jacob worked as a contract draughtsman. He was a Unitarian, but the family attended Scots Church and later the Australian Church where Dr Charles Strong encouraged a deep involvement in social welfare work. A founding member of the Melbourne Charity Organisation Society, its honorary treasurer and later honorary secretary, Goldstein believed that charity and poor relief should be scientifically organized, not handed out indiscriminately. He was a member of the Women's Hospital Committee for many years and also helped to promote the Cheltenham Men's Home. With Strong, Dr Llewelyn Bevan and others Goldstein assisted with the project which began in 1892 for forming labour colonies, notably at Leongatha. Described by some as irascible, domineering and opinionated, he became estranged from his feminist wife, although they lived under the same roof. He died at their apartment in Bank Place in the city on 21 September 1910.

Although an anti-suffragist, Jacob Goldstein encouraged his daughters to be economically and intellectually independent. Vida and her sisters were all well educated by a private governess from 1884 Vida attended Presbyterian Ladies' College where she matriculated in 1886. An attractive girl, always well dressed, she led, for a time, a light-hearted social life. In 1892󈟎, when the family income was affected by Melbourne's bank crashes, she conducted with her sisters a co-educational preparatory school in Alma Road, St Kilda. Of the four sisters, Lina in 1892 married a banker H. J. Henderson, son of Rev. William Henderson Elsie married Henry Hyde Champion in 1898 Aileen and Vida did not marry, though Vida had many proposals. Selwyn, their only brother, became a mining engineer.

Vida's mother was a confirmed suffragist, an ardent teetotaller and a zealous worker for social reform. Vida's own public career began about 1890 when she helped her mother collect signatures for the huge Woman Suffrage Petition. In the 1890s she also became involved in the National Anti-Sweating League, the Criminology Society and various social welfare activities, particularly those promoted by Strong and by her close friend Annette Bear-Crawford, with whom she helped to organize the Queen Victoria Hospital Appeal for the Queen's jubilee in 1897. She read widely on political, economic and legislative subjects and attended Victorian parliamentary sessions where she learned procedure while campaigning for a wide variety of reformist legislation. In 1899 after the death of Mrs Bear-Crawford, she was undisputed leader of the radical women's movement in Victoria, and that year made her first public-speaking appearance to advocate the vote for woman. Trained initially by her friend, Vida quickly became a remarkably capable and impressive speaker with the ability to handle wittily even the most abusive of hecklers.

Between 1899 and 1908 Vida's first priority was the suffrage. In 1902 she travelled to the United States of America to speak at the International Woman Suffrage Conference, was elected secretary, gave evidence in favour of woman suffrage to a committee of the United States Congress and attended the International Council of Women Conference. Australian women had been granted the Federal vote in 1902 and on her return from America she became the first woman in the British Empire to be nominated and to stand for election to a national parliament. In her first bid as an Independent candidate for the Senate in 1903, she was proposed and assisted by the Women's Federal Political Association. This association had been formed to organize the women's vote for the first Federal elections, but by July 1903 with Vida as president it had become a vehicle for her platform and opinions. Despite ridicule of her candidacy, at the December election she polled 51 497 votes. Concluding after her defeat that women needed greater organization, she began educating female voters through the renamed Women's Political Association (W.P.A.), through her paper the Woman's Sphere which she owned and edited between September 1900 and March 1905, and by lecture tours around Victoria. She also campaigned untiringly for the State suffrage.

Once the State franchise was won in 1908 Vida returned to national politics and made four more attempts to gain election to Federal parliament: in 1910 and 1917 for the Senate and in 1913 and 1914 for the House of Representatives, always as an Independent Woman Candidate. She polled well except in 1917 when she lost her deposit, partly because of her uncompromising position on pacifism during the war. But there were other reasons for her failures. Her rigidly independent status alienated party supporters, and the press was either antagonistic to her, misrepresented her or ignored her. Yet it is clear that Vida was a candidate of sincerity and integrity. Her beliefs are revealed in her election manifestos between 1903 and 1917. Although they changed in detail, she consistently supported the principles of compulsory arbitration and conciliation, equal rights, equal pay, the appointment of women to a variety of official posts, and the introduction of legislation which would redistribute the country's wealth. She was outspokenly opposed to capitalism, supporting production for use not profit, and public control of public utilities. She opposed the White Australia policy in principle although she believed alien immigration should be restricted until equal pay for equal work had been achieved. Her desire to enter parliament and her avowed ambition to become prime minister were based on her determination to put her ideals into practice.

Vida actively promoted women's rights and emancipation in many other ways over the years from 1891 to 1919. She helped to found or supported many women's organizations including the National Council of Women, the Victorian Women's Public Servants' Association and the Women Writers' Club. She also worked for many social reforms including equal property rights for man and wife and raising the age of marriage and consent, while advocating new laws on land taxation, food adulteration and the sweating of women workers. Her methods included lobbying politicians to urge amendments to proposed legislation she directly influenced many Acts. In December 1906, for example, she had the satisfaction of seeing passed into law her long-demanded Children's Court Act, the terms of which she had helped to draft. In her article 'Socialism of today – An Australian view' in the September 1907 issue of Nineteenth Century and After, she included in cost-of-living tables her findings on the lowest wage that a man and his family needed to pay for the barest necessities this information, it is claimed, influenced Mr Justice Henry Higgins in handing down his famous Harvester Judgment which established the legislative concept of a basic wage. In August 1909 Vida launched her second paper, the weekly Woman Voter, of which she was owner-editor.

Of the Australian women connected with the emancipation and suffrage movements of the day Vida Goldstein was the only one to gain a truly international reputation. In February 1911 she visited England at the invitation of the Women's Social and Political Union and her speeches drew huge crowds. Alice Henry wrote that Vida 'was the biggest thing that has happened to the woman movement for some time in England'.

During World War I Vida was uncompromisingly pacifist. She became chairman of the Peace Alliance, formed the Women's Peace Army in 1915, and was involved in much valuable social work including the organization of a women's unemployment bureau in 1915󈝼 and a Women's Rural Industries Co. Ltd. In 1919, with Cecilia John, she accepted an invitation to represent Australian women at a Women's Peace Conference in Zurich: she was away three years. This trip signalled the end of her active public involvement in Australian feminist and political work: the Women's Political Association was dissolved, the Woman Voter ceased publication and Vida turned her attention increasingly to promoting more general causes, particularly pacifism and an international sisterhood of women.

Throughout the inter-war years, although no longer publicly prominent, Vida continued to lobby for social reforms such as improved provision of birth control and equal naturalization laws, and urged both women and men to support disarmament and to oppose war. She was now deeply committed to internationalism. Among the recurrent themes in her writings were her visionary suggestions for a new social order which was to have a spiritual foundation and be based on the 'brotherhood of man' concept of true socialism and on Christian ethics. Indeed, although she had always refused to join a party, Vida sympathized deeply with labour and the cause of working peoples. Most press reports called her a socialist, but she described herself as a democrat with a vision of society which would enable the complete equality of women with men and decent standards of living for all. She maintained her belief that women had special talents and needs, were potentially the world's civilizers, and therefore had contributions to make to political and international affairs.

In later life, while realizing that people might scoff at her 'simple faith in moral force' and her constant promotion of spiritual solutions for national and world problems, Vida became rather obsessive about the belief which had once been her motivation – that 'Righteousness exalteth a Nation'. In some disillusion, she became increasingly involved in Christian Science as a practitioner or healer, and at one time was a reader and president of its church in Melbourne which she had helped to found. Vida and her mother had first chosen to follow this religion about 1899. In her last years Vida lived quietly with her sisters Elsie and Aileen, who was also a practitioner.

Although Vida Goldstein may appear to have been a visionary idealist, yet by her pioneering efforts, her successes and her failures, she was a trail-blazer who provided leadership and inspiration to innumerable people. Vida summarized her basic attitude to politics and public life as: 'In essentials unity in non-essentials liberty in all things charity'. She was humane, kind and sincere, genuinely concerned for the underdog of whatever race or nationality. Charming, public-spirited and believing in Christian principles which she consistently practised, she was a born reformer, though she promoted simple solutions to complex social problems. According to a testimonial from her supporters, she 'offered to the people the wit and eloquence of an orator, the knowledge and foresight of a statesman, and the devotion and courage of a brave woman'. She died of cancer at her home in South Yarra on 15 August 1949 and was cremated. Her death passed almost unnoticed. A portrait of her, painted by Phyl Waterhouse from a photograph, is held by the National Library of Australia, Canberra.


I recently saw the movie Suffragette and while I did enjoy it and applaud the important story it is telling I couldn’t help but think that I wanted to write about some of the non violent members of the women’s suffrage movement. This idea crystallised when I talked to a few people and realised that even the leaders in Australia’s women’s suffrage movement remain largely unknown. As I began to look I found that Suffragette had prompted many others to write about the people involved with the women’s suffrage movement, which is one of the best outcomes the movie could possibly have had. An example is the Guardian article below about the fascinating Adela Pankhurst. She was one of the daughters of the celebrated Emmeline Pankhurst, who is played by Meryl Streep in the movie.

I decided that I wanted to write about someone I knew a little about already and as I’d done some work on Vida Goldstein at high school, and too many people still haven’t heard of her, I thought she’d be a good place to start. I was intending to write a short biography of her role in the women’s suffrage movement but as I began to have a careful look I determined that this has been well and truly done. While I don’t belive that all writing has to be treading new ground I truly didn’t see the point in rehashing the Australian Dictionary of Biography article, which covers all the salient points.

It is absolutely worth reading though.

So I headed into the State Library of Victoria, not that I ever really need an excuse, and did some work using their manuscripts collection. With the information I found here I decided that I am going to focus on Vida’s first attempt at entering parliament in 1903.

First though, a very brief background on Vida and a look at the progression of women’s suffrage in Australia.

Vida Goldstein was born in 1869 in Portland in Victoria and she was one of the leaders of Australia’s women’s suffrage movement. She died in Melbourne in South Yarra in 1949 and a lot more should be known about her by the general population. In other words read the ADB article.

Vida was also very much a part of the international suffrage movement as can be seen by the notes below from Susan B Anthony, who most people will have heard of. Susan B Anthony gave Vida the three volumes of her book called A History of Women’s Suffrage

In each volume she wrote an inscription to Vida and they are all dated to the 4th of July 1902.

From her disenfranchised friend, the city of Rochester, County of Monroe, State of New York, Country of the United States of America- the land of the free who has worked to the best of her ability, for fifty years and more to the get the right for women to vote- and will continue to battle for it to the end of her life-

Rejoicing that you have gained the national franchise- and hoping your other states will soon grant the local suffrage- while we of the United States of America struggle on-no one can tell how long to the the right to vote.

(to be given to the public library- when she is done with it)

With the congratulations that the new world of Australia has given to her women all the rights of citizenship- equally with her men- and with love and esteem of her friend

Vida also travelled to speak at suffrage events and meet other members of the suffrage movement, especially those who were still fighting for women’s suffrage. The photo below shows her with other women’s suffrage supporters at the Great Suffragette Demonstration in London in 1911. Vida is on the far right

Great Suffragette Demonstration

Australia was one of the first countries to give the vote to women. It is complicated though by the fact that each state allowed women the vote at a different time and that it occurred federally as well, independent of the individual states. The result of a separate Federal right to vote, which was granted in 1902, was that there were women from several states who could vote in federal elections but not in their state elections.

Below you can see when the vote was granted state by state

Vida also described the mood in Australia which made it possible for the vote for women to become a reality far earlier than in countries like the UK.

The Broad Mindedness of Australian Men

One feature of the Suffrage Campaign in Australia makes it radically different from that in any other country- the readiness of our men to admit that our cause was a just one, and entitled to immediate recognition. We never had any difficulty in winning over the men of Australia to our side. Our real battle ground was the Upper House in each colony. The Lower Houses were elected practically on as basis of One Man One Vote and in the Lower Houses it was easy to get a suffrage bill through, but the Upper Houses, which represented only the propertied classes, who in Australia are always against reform, stood solid against us, and it was only when we got a strong Premier in each state that we could get a Suffrage Bill through the Upper Houses.[3]

Vida also described the hard work that went on to not only try to achieve the vote, but also to get male MPs to take notice of specific issues.

Through not having women in Parliament energy and valuable time have to be spent on the often Herculean task of educating members up to the point of seeing the injustice in certain measures affecting women, e.g the Federal Public Services Act. It bristled with discrepancies in pay for men and women doing exactly the same work. To get the principles of equal pay embodied in the bill some of us had to spend days at the House lobbying members, always hateful work- showing them the many injustices in the bill from the women’s point of view, and trying to get them to see them as we saw them. We had to tramp round getting petitions signed and write to the press. Had there been women in the House there would have been no need for such tactics because the injustices were so obvious they only had to be pointed out and most members promised to get them removed. Another example was the Naturalisation Bill which completely merged the individuality of a married woman with that of her husband. [4]

Even before she ran for parliament Vida herself had become vehemently against the two party system because she considered that parties sacrificed principle to expediency and put their own interests before all else. She came to this conclusion in 1902 when, after women were allowed the vote federally, she started the group Women’s Federal Political Association. Unfortunately male politicians quickly began to use the Association for party purposes and when Vida reacted by moving the Association away from one party and to a non political basis the majority of the male members left.

So this was the background to Vida running for parliament in 1903. The election was in December of 1903 and she launched her campaign in October in her home town of Portland. But she began signalling she would be running earlier. Part of her campaign was a letter published in Reviews of Review in August entitled Should Women Enter Parliament?

She opened by, with what The Advertiser described as “a delightful touch of femininity”, immediately answering her own question

She then went on to defend her supposition laying forth the usual key arguments against women’s suffrage, beginning with the idea that there was a lack of precedent. She refutes this by providing several examples from history and going on to discuss the disparity between men who happily accepted a female sovereign, Queen Victoria had died quite recently, but couldn’t accept women in parliament.[5] As her niece LM Henderson wrote Vida “never indulged in empty rhetoric, she always supported her arguments with facts, and could answer almost any question.”[6] Vida was the first woman to stand for parliament in the Empire and naturally enough there was both comment and opposition. The rural papers tended to be more sympathetic than the Melbourne papers. For example The Avoca Standard ran this piece in November 1903.

“Miss Goldstein presented a very pleasing appearance on the platform at Avoca. She was graceful, pretilly gowned and wore a most becoming hat. During her address she toyed prettily with a beautiful La France rose- a move that added much to the effect. The lady became a favourite with all present almost at once. Her easy delivery of speech, charming voice, modest manner, and the absence of anything masculine, being the chief factors in her favour.”

This piece might be very condescending, but it isn’t hostile.

The Age and The Argus were generally dismissive, but not always. There was also extensive argument as to the legality of women in parliament. But it quickly became clear that even constitutionally there was no argument barring them running. [7]

The press commentary wasn’t limited to articles, there were also cartoons and poetry. An example of the cartoons can be seen below. In which Vida has to be accompanied to the Senate by a chaperone, and all the men dare not disobey her for fear of being seen as discourteous.

There were headlines like “Sweet Skirted Senators” from the Sunday Times and this really quite interesting poem, also in the Sunday Times, on 9/08/1903

Vidi!-Vida!-Vinci!

to be there in the Senate with Vida!

What a foretaste of heaven

to the Senator sitting beside her.

They say tis a right which can not be denied her!

Let us give her a vote, for we’d gloat

You can see it would be very simple

for she wouldn’t want advisors to guide her!

And to all her proposals, of course they’d agree

it would be very rude to deride her!

All the House would have nous

They would catch it if any defied her!

And it’s certain soft soap

to be ruled by good ladies like Vida.

If you vote for your Uncle

why not vote for you Aunt

if the requisite sense is supplied her.

to engage in a sphere that is wider.

of a Senator’s wife, could he chide her

if she kicked up a row with her tongue and a pen

on the boldness of brainy Miss Vida.

there are ladies who’d call her a spider!

And although we may cheer

we must bid you “Good Morning”

You can make of that what you will of the poem. I can’t decide if it’s derogatory, celebratory or both.

Media aside, Vida campaigned assiduously, but it is unlikely she ever expected to win. She chose to run for the Senate rather than the House of Representatives probably because it would allow her to campaign throughout Victoria rather than just for one seat. Thus spreading her message further. The election took place in December 1903 and Vida polled 51 497 which was surprisingly good considering voting wasn’t compulsory. It was not, however, enough to win the seat. She took defeat well, commenting on the process in January 1904 in Review of Reviews.

I found political sentiment best developed in the labour ranks, among women earning their own living, and among the country women in the leisure classes. Melbourne women are notoriously ignorant of politics. This difference between city and country was the only new fact my campaign taught me. The chief value of suffrage at present is its educational value, I would sooner see women educated in views diametrically opposed to mine than not educated at all… I had against me the combined power of the Morning and Labour papers, deliberate misrepresentation by two of them, lack of finance, and the prejudice of sex. I stood for the cause of women and children, as a protest against the dictation of the press, and against the creation of the ticket system of voting. From men I had most courteous treatment… The chief lesson to be learnt from this campaign was the need for organisation. The Labour Party had the best organisation and their success shows this. Labour seeks to reach its goal mainly by material means women place a higher value on the spiritual, but (word missing, LMH) will someday see that is righteous alone that exalteth a nation.

She commented later to her niece Leslie M. Henderson that she was terrified of mice and was always afraid that some of her opponents would discover it and let loose some mice on the platform when she was speaking. Thankfully this never happened. [9]

And that was the end of Vida’s first attempt to join Australia’s parliament. She tried another four times to gain office but was ultimately never successful. This was most likely to do with the fact that she always ran as an Independent Woman Candidate. Despite her lack of electoral success Vida Goldstein was a pioneer for women’s rights around the world and she deserves to be as well know internationally as some of the other larger than life figures in the woman’s suffrage movement.

Vida Goldstein painted by Waterhouse

[1] State Library of VictoriaMS BOX 3097/5(a-c)

[2] From Vida Goldstein’s papers: State Library of Victoria MS MSM 118

[3] From Vida Goldstein’s papers: State Library of Victoria MS MSM 118

[4] From Vida Goldstein 1869-1949: Biographical notes by her niece, Leslie M. Henderson, 1966 January. MS BOX 332/14

[5] From Press cutting book presented to Edith How Morlyn for Women’s Service Library London by Vida Goldstein State Library of Victoria MS BOX 2493/ 5

[6] From Vida Goldstein 1869-1949: Biographical notes by her niece, Leslie M. Henderson, 1966 January. MS BOX 332/14

[7] From Press cutting book presented to Edith How Morlyn for Women’s Service Library London by Vida Goldstein

[8] From Press cutting book presented to Edith How Morlyn for Women’s Service Library London by Vida Goldstein

[9] From Vida Goldstein 1869-1949: Biographical notes by her niece, Leslie M. Henderson, 1966 January. MS BOX 332/14


Vida Goldstein

Vida Goldstein (1869 – 1949) feminist and suffragist
Vida Goldstein, feminist and suffragist, was born on 13 April 1869 at Portland, Victoria. Vida actively promoted women’s rights and emancipation in many ways over the years from 1891 to 1919. She helped to found or supported many women’s organizations including the National Council of Women. Charming, public-spirited and believing in Christian principles which she consistently practised.

Vida Goldstein, feminist and suffragist, was born on 13 April 1869 at Portland, Victoria.

Vida and her sisters were all well educated by a private governess from 1884 Vida attended Presbyterian Ladies’ College where she matriculated in 1886.

Vida’s mother was a confirmed suffragist, an ardent teetotaller and a zealous worker for social reform. Vida’s own public career began about 1890 when she helped her mother Isabella Goldstein collect signatures for the huge Women’s Suffrage Petition. In the 1890s she also became involved in the National Anti-Sweating League, the Criminology Society and various social welfare activities, particularly those promoted by Dr Charles Strong and by her close friend Annette Bear-Crawford, with whom she helped to organize the Queen Victoria Hospital Appeal for the Queen’s jubilee in 1897.

Between 1899 and 1908 Vida’s first priority was the suffrage. In 1902 she travelled to the United States of America to speak at the International Woman Suffrage Conference, was elected secretary, gave evidence in favour of woman suffrage to a committee of the United States Congress and attended the International Council of Women Conference. Australian women had been granted the Federal vote in 1902 and on her return from America she became the first woman in the British Empire to be nominated and to stand for election to a national parliament.

Once the State franchise was won in 1908 Vida returned to national politics and made four more attempts to gain election to Federal parliament: in 1910 and 1917 for the Senate and in 1913 and 1914 for the House of Representatives, always as an Independent Woman Candidate.

Although they changed in detail, she consistently supported the principles of compulsory arbitration and conciliation, equal rights, equal pay, the appointment of women to a variety of official posts, and the introduction of legislation which would redistribute the country’s wealth. She was outspokenly opposed to capitalism, supporting production for use not profit, and public control of public utilities.

She opposed the White Australia policy in principle although she believed alien immigration should be restricted until equal pay for equal work had been achieved. Her desire to enter parliament and her avowed ambition to become prime minister were based on her determination to put her ideals into practice.

Vida actively promoted women’s rights and emancipation in many other ways over the years from 1891 to 1919. She helped to found or supported many women’s organizations including the National Council of Women, the Victorian Women’s Public Servants’ Association and the Women Writers’ Club. She also worked for many social reforms including equal property rights for man and wife and raising the age of marriage and consent, while advocating new laws on land taxation, food adulteration and the sweating of women workers.

Her methods included lobbying politicians to urge amendments to proposed legislation she directly influenced many Acts. In December 1906, for example, she had the satisfaction of seeing passed into law her long-demanded Children’s Court Act, the terms of which she had helped to draft.

Of the Australian women connected with the emancipation and suffrage movements of the day Vida Goldstein was the only one to gain a truly international reputation. In February 1911 she visited England at the invitation of the Women’s Social and Political Union and her speeches drew huge crowds. Alice Henry wrote that Vida ‘was the biggest thing that has happened to the woman movement for some time in England’.

Throughout the inter-war years, although no longer publicly prominent, Vida continued to lobby for social reforms such as improved provision of birth control and equal naturalization laws, and urged both women and men to support disarmament and to oppose war. She was now deeply committed to internationalism. Among the recurrent themes in her writings were her visionary suggestions for a new social order which was to have a spiritual foundation and be based on the ‘brotherhood of man’ concept of true socialism and on Christian ethics. Indeed, although she had always refused to join a party, Vida sympathized deeply with labour and the cause of working peoples. Most press reports called her a socialist, but she described herself as a democrat with a vision of society which would enable the complete equality of women with men and decent standards of living for all.

She maintained her belief that women had special talents and needs, were potentially the world’s civilizers, and therefore had contributions to make to political and international affairs.

Vida summarized her basic attitude to politics and public life as: ‘In essentials unity in non-essentials liberty in all things charity’. She was humane, kind and sincere, genuinely concerned for the underdog of whatever race or nationality. Charming, public-spirited and believing in Christian principles which she consistently practised, she was a born reformer, though she promoted simple solutions to complex social problems. According to a testimonial from her supporters, she ‘offered to the people the wit and eloquence of an orator, the knowledge and foresight of a statesman, and the devotion and courage of a brave woman’.


Enlivened by speculation

A skilled and prize-winning biographer, Jacqueline Kent brings fresh enthusiasm and focus to her quest to understand Vida’s extraordinary political career and its disappointments in her new biography. Goldstein stood five times for election to the federal parliament and suffered five defeats.

Kent’s previous biography was The Making of Julia Gillard and it seems the painful experiences of our first woman Prime Minister – subject to relentless misogyny and sexist attacks – remain fresh in the writer’s mind.

In Kent’s telling, Vida’s story is framed by Gillard’s fate. There are regular references to Gillard’s experiences and the trials of politicians such as Julie Bishop and Sarah Hanson-Young. Thus Vida’s biography becomes a story of continuity, rather than change, with Vida still “a woman for our time”.

Kent’s account is enlivened by speculation. Vida and her activist mother “might very well have attended” the initial meeting of the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society (VWSS) and “must have known about” the women’s novels then in circulation.

There is also a good amount of authorial displeasure evident. Women speakers had to endure “the tedious jocularity that was de rigueur” for mainstream journalists. The Age newspaper “evidently considered the welfare of women and children to be a trivial matter”.

Some of the most vivid passages in the book sketch the range of forceful personalities in the Melbourne “woman movement” of the late 19th century, who served as Vida’s models and mentors.

Henrietta Dugdale, cofounder of the VWSS was small in stature, but formidable in argument and the author of the radical Utopian novel A Few Hours in a Far-Off Age. Brettena Smyth, “an imposing speaker, being six feet tall and voluminous in figure, with blue shaded spectacles” was also a member of the VWWS, and sold women contraceptives. Annette Bear-Crawford and Constance Stone were cofounders of the Shilling Fund that made possible the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women.


Vida Goldstein Essay

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The 20th century was a time of great change in the way women were perceived as members of Australian society. A notable example of a person who helped to bring about this change is the feminist Vida Goldstein, who campaigned for women’s suffrage and social reform in regards to gender inequality. She was an influential leader in the history of Australia’s feminist movement, and her actions were critical in the formation of the gender equal society we live in today. Vida was the eldest daughter of Jacob and Isabella Goldstein.

Both were faithful Christians with strong social consciences and growing up around them would have influenced Vida to make the decisions that she did. Isabella was a devoted suffragist, a committed teetotaller, and an ardent worker for social reform. Jacob was involved in a lot of social welfare work. As a founding member of the Melbourne Charity Organisation Society, he believed that charity and poor relief should be scientifically organised, not handed out indiscriminately. He was a part of the Women’s Hospital Committee and he assisted in the promotion of the Cheltenham Men’s Home.

In 1892 at Leongatha, Jacob helped with the project for forming labour colonies as well. Vida’s own career started around 1890 when she helped collect signatures for a Women’s Suffrage Petition that her mother was involved in. During the 1890s, she also became involved in the National Anti-Sweating League, the Criminology Society and other social welfare activities, particularly those promoted by Strong and by her good friend Annette Bear-Crawford who Vida had helped organise the Queen Victoria Hospital Appeal for the Queen’s jubilee in 1897.

Vida did a lot of reading on political, economic and legislative topics and took part in the Victorian parliamentary sessions in which she learned about procedure while campaigning for a large variety of reformist legislation. After the death of Mrs Bear-Crawford in 1899, Vida was undisputed leader of the radical women’s movement in Victoria and made her first public-speaking appearance to support the vote for woman. Initially trained by her friend, she quickly became an impressive speaker, capable of handling even the most abusive of people that may harass her.

It can be said that Vida had these views and wanted to change society because of the people in her life. Her parents would have been very influential as her mother was a feminist and her father, a very committed man. Between the years of 1899 and 1908, Vida’s main priority was the suffrage. She attended a number of conferences such as the International Woman Suffrage Conference in the United States where she spoke, was elected secretary, gave evidence in favour of woman suffrage to a committee of the United States Congress and went to the International Council of Women Conference.

In 1902, women in Australia were granted the Federal vote and on her return from America, Vida became the first woman in the British Empire to be nominated and to stand for election to a national parliament. As an Independent candidate for the Senate in 1903, in her first bid, Vida was proposed and helped by the Women’s Federal Political Association. Regardless of the mockery of her candidacy, at the December election Vida polled 51,497 votes.

Concluding after her defeat that women needed to be more organised, she began educating female voters through the renamed Women’s Political Association, through her own paper the Woman’s Sphere and by lecture tours around Victoria. Once the state was given the right to vote in 1908, Vida returned to national politics and tried another 4 times to gain election to Federal parliament: in 1910 and 1917 for the Senate and in 1913 and 1914 for the House of Representatives. Vida constantly promoted women’s rights.

She helped to found or supported many women’s organisations including the National Council of Women, the Victorian Women’s Public Servants’ Association and the Women Writers’ Club. Vida also worked for many social reforms including equal property rights for man and wife and raising the age of marriage and consent, while supporting new laws on land taxation, food adulteration and the sweating of women workers. Vida raised public awareness of gender inequality through public speaking.

She challenged the stereotypical role given to women by society, by proving that a woman can succeed in a role traditionally given to a man. This includes running for parliament. Despite the fact that she didn’t win she proved that it was possible. Of all the Australian women associated with the emancipation and suffrage movements of the day, Vida was the only one to gain a truly international reputation. In 1911, February, she travelled to England at the invitation of the Women’s Social and Political Union and her speeches drew in vast numbers of people.

The reasons for her failures were to do with how her independent status isolated party supporters and the press was either antagonistic to her, misrepresented her or ignored her. Vida did not score a seat in parliament however, attempting to do so has only made it easier for other women to attempt this too. Edith Cowan, another leading suffragette, was the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament when she won a seat in the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921.

It goes without a doubt, to say that Vida would have been a major influence to Edith when running for parliament, as this was not long after that Vida had attempted this too. Later on in life, Vida started to become quite obsessive about the belief, which at one point had been her motivation -that ‘Righteousness exalted a Nation. ’ She became very involved in Christian Science as a practitioner or healer and once was a reader and president of its church in Melbourne, which she had assisted in founding. In the last years of her life, Vida lived with her sisters Elsie and Aileen.

She died of cancer at her home in South Yarra on August 15, 1949 and was cremated. Her death passed almost unnoticed and her actions and good deeds were not recognised until later. Vida Goldstein was an influential feminist leader who began the movement, which changed our society into the gender equal nation it is today. While Vida did not live to witness any changes within society, her actions began the movement, which would finally bring gender equality to our society. “It takes each of us to make a difference for all of us. ” -Jackie Mutcheson


"Why have not the women of Victoria succeeded in getting the highly prized vote, which the women of other Australian States secured with comparative ease?" - Vida Goldstein, Women Suffrage in Australia (1908)

Despite being defeated, she began educating female voters through lecture tours around Victoria and her paper Women's Sphere, which she owned and edited between 1900 and 1905. She also continued to work tirelessly for State suffrage. When women were finally given the vote in Victoria in 1908, Vida returned to national politics and made four more attempts to enter Federal Parliament: in 1910 and 1917 for the Senate, and in 1913 and 1914 for the House of Representatives.

Vida's Senate campaign was launched in Casterton on the 14 February 1909 where she adopted the colors presented to her by the Women's Political Association (WPA) of lavendar, green and purple which became synonymous with Women's rights.

Although she was not successful in entering Parliament, Vida Goldstein is one of the few Australian women connected with the emancipation and suffrage movements of the day, to gain an international reputation. Her influence was significant through the many amendments and reforms to legislation she influenced including protecting the rights of children, laborers, wage rates, unmarried mothers and women's marital rights.

Ceramic sculpture of Vida Goldstein by Ursula Dutkeiwicz from &ldquoThe Art of Suff-Rage&rdquo exhibition. Acquired 2014. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

Vida Goldstein: pioneer in the fight against sexism and poverty

Vida Goldstein was a leading Australian suffragette and campaigner for women’s rights in the late 19th and early 20th century who courageously challenged the prevailing sexism in society.

Jacqueline Kent’s new biography illuminates Goldstein’s extraordinary life in the context of the social movements and political debates of the period. It highlights her steadfast ideals and ability to organise movements which boldly intervened in society to effect change.

As women again rise to challenge inequality and oppression, this biography provides an inspiring example about both previous struggles and future possibilities.

Vida Goldstein was born in 1869 in Portland, Victoria, into a middle-class family. She grew up in Melbourne, which was a wealthy city but also one in which large numbers of working people lived in squalid, overcrowded conditions.

Vida’s mother, Isabelle, was influenced by moderate Christian socialism and worked to gain aid for the unemployed, better conditions for female prisoners and to organise Australia’s first creche in Collingwood to provide childcare for working women.

In her youth Vida joined these campaigns and also a committee led by the first female medical doctors to initiate and raise funds for a women’s health clinic and later to establish the Queen Victoria Women’s Hospital.

Right to vote

The unequal status of women and their exclusion from political life was being challenged by a new generation of women. In 1891 Goldstein joined the campaign for women’s suffrage, collecting signatures for a petition to the Victorian Parliament. Some 30,000 signatures were collected on what became known as the “monster petition” for women’s right to vote.

Following this, legislation granting the vote to women passed the Victorian Legislative Assembly 17 times, only to be blocked by the conservative Legislative Council (Victoria’s upper house), even though women’s suffrage (including for Indigenous women) was granted in South Australia in 1894.

This upper house was dominated by wealthy businessmen and pastoralists. While reformist liberals and early Labor representatives backed women’s suffrage, the privileged representatives repeatedly blocked the vote for women. It was this that helped cement Goldstein’s view that it was not men but the “propertied classes” that were the obstacle to women’s suffrage.

Jaqueline Kent describes the patronising attitudes and harassment faced by women campaigners when they met with the male politicians of the Legislative Council. It is a scene which unfortunately resembles the current experiences of female politicians and staffers in Federal Parliament.

Goldstein became recognised as a persuasive speaker, organiser and leader in the movement. In 1899 she was elected secretary of the United Council for Women’s Suffrage (UCWS).

While the movement was mainly led by middle class women, Goldstein worked closely with trade unionists and developed an analysis about the barriers presented by the “propertied classes” and the key role of working people in the struggle for equality. Affiliates to the UCWS included Trades Hall Council and the new Victorian Lady Teachers Association.

Goldstein herself was a strong advocate of equal pay for equal work, including in her own field of teaching. She viewed gaining political rights as a means to achieve much wider social reform and equality for women.

In 1902 the Australian Commonwealth granted the vote to most men and women aged over 21. Unfortunately, racist amendments excluded Indigenous people. This historic achievement for white women reflected the determined campaign for women’s suffrage and the labour movement’s rising support for this demand.

The Australian suffragettes had close connections with the international movement. Goldstein travelled to the USA to attend the first conference of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance and spent months on a speaking tour. She later published an Open Letter to the Women of America, which contained this advice:

“You want, and must have, the support of the rank and file of the working people. And just here is your weakness, you haven’t got it … every social reform worth having has been won only through getting the support of the workers. It is they who feel the need for reform most, because it is they who suffer most in our present social condition.”

New political rights

The 1903 federal election was the first opportunity for women to exercise their new political rights and Goldstein seized the moment, standing as an independent Victorian senate candidate. This was unprecedented and attracted great publicity.

She toured the state, speaking at large public meetings in Melbourne and country towns. While the press coverage tended to be patronising, Kent captures the extent to which Goldstein’s campaign personified a new spirit of female assertiveness which couldn’t be ignored.

Goldstein used the Senate campaign to build the confidence of other women to act and as a platform to amplify the call for women’s equality. The key elements of her program in this and future elections included equal pay, equal divorce laws and parental rights, the right of women to occupy all government and social positions such as jurors, legal and financial protection of children to age 21, and welfare support for single mothers and their families.

She asserted the need for women’s views to be heard when decisions impacting them were being made. While not elected, Goldstein won an impressive 51,497 votes for this platform of women’s equality and civil rights. Despite this, the process of achieving change proved frustrating. Victoria did not grant women the vote until 1908.

Goldstein campaigned as a candidate in four other federal elections (1910 and 1917 for the Senate and 1913 and 1914 for the House of Representatives). However, she declined suggestions to stand as a Labor Party candidate and lacked a viable electoral pathway to parliament. This independence was often criticised by key allies in the movements as being divisive, but Goldstein was suspicious of the role of “party machines” and critical of the Labor Party’s support for national military development.

Goldstein innovated and developed her political ideas and strategies. She researched, wrote and edited a newspaper Woman Voter. Goldstein engaged in sustained social activism for equal pay, a living wage for workers, to raise the age of consent and for legal reform of children’s courts.

Through this work the connections between women’s oppression and social class inequalities were evident. Goldstein became more critical of the capitalist system itself and from 1906 she wrote articles and spoke at a series of public meetings to advocate socialism, achieved through reform, as the best means to overcome inequality. This form of moderate socialism based on trade unionism, the formation of workers’ co-operatives and public ownership of utilities and industry aligned with ideas common on the left and influential in the development of the early Labor Party.

Vida Goldstein was further radicalised by the experience of the British suffragette movement, which faced harsh repression from the British state and ruling class, who refused to grant reforms. A fascinating part of this biography describes her 1911 visit to Britain as a leading participant in the mass movement for women’s suffrage.

Goldstein publicly backed the militant protest tactics used by the British suffragettes as a legitimate response to the failure of “patient work by constitutional means” and “from a knowledge, bitterly enforced upon you, that the more pacific methods employed … were bound to continue wholly ineffectual”.

On her return, she declared: “We of the Women’s Political Association are working for the same ends as the suffragettes, for the freedom of women and children and men from legal and industrial slavery, for an exalted manhood, womanhood, childhood, for higher political ideals and practices.”

Opposing war

Goldstein’s shift to the left was also occurring in a context where the women’s movement itself was becoming more fractured along class and political lines. In 1904 the conservative Australian Women’s National League (AWNL) was founded to “counteract socialistic tendencies, to educate the women of Victoria to realise their political responsibilities, to safeguard the interests of the home, women and children”.

The AWNL was sponsored by the Victorian Employers Federation and built a mass membership. By 1914 it claimed 52,000 members compared with about 1000 members of the Women’s Political Association (WPA) led by Goldstein. The AWNL would go on to become a key founding member of the Australian Liberal Party in 1944.

With the onset of the First World War, these debates and struggles became much sharper. Goldstein had previously opposed the policy of compulsory military training introduced by the Fisher Labor Government in 1911. When war was declared in 1914, the Fisher Government declared its full support for the Empire and war effort.

Amid the patriotic fervour, Goldstein was among a small minority who opposed the war from the outset. The WPA paper Woman Voter editorialised against the war and faced censorship under the War Precautions Act. In December 1914 the WPA held an outdoor meeting to protest the sharp rise in food prices caused by the war and to advocate for peace.

In 1915 Goldstein formed the Women’s Peace Army to campaign against the war. Working people and the labour movement began to shift against the war as the cost of living rose along with the death toll. The decision by Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes to advocate conscription for overseas service created huge controversy. Trade unions and most of the Labor Party itself mobilised against conscription and formed a fighting alliance with socialists and pacifists.

Kent’s biography contains compelling accounts of this period of heroic struggle. Goldstein and other leaders such as Adela Pankhurst and Cecilia John were centrally involved in the mass agitation and struggle to defeat conscription. They braved abuse from patriotic returned soldiers to speak at public meetings and distribute anti-conscription materials on the streets.

The Women’s Peace Army mass-produced the persuasive “Blood Vote” poster which showed a woman considering the real meaning of a “Yes” vote. Goldstein’s campaign both used and subverted traditional female roles such as motherhood to challenge the barbarity of war.

Their anthem, sung at meetings, was “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” which asks “Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder, to shoot some other mother’s darling boy”. Their campaign stripped away the patriotic gloss of war to define soldiering as state-sanctioned killing, in the interests of ruling elites alone.

The combined movement would prevail against the leading institutions of society to defeat conscription, winning a majority of “No” votes in the plebiscites of 1916 and 1917.

General strike

In August 1917 the social strain caused by war led to a mass general strike among workers in NSW and Victoria. Kent describes how the WPA’s headquarters in Melbourne became the “Guild Hall Commune” a strike organising and relief centre, providing meals and essential supplies and services for literally thousands of striking waterside workers and their families.

In the same year, Goldstein stood for the Senate on an explicitly anti-war platform. She spoke at a mass meeting of 1500 people in Bendigo and denounced the British Empire as a “warmongering institution”. Her opponents labelled her anti-marriage, pro-German and an advocate of free love.

Standing as a radical independent, her vote fell. Regardless, Goldstein had played a crucial role in defeating conscription and building a mass movement against the scourge of war and inequality.

Following the war, Goldstein returned to Britain and attended the 1919 Zurich International Congress of Women. She was dismayed by the scale of human suffering across Europe caused by the war and the arrogance of the victors. Goldstein condemned the unjust terms of the Treaty of Versailles and warned of the likelihood of future wars.

In her writings she expressed a growing sense of pessimism and frustration about the prospects for transformative social and political change. Unfortunately, Goldstein moved away from active political involvement and her lifelong Christian faith would become the main focus of her later years.

Goldstein occupied a position as an independent and radical progressive, which became harder to maintain amid the polarisation of the period. Among her great strengths was steadfast idealism combined with independence and audacity in thought and action.

Jacqueline Kent has written an insightful and compelling biography of Vida Goldstein, a person who should be recognised as among the great figures of both the women’s movement and the left. She issued a clear call for the social and political empowerment of women, alongside a commitment to organise and fight for justice for women, working people and those in society who lack power. It is a call which carries over the decades – to reach all those organising and fighting for justice today.

Jacqueline Kent, Vida: A Woman for Our Time, Penguin (2020), $34.99.