Published : 06 Mar 2017, 15:30
Vida Jane Goldstein (13 April 1869 – 15 August 1949) was an early Australian politician who campaigned for women's suffrage and social reform. She was the first woman in the British Empire to stand for election to a national parliament.
Vida Jane Mary Goldstein was born in Portland, Victoria, the eldest child of Jacob Goldstein and Isabella (née Hawkins). Her father was an Irish immigrant and officer in the Victorian Garrison Artillery. 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 (1849–1916), eldest daughter of Scottish-born squatter Samuel Proudfoot Hawkins. Her mother was a suffragist, a teetotaller and worked for social reform. Both parents were devout Christians with strong social consciences. They had four more children after Vida – three daughters (Lina, Elsie and Aileen) and a son (Selwyn).
After living in Portland and Warrnambool, the Goldsteins moved to Melbourne in 1877. Here Jacob became heavily involved in charitable and social welfare causes, working closely with the Melbourne Charity Organisation Society, the Women's Hospital Committee, the Cheltenham Men's Home and the labour colony at Leongatha. Although an anti-suffragist Jacob Goldstein believed strongly in education and self-reliance. He engaged a private governess to educate his four daughters and Vida was sent to Presbyterian Ladies' College in 1884, matriculating in 1886. When the family income was affected by the depression in Melbourne during the 1890s, Vida and her sisters, Aileen and Elsie, ran a co-educational preparatory school in St Kilda. Opening in 1892, the 'Ingleton' school would run out of the family home on Alma Road for the next six years.
In 1891, Isabella Goldstein recruited the 22-year-old Vida to assist in collecting signatures for a women's suffrage petition. She would stay on the periphery of the women's movement through the 1890s, but her primary interest during this period was with her school and urban social causes – particularly the National Anti-Sweating League and the Criminology Society. This work gave her first-hand experience of women's social and economic disadvantages, which she would come to believe were a product of their political inequality.
Through this work she became friends with Annette Bear-Crawford, with whom she jointly campaigned for social issues including women's franchise and in organising an appeal for the Queen Victoria Hospital for women. After the death of Bear-Crawford in 1899, Goldstein took on a much greater organising and lobbying role for suffrage and became secretary for the United Council for Woman Suffrage. She became a popular public speaker on women's issues, orating before packed halls around Australia and eventually Europe and the United States. In 1902 she travelled to the United States, speaking at the International Women Suffrage Conference (where she was elected secretary), gave evidence in favour of female suffrage before a committee of the United States Congress, and attended the International Council of Women Conference. In 1903, as an Independent with the support of the newly formed Women's Federal Political Association, she was a candidate for the Australian Senate, becoming the first woman in the British Empire to stand for election to a national parliament (Australian women had won the right to vote in federal elections in 1902). She received 51,497 votes (nearly 5% of the total ballots) but failed to secure a Senate seat. The loss prompted her to concentrate on female education and political organisation, which she did through the Women's Political Association (WPA) and her monthly journal the Australian Women's Sphere, which she described as the "organ of communication amongst the, at one time few, but now many, still scattered, supporters of the cause". She stood for parliament again in 1910, 1913 and 1914; her fifth and last bid was in 1917 for a Senate seat on the principle of international peace, a position which lost her votes. She always campaigned on fiercely independent and strongly left-wing platforms which made it difficult for her to attract high support at the ballot. Her campaign secretary in 1913 was Doris Blackburn, later elected to the Australian House of Representatives.
Through the 1890s to the 1920s, Goldstein actively supported women's rights and emancipation in a variety of fora, including the National Council of Women, the Victorian Women's Public Servants' Association and the Women Writers' Club. She actively lobbied parliament on issues such as equality of property rights, birth control, equal naturalisation laws, the creation of a system of children's courts and raising the age of marriage consent. Her writings in various periodicals and papers of the time were influential in the social life of Australia during the first twenty years of the 20th century.
In 1909, having closed the Sphere in 1905 to dedicate herself more fully to the campaign for female suffrage in Victoria, she founded a second newspaper Woman Voter. It became a supporting mouthpiece for her later political campaigns. Of Australian suffragists in this period Goldstein was one of a handful to garner an international reputation. In the UK Adelaide-born Muriel Matters was at the forefront of peaceful public campaigns advocating for women's suffrage, and gained global attention for her part in The Grille Incident, which resulted in the dismantling of the grille which covered the Ladies' Gallery in the House of Commons. In early 1911 Goldstein visited England at the behest of the Women's Social and Political Union. Her speeches around the country drew huge crowds and her tour was touted as 'the biggest thing that has happened in the women movement for sometime in England'. Her trip in England concluded with the foundation of the Australia and New Zealand Women Voters Association, an organisation dedicated to ensuring that the British Parliament would not undermine suffrage laws in the antipodean colonies.
She was quoted from the period as saying that woman represents "the mercury in the thermometer of the race. Her status shows to what degree it has risen out of barbarism." Australian feminist historian Patricia Grimshaw has noted that Goldstein, like other white women of her day, considered "barbarism" to characterise Australian aboriginal society and culture; therefore Indigenous women in Australia were not believed to be eligible for citizenship or the vote.
Throughout the First World War she was an ardent pacifist, became chairman of the Peace Alliance and formed the Women's Peace Army in 1915. She recruited Adela Pankhurst, recently arrived from England as an organiser. In 1919 she accepted an invitation to represent Australian women at a Women's Peace Conference in Zurich. In the ensuing three-year absence abroad her public involvement with Australian feminism gradually ended, with the Women's Political Association dissolving and her publications ceasing print. She continued to campaign for a number of public causes, and continued to believe fervently in the unique and unharnessed contributions of women in society. Her writings in latter decades became decidedly more sympathetic to socialist and labour politics.
In the last decades of her life her focus turned more intently to her faith and spirituality as a solution to the world's problems. She became increasingly involved with the Christian Science movement – whose Melbourne church she helped found. For the next two decades she would work as a reader, practitioner and healer of the church. Despite many suitors, she never married and she lived in her last years with her two sisters, Aileen (who also never wed) and Elsie (the widow of Henry Hyde Champion). Vida Goldstein died of cancer at her home in South Yarra, Victoria on 15 August 1949, aged 80. She was cremated and her ashes scattered.
Although her death passed largely unnoticed at the time, Goldstein would later come to be recognised as a pioneer suffragist and important figure in Australian social history and a source of inspiration for many female generations to come. Second Wave Feminism led to a revival of interest in Goldstein and the publication of new biographies and journal articles.
In 1984 the Division of Goldstein an electorate in Melbourne was named after her. Seats in her honour have been established in Parliament House Gardens, Melbourne and in Portland, Victoria. The Women's Electoral Lobby in Victoria has named an award after her. 2008 was the centenary of woman suffrage in Victoria and Vida's contribution was remembered.
In popular culture
Vida Goldstein is one of the six Australians whose war experiences are presented in the The War That Changed Us, a four-part television documentary series about Australia's involvement in World War I.
Vida Goldstein appears as a major character in the Wendy James novel, Out of the Silence, which examined the case of Maggie Heffernan, a young Victorian woman who was convicted of drowning her infant son in Melbourne, in 1900.
- Most viewed