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.

By Hamish McPherson

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

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