Vida Goldstein was a true maverick, for her herculean effort turned Australia into one of the most progressive nations in the world.
Long before we knew about Germaine Greer, or Anne Summers, long before we had a female Prime Minister in Julia Gillard, there was Vida Goldstein. In fact, she made Greer, Summers and Gillard possible by tirelessly promoting women’s right to vote and be elected. More than that, she won, which gave her the energy to campaign against conscription during WWI. That she won as well, which means that Vida Goldstein is a perfect candidate for Australian Maverick number five. “The woman is the mercury in the thermometer of the race. Her status shows to what degree it has risen out of barbarism.”
Vida Goldstein was always going to be a rabble-rouser. Her Polish-Jewish-Irish-Dutch father had arrived here in 1858 from Cork, aged 18, and married Isabella Hawkins, the daughter of a Scottish-born squatter. Jacob first opened a general store in Warrnambool, then went to work as a draughtsman in Melbourne. But this was not your normal middle-class Protestant family. Isabella was a feminist and a suffragette who spent most of her time helping out the poor in areas like Collingwood. Jacob, too, focused on social welfare work, by founding the Charity Organisation Society, which despite its name thought that charity was embarrassing and that people deserved better when they had nothing to eat and nowhere to live. Isabella and Jacob were also founding members of the Queen Victoria Hospital, which had woman doctors and gave free health care to the poor.
Vida was in her late twenties at the time, and already a force to be reckoned with. Raised by governesses and the Presbyterian Ladies College, it was her father who instilled the most important lesson into his eldest daughter: whatever you do, make sure you are economically and intellectually independent. It was something that Vida would never forget. In 1890, inspired by especially her mother’s tireless work for women and children, she vowed never to marry and dedicate herself to the goal of improving women and children’s lives. Although she had many suitors, the future general John Monash amongst them, she kept her promise.
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That work started soon after, when she helped her mother canvas women for the Monster Petition that went around Victoria in 1891. It was aimed to get women the right to vote and be voted for, and in the end, it measured 260 metres and contained 30,000 names. Its message was simple: “A government of the people, by the people and for the people should mean all the people, and not one half … All people should have a vote in making the laws which they are required to obey”.
For the moment, the women didn’t get what they wanted, but it set Vida firmly on her path. Between 1894 and 1900, there were six suffrage bills, accompanied by much debate and resistance. One male parliamentarian said in 1895 that “woman suffrage would abolish soldiers and war, also racing, hunting, football, cricket … Are we going to allow women who would sap the very foundations of a nation to have votes?”
Vida did everything in her power to push the case along. She lobbied politicians and wrote feisty articles in her own newspaper, The Women’s Sphere. The paper was named after what men considered “the women’s sphere”, namely the home, but for Vida, everything was the women’s sphere, and her paper was about “outlining the achievements of women, the problems still to be solved and the woman’s view of current affairs”. She called the democracy of the time a “male-ocracy” and thought it time to shake things up. In the meantime, she also lobbied for other issues: compulsory arbitration and conciliation in work, equal rights and equal pay for women in the workplace, redistribution of the country’s wealth, public control of public utilities and against the White Australia Policy.
It was necessary to say “no” to conscription, because especially women, “who give life, cannot, if you think deeply and without bias, vote to send any mother’s son to kill, against his will, some other mother’s son.”
During the 1890s, Vida had a number of victories. In 1896, the Factories and Shops Act was voted in. Vida and her National Anti-Sweating League had tried to focus attention to the fate of women and children in the sweatshops of Australia for a while, and this Act at least made their lives a little better. Thirteen was now the minimum age of workers and for women and children, the 48-hour week was instituted. Vida’s lobbying also introduced female prison officers to Pentridge Gaol, to take care of female prisoners and make sure they weren’t raped by their male wardens. At the same time, the struggle for the vote went on. In 1899, Vida spoke at the International Woman Suffrage Conference in the US, but a lot of men were still not convinced. Some said that the Constitution used the male pronoun “he” when it spoke about candidates for political office, so it couldn’t be a woman. Others attacked Vida personally, or worried that suffrage would lead to an all-woman parliament. But in the end, Vida and her colleagues prevailed and in 1902, women got the federal vote, as one of the first in the world. A year later, Vida was the first woman to stand for a national parliament. She was ridiculed, scandalised and in the end defeated, but was undeterred. In fact, she ran another four times, twice for the Senate and twice for the House of Reps and when the British suffragettes needed a captivating speaker to charge their campaign, they got Vida.
This led Perth’s The Daily News to describe her in 1906 as “probably the most famous woman in the Commonwealth”. The journalist was a little confused, because when he met her she was not, as he wrote, an “untidy, masculine, loud-voiced, pedantic and terrible political blue-stocking”, as he had expected but “young, pretty, well dressed and quite ‘unpolitical’.”
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Although Vida had “earned the distinction by her championship of women’s rights”, she wasn’t done yet. Not long after the struggle for the vote had been settled, WWI broke out, and Vida was a pacifist through-and-through. First she became a member of the Peace Alliance, then she founded the Women’s Peace Army. In 1915, she wrote a Manifesto, which said that “we war against war with the same spirit of self-sacrifice that soldiers show on the battlefield”. The war, Vida was convinced, was organised by “Powers of Industry, whose enormous profits depend on a docile wage-earning working class”. That working class had become more organised, and so the war was aimed at destroying “the growing power of Trade Unionism”. Vida warned that Australia shouldn’t “become the land of military and industrial slaves, of shackled speech and shackled conscience”, like the British had already done. It was necessary to say “no” to conscription, because especially women, “who give life, cannot, if you think deeply and without bias, vote to send any mother’s son to kill, against his will, some other mother’s son.”
It put Vida in the firing line, and especially Billy Hughes (who had been the Attorney-General until 1915 and then the Prime Minister) did everything in his power to stop her. Her new newspaper, The Women Voter, was often censored and Vida herself was harassed and thrown in gaol. Her friend and fellow activist Jennie Baines even became the first hunger striker in Australia, making it necessary for the Cabinet to organise a special Saturday meeting to release her before she would become a martyr to the cause. As we know, Hughes organised two Referenda on conscription, and because of people like Vida he lost both of them.
After the war, which cost her only brother his life at the front, Vida focused more and more on internationalism: disarmament, international sisterhood, birth control and a new social order, a mix of socialism and Christian ethics: “Complete equality of the genders and decent standards of living for all”. She had, she said, “simple faith in the moral force”, which would, in the end, persuade everybody of the necessity of the reforms she advocated. Unfortunately, like with most mavericks, she was decades ahead of her time and died, almost forgotten, in 1949. It would take until the 1980s for people to rediscover this remarkable Australian revolutionary. For Vida, swimming against the tide had been an Olympic sport. This cost her, but turned Australia, for a while at least, into one of the most progressive nations in the world. The least we can do is return the favour by honouring her, and maybe pick up her cudgel. There are worse fights to have.