Vida Goldstein

Vida Jane Mary Goldstein (1869-1949), feminist political activist, was born on 13 April 1869 at Portland, Victoria, eldest of five children of Isabella (born Hawkins) and Jacob Goldstein, store-keeper and army officer. In Melbourne from 1877, the family moved in progressive intellectual circles and attended Dr Charles Strong's Australian Church. The Goldsteins encouraged economic and intellectual independence in their daughters and Vida was well-educated, by a governess and at Presbyterian Ladies' College, from which she matriculated with honours in 1886.

Shortly after leaving school, Vida began working with her mother in the anti-sweating movement and in Strong's housing and prison reform campaigns. She developed an anti-capitalist perspective on social questions and took her fight for social reform into the public sphere, seeking political solutions linked with wider movements rather than confining herself to private charitable works. She became involved increasingly in the movement for female suffrage, working closely with labour organiser Lilian Locke in the United Council for Women's Suffrage, and with Annette Bear-Crawford (q.v.) who became her political mentor.

Vida became a forceful public speaker and developed her political education by reading widely while frequenting the Victorian parliament and campaigning for legislative reform. The bank crashes in the 1890s reduced the family's income and from 1892-98 she and her sisters ran a fee-paying co-educational school, 'Ingleton'. After Bear-Crawford's death Goldstein took over the organisation of the United Council for Women's Suffrage, and in 1900 she became its first full-time paid organiser. From 1900-05 she produced a monthly feminist journal, Woman's Sphere, in which she articulated key issues relating to women and relations between men and women. She also founded the Women's Federal Political Association (later the Women's Political Association) to organise the women's vote in the 1903 federal elections.

Vida Goldstein gained an international reputation for her feminist work; she was elected corresponding secretary to the newly-formed International Women's Suffrage Alliance, campaigning for female suffrage in the United States at the invitation of the National American Suffrage Association in 1902. While in the United States she inquired into social and industrial conditions on behalf of several Victorian organisations, including the Trades Hall Council. She returned from the United States with an abhorrence of the political party system. She was shocked by the attitude to negroes. In explaining her own support for 'White Australia' she stated 'the remedy lies in equal pay for equal work'.

In 1903 Goldstein was nominated by the Women's Federal Political Association as a candidate for the Senate. Amid much controversy and despite a hostile press, she polled 51,497 votes but was not elected. Subsequent attempts to gain a parliamentary seat, in 1910, 1913, 1914 and 1917, in which she again stated her policies in principally feminist terms, were similarly unsuccessful. Though her program of reforms had much in common with the Labor party she refused to join it. Her article 'Socialism of Today - An Australian View', published in September 1907 in Nineteenth Century and After, dealt with the provision of a living wage and is believed to have influenced Mr Justice Higgins's formulation of a basic wage.

After state suffrage was won in 1908, Goldstein launched a new journal, Woman Voter (1909-19), in which she campaigned for equal marriage and divorce laws, equal pay and employment opportunities for women and a wide range of legislation aimed at redressing discriminatory practices and laws. She visited Britain in 1911, where she worked as a political organiser for the militant Women's Social and Political Union. She wrote suffrage articles for British and international distribution, and formed a London-based committee to protect the rights of Australasian women (notably the nationality of married women) under imperial legislation.

Though never a Marxist, Goldstein became a convinced socialist. On her return, she was involved increasingly in anti-militarist activism. She campaigned against conscription from 1912, and in 1915, while chairperson of the Australian Peace Alliance, she founded the Women's Peace Army, with Cecilia John and the expatriate English suffragettes Adela Pankhurst (q.v. Walsh) and Jennie Baines. Unlike other female pacifist groups, the Peace Army was militant, influenced by both socialist ideology and the tactics of the English suffragettes. She was uncompromisingly anti-militarist, maintaining women were most affected by war conditions. The Women's Peace Army organised projects for the relief of women experiencing unemployment and poverty - until government intervention forced their closure. By the time of her 1917 election campaign Goldstein's writings were censored heavily and her activities monitored constantly.

In 1919 Goldstein and Cecilia John travelled to Europe, where Goldstein represented Australia at a Women's Peace Conference in Zurich. She was away three years. On her return she continued to lobby for feminist social reforms, but her days of high profile political activism were over. Living with her sisters Aileen and Elsie, she devoted much of her time to the Christian Science religion, to which she had converted in about 1899. With Aileen, she became a practitioner, or healer, in the Church. She died from cancer at her South Yarra home on 15 August 1949.

Jennifer Mulraney

Leslie M. Henderson The Goldstein Story 1973.