A woman's place is . . . everywhere

March 5, 2019

Against the odds, women have made a vital historic contribution to the body politic, in the public life of cities and other civic institutions.

 

In celebration of International Women's Day 2019, Cities Leadership Institute brings you the stories of some of these women. From internationally recognised professionals to local country council officers, what each of them have in common is a powerful vision for the greater good expressed through commitment to place and community.

 

It All Starts With The Vote

Vida Goldstein (1869 - 1949) was an Australian suffragette and social reformer who shaped the national agenda at Federation and set the world alight for women’s suffrage. 

 

Born in the seaside Victorian town of Portland, to socially aware parents, Vida was well educated and, unusually, encouraged to be independent in thought and action.

 

Intelligent, inquisitive and often irreverent, at the age of 21 Vida worked with her mother collecting signatures for the famous ‘Monster Petition’ to the Victorian Parliament urging votes for women.  This lead to her involvment with several social reform movements, including the alarmingly named National Anti-Sweating League which was devoted to reforming the poor conditions of workers in sweatshops, many of them woman, and introducing a minimum wage.

 

Vida was convinced that social inequity would not be addressed effectively until women could fully participate in the political life of their communities, on an equal footing with men.  Only the vote, Goldstein argued, would ensure ‘the protection and prevention of degraded womanhood’. Only the vote would unravel the vast web of legal, economic and social disadvantage that ensnared women and girls the world over.  

 

By the late 1890s Vida Goldstein was directing her considerable energy and talent toward the suffragette movement both in Australia and overseas.  An accomplished and impressive public speaker, she was renowned for her eloquence and witty handling of hecklers.

 

In 1902, barely a year after Federation, white Australian women finally won the right to both vote in Federal elections and to stand for election on an equal basis with white men. Vida however was away on a six month speaking tour of the United States of America at the time of the announcement.  She spoke to packed halls across the country, addressed the International Women’s Suffrage Conference and gave evidence in favour of women’s suffrage before a Congressional Committee.  She was also summoned to the office of President Theodore Roosevelt, becoming the first Australian to meet the holder of that august office in the Whitehouse.  Roosevelt was a steadfast believer in votes for women but faced stern opposition from Congress.  Goldstein’s meeting with the President was as much about curiosity (Roosevelt’s) as it was about strategy (Goldstein’s).

 

Returning home in 1903 Vida was one of four female candidates to stand at the inaugural Australian Federal election.  As a candidate for the Senate she faced public derision and antagonism yet managed a healthy voter turnout, though not healthy enough to ensure a seat.  Undeterred, Goldstein continued to actively lobby 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. 

 

In 1911 British activist Emmeline Pankhurst invited Vida to England to address the legions of women engaging in mass demonstrations and targeted acts of property destruction in pursuit of the right to vote.  Thousands filled lecture halls and theatres to hear Goldstein’s speeches in support of the British suffrage campaign.  More than 10,000 people heard her speak at the Albert Hall alone. Journalist Alice Henry wrote at the time that Vida Goldstein 'was the biggest thing that has happened to the woman movement for some time in England'.

 

By 1919 Vida Goldstein had stepped away from active public involvement in the women’s movement in Australia.   She continued to write and to lobby for social reforms for the betterment of women for many years, remaining deeply sympathetic to the plight of the working classes and steadfast in her belief that women had a valid and valuable contribution to make to political and international affairs.

 

Vida Jane Goldstein, rock star of first wave feminism, champion of the rights of women to political agency, died in her sister’s home in Melbourne in 1949, largely forgotten by Australians for her contribution to the civic birth of their federated nation.  We honour her achievements and her contribution.

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Level 23, 45 Clarence Street

Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia

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