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Vida Jane Goldstein (1869–1949)

by Janice N. Brownfoot

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Vida Jane Mary Goldstein (1869-1949), feminist and suffragist, was born on 13 April 1869 at Portland, Victoria, eldest child of Jacob Robert Yannasch Goldstein and his wife Isabella, née Hawkins. 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.

After living at Portland and Warrnambool, where Jacob ran a general store, the Goldsteins moved to Melbourne in 1877. There Jacob worked as a contract draughtsman. He was a Unitarian, but the family attended Scots Church and later the Australian Church where Dr Charles Strong encouraged a deep involvement in social welfare work. A founding member of the Melbourne Charity Organisation Society, its honorary treasurer and later honorary secretary, Goldstein believed that charity and poor relief should be scientifically organized, not handed out indiscriminately. He was a member of the Women's Hospital Committee for many years and also helped to promote the Cheltenham Men's Home. With Strong, Dr Llewelyn Bevan and others Goldstein assisted with the project which began in 1892 for forming labour colonies, notably at Leongatha. Described by some as irascible, domineering and opinionated, he became estranged from his feminist wife, although they lived under the same roof. He died at their apartment in Bank Place in the city on 21 September 1910.

Although an anti-suffragist, Jacob Goldstein encouraged his daughters to be economically and intellectually independent. Vida and her sisters were all well educated by a private governess; from 1884 Vida attended Presbyterian Ladies' College where she matriculated in 1886. An attractive girl, always well dressed, she led, for a time, a light-hearted social life. In 1892-98, when the family income was affected by Melbourne's bank crashes, she conducted with her sisters a co-educational preparatory school in Alma Road, St Kilda. Of the four sisters, Lina in 1892 married a banker H. J. Henderson, son of Rev.William Henderson; Elsie married Henry Hyde Champion in 1898; Aileen and Vida did not marry, though Vida had many proposals. Selwyn, their only brother, became a mining engineer.

Vida's mother was a confirmed suffragist, an ardent teetotaller and a zealous worker for social reform. Vida's own public career began about 1890 when she helped her mother collect signatures for the huge Woman Suffrage Petition. In the 1890s she also became involved in the National Anti-Sweating League, the Criminology Society and various social welfare activities, particularly those promoted by Strong and by her close friend Annette Bear-Crawford, with whom she helped to organize the Queen Victoria Hospital Appeal for the Queen's jubilee in 1897. She read widely on political, economic and legislative subjects and attended Victorian parliamentary sessions where she learned procedure while campaigning for a wide variety of reformist legislation. In 1899 after the death of Mrs Bear-Crawford, she was undisputed leader of the radical women's movement in Victoria, and that year made her first public-speaking appearance to advocate the vote for woman. Trained initially by her friend, Vida quickly became a remarkably capable and impressive speaker with the ability to handle wittily even the most abusive of hecklers.

Between 1899 and 1908 Vida's first priority was the suffrage. In 1902 she travelled to the United States of America to speak at the International Woman Suffrage Conference, was elected secretary, gave evidence in favour of woman suffrage to a committee of the United States Congress and attended the International Council of Women Conference. Australian women had been granted the Federal vote in 1902 and on her return from America she was one of four women who were the first in the British Empire to be nominated and to stand for election to a national parliament. In her first bid as an Independent candidate for the Senate in 1903, she was proposed and assisted by the Women's Federal Political Association. This association had been formed to organize the women's vote for the first Federal elections, but by July 1903 with Vida as president it had become a vehicle for her platform and opinions. Despite ridicule of her candidacy, at the December election she polled 51,497 votes. Concluding after her defeat that women needed greater organization, she began educating female voters through the renamed Women's Political Association (W.P.A.), through her paper the Woman's Sphere which she owned and edited between September 1900 and March 1905, and by lecture tours around Victoria. She also campaigned untiringly for the State suffrage.

Once the State franchise was won in 1908 Vida returned to national politics and made four more attempts to gain election to Federal parliament: in 1910 and 1917 for the Senate and in 1913 and 1914 for the House of Representatives, always as an Independent Woman Candidate. She polled well except in 1917 when she lost her deposit, partly because of her uncompromising position on pacifism during the war. But there were other reasons for her failures. Her rigidly independent status alienated party supporters, and the press was either antagonistic to her, misrepresented her or ignored her. Yet it is clear that Vida was a candidate of sincerity and integrity. Her beliefs are revealed in her election manifestos between 1903 and 1917. Although they changed in detail, she consistently supported the principles of compulsory arbitration and conciliation, equal rights, equal pay, the appointment of women to a variety of official posts, and the introduction of legislation which would redistribute the country's wealth. She was outspokenly opposed to capitalism, supporting production for use not profit, and public control of public utilities. She opposed the White Australia policy in principle although she believed alien immigration should be restricted until equal pay for equal work had been achieved. Her desire to enter parliament and her avowed ambition to become prime minister were based on her determination to put her ideals into practice.

Vida actively promoted women's rights and emancipation in many other ways over the years from 1891 to 1919. She helped to found or supported many women's organizations including the National Council of Women, the Victorian Women's Public Servants' Association and the Women Writers' Club. She also worked for many social reforms including equal property rights for man and wife and raising the age of marriage and consent, while advocating new laws on land taxation, food adulteration and the sweating of women workers. Her methods included lobbying politicians to urge amendments to proposed legislation; she directly influenced many Acts. In December 1906, for example, she had the satisfaction of seeing passed into law her long-demanded Children's Court Act, the terms of which she had helped to draft. In her article 'Socialism of today—An Australian view' in the September 1907 issue of Nineteenth Century and After, she included in cost-of-living tables her findings on the lowest wage that a man and his family needed to pay for the barest necessities; this information, it is claimed, influenced Mr Justice Henry Higgins in handing down his famous Harvester Judgment which established the legislative concept of a basic wage. In August 1909 Vida launched her second paper, the weekly Woman Voter, of which she was owner-editor.

Of the Australian women connected with the emancipation and suffrage movements of the day Vida Goldstein was the only one to gain a truly international reputation. In February 1911 she visited England at the invitation of the Women's Social and Political Union and her speeches drew huge crowds. Alice Henry wrote that Vida 'was the biggest thing that has happened to the woman movement for some time in England'.

During World War I Vida was uncompromisingly pacifist. She became chairman of the Peace Alliance, formed the Women's Peace Army in 1915, and was involved in much valuable social work including the organization of a women's unemployment bureau in 1915-16 and a Women's Rural Industries Co. Ltd. In 1919, with Cecilia John, she accepted an invitation to represent Australian women at a Women's Peace Conference in Zurich: she was away three years. This trip signalled the end of her active public involvement in Australian feminist and political work: the Women's Political Association was dissolved, the Woman Voter ceased publication and Vida turned her attention increasingly to promoting more general causes, particularly pacifism and an international sisterhood of women.

Throughout the inter-war years, although no longer publicly prominent, Vida continued to lobby for social reforms such as improved provision of birth control and equal naturalization laws, and urged both women and men to support disarmament and to oppose war. She was now deeply committed to internationalism. Among the recurrent themes in her writings were her visionary suggestions for a new social order which was to have a spiritual foundation and be based on the 'brotherhood of man' concept of true socialism and on Christian ethics. Indeed, although she had always refused to join a party, Vida sympathized deeply with labour and the cause of working peoples. Most press reports called her a socialist, but she described herself as a democrat with a vision of society which would enable the complete equality of women with men and decent standards of living for all. She maintained her belief that women had special talents and needs, were potentially the world's civilizers, and therefore had contributions to make to political and international affairs.

In later life, while realizing that people might scoff at her 'simple faith in moral force' and her constant promotion of spiritual solutions for national and world problems, Vida became rather obsessive about the belief which had once been her motivation—that 'Righteousness exalteth a Nation'. In some disillusion, she became increasingly involved in Christian Science as a practitioner or healer, and at one time was a reader and president of its church in Melbourne which she had helped to found. Vida and her mother had first chosen to follow this religion about 1899. In her last years Vida lived quietly with her sisters Elsie and Aileen, who was also a practitioner.

Although Vida Goldstein may appear to have been a visionary idealist, yet by her pioneering efforts, her successes and her failures, she was a trail-blazer who provided leadership and inspiration to innumerable people. Vida summarized her basic attitude to politics and public life as: 'In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity'. She was humane, kind and sincere, genuinely concerned for the underdog of whatever race or nationality. Charming, public-spirited and believing in Christian principles which she consistently practised, she was a born reformer, though she promoted simple solutions to complex social problems. According to a testimonial from her supporters, she 'offered to the people the wit and eloquence of an orator, the knowledge and foresight of a statesman, and the devotion and courage of a brave woman'. She died of cancer at her home in South Yarra on 15 August 1949 and was cremated. Her death passed almost unnoticed. A portrait of her, painted by Phyl Waterhouse from a photograph, is held by the National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • L. M. Henderson, The Goldstein Story (Melb, 1973)
  • S. Encel et al, Women and Society (Melb, 1974)
  • J. Brownfoot and D. Scott, The Unequal Half (Syd, 1976)
  • New Idea, 1 Oct 1902
  • Imperial Review, 1904, no 39
  • Votes for Women (London), 4 (Mar 1911), no 159
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History, Nov 1960
  • Labour History, May 1968, no 14
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 27 Oct 1899
  • J. N. Brownfoot, Women Organisations … in Victoria c.1890 to c.1908 (B.A. Hons thesis, Monash University, 1968), and for bibliography
  • Vida Goldstein papers (Fawcett Library, London)
  • Alice Henry papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Leslie Henderson collection (National Library of Australia)
  • Bessie Rischbieth collection (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Janice N. Brownfoot, 'Goldstein, Vida Jane (1869–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Vida Goldstein, by Phyl Waterhouse

Vida Goldstein, by Phyl Waterhouse

National Library of Australia, 2292721, with permission of Miss June Davies