Cover of book: Vida

Jacqueline Kent

Hot on the heels of last year’s memoir, Beyond Words: A Life with Kenneth Cook, journalist and author Jacqueline Kent focuses her gaze on the indefatigable women’s rights campaigner Vida Goldstein. Kent has written biographies of pianist and social activist Hephzibah Menuhin – sister of Yehudi – as well as Australia’s first full-time book editor, Beatrice Davis, and, perhaps most notably, two books analysing the life and work of Julia Gillard. Like Clare Wright, her research highlights the lives of women who have made an impact in small or big, but often forgotten, ways.

Vida Goldstein, born 1869 in Portland, Victoria, was one of the first women in the Western world to stand for election to a national parliament. Kent shows Goldstein as a pioneer who worked tirelessly for all her 80 years and lived a full and, for her time, unusual life. Through exploring the details of Goldstein’s background and the way she was perceived, Kent seeks to answer why we have not heard more about her.

Goldstein and family took the steamer for a new life in Melbourne when she was eight. Her parents felt strongly about their children – four girls and a boy – having an education and, after success with a governess, Goldstein was educated at Presbyterian Ladies College, where she was a contemporary of an astonishing number of high-achieving women, including Nellie Melba and Victoria’s first woman dentist, Ethel Godfrey, as well as Australia’s first woman solicitor and barrister, Flos Greig.

The early part of Goldstein’s story contains a great deal of hope, and Kent paints a lush picture of the 1880s in “Marvellous Melbourne”, but when Goldstein and her mother visit the inner-city slums situated close to factories they are shocked to see the conditions under which many families live. It was not unusual for both parents to leave the house for long days of work, with small children left to fend for themselves in gutters. It makes sense, then, that it was in the working-class and industrial suburbs – places where women were working outside the home – that both women and men were more easily attuned to the idea of women’s suffrage.

Suffrage would mean that women could, for the first time, vote on issues relating to home safety, a crucial issue then, as it is today – as detailed in Jess Hill’s 2019 exploration of the extent of Australia’s problem with domestic abuse, See What You Made Me Do. For the first part of her career, Goldstein worked towards the goals of helping poor families and gaining Victorian women the vote. As we have come to expect from this time in history, the shocking reality is that this was for white women only – Indigenous Australians were unable to vote until 1962.

Goldstein argued that because women have to abide by the laws, they should have a say in electing their representatives. Her belief in equal rights had to be repeated throughout her career, in speech after speech. By the end of 1905 it was just Victorian women who couldn’t vote in state elections – this came in 1908, and the years prior were long and dispiriting.

Goldstein refused to play politics – she would not bend on any issues she believed in – and there were times when this could have cost her. From her father she inherited a distrust of organised political parties, so she ran several times for the senate as an independent, but she was unsuccessful. After women won the vote, she became an anti-war campaigner throughout World War I, but in the Australia of the time, anti-war was perceived as pro-German, and Goldstein fell out of favour.

It is straight away apparent that Goldstein had an unusually strong drive, but she also suffered from depression. When she completed her schooling, she had a breakdown and didn’t go to university, though she could have. Kent has been thorough with her research, and the inclusion of pertinent correspondence and speeches highlight Goldstein’s voice, which is warm and strong, with a strikingly contemporary feel. Kent draws learned and sometimes depressing parallels between then and now, and the text is punctuated with her funny asides and opinions about the situations Goldstein found herself in. Kent’s personality comes through the pages particularly when making enduring observations about the level of involvement that newspapers have in politics, and their lasting and malevolent influence.

Goldstein was not a female separatist, and she didn’t believe that women having the vote would necessarily improve society. She became angrier later in life, but hers was a humorous feminist discourse, and she looked to lighten the mood. She was a capable public speaker with oratorical skills that drew large crowds. Her style was assertive but not aggressive, prompting earlier versions of today’s divisive arguments about the effectiveness of “militant” feminism versus a more inclusive version.

The original “baby bonus” was introduced as early as 1912, and the book is jam-packed with interesting historical information in this vein. Over the course of Goldstein’s life she was co-founder of countless groups, including the Women’s Peace Army and the Australian Federation of Woman Voters. She was an active member of the Women’s Political Association and the United Council for Woman Suffrage, and began her own suffrage newspapers. Goldstein and fellow lifelong pacifist Miles Franklin were firm friends, and although Franklin did not think much of the religious aspect of Goldstein’s life – Goldstein devoted the latter part of her life to the Christian Science church – their friendship appeared to weather the difference.

The final section of the book peters out a little, but perhaps this reflects Goldstein’s life, as she focused her energy on her faith, and there is less to report. The last few pages sit as a stonking account of all the advances for women’s rights recently achieved, while at the same time Kent provides us with a sad reminder of how far we have to go.

Louise Swinn

Viking, 336pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 26, 2020 as "Jacqueline Kent, Vida".

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