I enjoyed writing my first real book review on this blog (Joan: Lady of Wales) so I thought I’d branch out into a different area of history and write another. Also, there hasn’t been much Australian history on Historical Ragbag for a while and Vida Goldstein is always a good place to start. Vida is someone who should be much better known worldwide, a leading suffragist (they’re different to suffragettes), first woman to stand for national parliament anywhere in the Western world, rousing speaker, peace campaigner through World War I and life long advocate for social justice. She has been quite unfairly relegated to the shadows of history. Jacquline Kent’s book works to change that.
I have written about Vida before. In fact I first came across her in year eleven when I was allowed to pick any topic of Australian history and I chose the Australian suffragists. Then when I saw the movie Suffragette in 2015 I decided Vida needed her own blog post. So you can find out more about her in the link below
This is primarily a book review though and, while I’d love the chance to talk more about Vida herself, I should return to the book.
I devoured this book. What Kent does so well is explores Vida’s life as a whole, rather than focussing on her suffrage work, or her war work, or her education work, or her tilts at parliament. She situates her firmly in the narrative of her time, a time of intense change and upheaval. Kent also follows Vida through to her later life (she died in 1949) putting this remarkable woman firmly back on centre stage where she should be. Kent draws parallels with the experiences of modern day female politicians, especially Julia Gillard, which really drives home the message of how much work there still is to be done, but also how much we can learn from Vida and her experiences.
But to go back to the beginning, Kent’s book is largely chronological, the first thing I learnt is that I’ve been pronouncing Vida’s name wrong. I’d been saying Veeda Goldsteen where as Vida herself pronounced it with Viida (as in with a long I) Goldstine (again the long I). I’ve been correcting myself in my head ever since.
Kent does tell Vida’s story chronologically for the most part. Though the book begins with a prologue of sorts, exploring the most iconic image of Vida (see below)
Kent starts the narrative proper with Vida’s family history. It’s when Vida and her family relocate to Melbourne, however, that you really start getting the sense of Vida as a person. The picture Kent paints is of a woman dedicated to her ideals, sometimes to her own detriment (for example her complete refusal to join a political party limited her likelihood of being elected- though it is a position I very much sympathise with), a tireless advocate and champion for social justice, who always worked quietly (as in never violently) but incredibly persistently. She never gave up and was deservedly famous in her own time, especially with her campaigns to be elected to parliament. For her first attempt in 1903 she toured regional Victoria for two months speaking in country towns all over the state, speeches the local newspapers covered in great detail. In fact some of the commentary would be familiar to current female politicians too. The Avoca Times reported “Miss Goldstein presented a very pleasing appearance on the platform at Avoca. She was graceful, pretilly gowned and wore a most becoming hat.“
At this point Victorian women could not vote in state elections, but they could vote federally and run for parliament. Vida campaigned hard and as an independent candidate she received 51 497 votes for the Senate, about half of that of the top polling male candidate. She remained philosophical though and would go on to run for parliament (in various different areas) a further four times. She was never successful, but she succeeded in having her issues heard and paved the way for future female parliamentarians. It is fitting that an electorate is named after her (even if it is a now a bluechip Liberal seat that has only ever been held by a man).
What Kent does best in Vida: A woman for our time is to place Vida in the context of her own time. This is in many ways what I found most interesting, as it tells Vida’s story more broadly. It also means you learn a lot about Australia’s early history before the historical narrative gets hijacked by World War I as Australia’s foundation story. As I already knew a little about her role in politics, I was absolutely fascinated with her role in the anti-conscription and peace movement in WWI and the extent of the movement itself. Vida helped set up the Australian Peace Alliance in the midst of war frenzy, aiming to bring together all the disparate groups advocating for peace, including Trades Hall, quite a few unions, the Quakers and the Free Religious Fellowship. The fight for peace was, obviously, not ultimately successful, but the movements did manage to see off the conscription referendum, though the fight got quite nasty at times. This era is something I might come back and explore in a later post. Vida was at the forefront of so many movements, and her persistence (as well as the hard work of a lot of other people-which Kent very much acknowledges) was the core of her often successful activities.
Kent not only places Vida in the context of her times, but also in the context of her family. Vida was a very much a product of her upbringing and the support of her family. Her family is also the source of fascinating Melbourne history sidetracks. Her sister Elsie, for example, was married to the somewhat eccentric activist Henry Howard Champion and they ran the fabulously named Book Lovers Library, which was a Melbourne institution until 1936. This also sent me down the rabbit hole of the Book Lovers Library and other early libraries in Melbourne, which seeing as I work for one was really very interesting.
In her later years Vida became an adherent of the Christian Science Movement and withdrew more from public life, when she died at the age of 80 on the 15th of August 1949 she’s didn’t leave much of a financial or material legacy. Her legacy as a trailblazer and advocate was infinitely more important.
This is by no means a full account of Vida’s life. For that you’ll need to read the book. Essentially, in Vida: A woman for our time what Kent does is brings Vida’s whole story into the light. Kent highlights her role in the rapidly changing society, the context of her family, her activism and worldwide recognition (including a very popular US speaking tour). Kent does this at the same time as contextualising what Vida’s struggles mean for us today, and exploring several fascinating and not well known enough areas of Australian history. She brings Vida out of the shadows and places her back in the broader narrative of Australian history- right where she belongs.
Vida: A woman for our time by Jacqueline Kent can be found at:
you can also loan it from the PMI Victorian History Library
And most likely your local public library.
Vida Goldstein image State Library of Victoria