Book Review: Vida: A woman for our time by Jacquline Kent

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

https://historicalragbag.com/2016/01/06/vida-goldstein/

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:

https://www.penguin.com.au/books/vida-a-woman-for-our-time-9780670079490

you can also loan it from the PMI Victorian History Library

https://library.pmi.net.au/fullRecord.jsp?recno=31308

And most likely your local public library.

References

https://historicalragbag.com/2016/01/06/vida-goldstein/

Vida Goldstein image State Library of Victoria

https://viewer.slv.vic.gov.au/?entity=IE1543426

Vida Goldstein

I recently saw the movie Suffragette and while I did enjoy it and applaud the important story it is telling I couldn’t help but think that I wanted to write about some of the non violent members of the women’s suffrage movement. This idea crystallised when I talked to a few people and realised that even the leaders in Australia’s women’s suffrage movement remain largely unknown. As I began to look I found that Suffragette had prompted many others to write about the people involved with the women’s suffrage movement, which is one of the best outcomes the movie could possibly have had. An example is the Guardian article below about the fascinating Adela Pankhurst. She was one of the daughters of the celebrated Emmeline Pankhurst, who is played by Meryl Streep in the movie.

http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/dec/24/wayward-suffragette-adela-pankhurst-and-her-remarkable-australian-life

I decided that I wanted to write about someone I knew a little about already and as I’d done some work on Vida Goldstein at high school, and too many people still haven’t heard of her, I thought she’d be a good place to start. I was intending to write a short biography of her role in the women’s suffrage movement but as I began to have a careful look I determined that this has been well and truly done. While I don’t belive that all writing has to be treading new ground I truly didn’t see the point in rehashing the Australian Dictionary of Biography article, which covers all the salient points.

http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/goldstein-vida-jane-6418

It is absolutely worth reading though.

So I headed into the State Library of Victoria, not that I ever really need an excuse, and did some work using their manuscripts collection. With the information I found here I decided that I am going to focus on Vida’s first attempt at entering parliament in 1903.

First though, a very brief background on Vida and a look at the progression of women’s suffrage in Australia.

vida

Vida Goldstein

http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-136682563/view

Vida Goldstein was born in 1869 in Portland in Victoria and she was one of the leaders of Australia’s women’s suffrage movement. She died in Melbourne in South Yarra in 1949 and a lot more should be known about her by the general population. In other words read the ADB article.

703017194

A young Vida Goldstein

http://goo.gl/5xcNik

Vida was also very much a part of the international suffrage movement as can be seen by the notes below from Susan B Anthony, who most people will have heard of. Susan B Anthony gave Vida the three volumes of her book called A History of Women’s Suffrage

In each volume she wrote an inscription to Vida and they are all dated to the 4th of July 1902.

To Miss Vida Goldstein

Melbourne Australia

From her disenfranchised friend, the city of Rochester, County of Monroe, State of New York, Country of the United States of America- the land of the free who has worked to the best of her ability, for fifty years and more to the get the right for women to vote- and will continue to battle for it to the end of her life-

affectionately.

Susan B Anthony

 

To Vida Goldstein

Melbourne Australia

Rejoicing that you have gained the national franchise- and hoping your other states will soon grant the local suffrage- while we of the United States of America struggle on-no one can tell how long to the the right to vote.

Sincerely yours

Susan B Anthony

 

Miss Vida Goldstein

(to be given to the public library- when she is done with it)

With the congratulations that the new world of Australia has given to her women all the rights of citizenship- equally with her men- and with love and esteem of her friend

Susan B Anthony.[1]

Vida also travelled to speak at suffrage events and meet other members of the suffrage movement, especially those who were still fighting for women’s suffrage. The photo below shows her with other women’s suffrage supporters at the Great Suffragette Demonstration in London in 1911. Vida is on the far right

vida london

Great Suffragette Demonstration

http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-136683161/view?searchTerm=vida+goldstein#search/vida%20goldstein

Australia was one of the first countries to give the vote to women. It is complicated though by the fact that each state allowed women the vote at a different time and that it occurred federally as well, independent of the individual states. The result of a separate Federal right to vote, which was granted in 1902,  was that there were women from several states who could vote in federal elections but not in their state elections.

Below you can see when the vote was granted state by state

1894 South Australia

1899 Western Australia

1902 Federal

1902 New South Wales

1903 Tasmania

1905 Queensland

1908 Victoria[2]

Vida also described the mood in Australia which made it possible for the vote for women to become a reality far earlier than in countries like the UK.

The Broad Mindedness of Australian Men

One feature of the Suffrage Campaign in Australia makes it radically different from that in any other country- the readiness of our men to admit that our cause was a just one, and entitled to immediate recognition. We never had any difficulty in winning over the men of Australia to our side. Our real battle ground was the Upper House in each colony. The Lower Houses were elected practically on as basis of One Man One Vote and in the Lower Houses it was easy to get a suffrage bill through, but the Upper Houses, which represented only the propertied classes, who in Australia are always against reform, stood solid against us, and it was only when we got a strong Premier in each state that we could get a Suffrage Bill through the Upper Houses.[3]

Vida also described the hard work that went on to not only try to achieve the vote, but also to get male MPs to take notice of specific issues.

Through not having women in Parliament energy and valuable time have to be spent on the often Herculean task of educating members up to the point of seeing the injustice in certain measures affecting women, e.g the Federal Public Services Act. It bristled with discrepancies in pay for men and women doing exactly the same work. To get the principles of equal pay embodied in the bill some of us had to spend days at the House lobbying members, always hateful work- showing them the many injustices in the bill from the women’s point of view, and trying to get them to see them as we saw them. We had to tramp round getting petitions signed and write to the press. Had there been women in the House there would have been no need for such tactics because the injustices were so obvious they only had to be pointed out and most members promised to get them removed. Another example was the Naturalisation Bill which completely merged the individuality of a married woman with that of her husband. [4]

Even before she ran for parliament Vida herself had become vehemently against the two party system because she considered that parties sacrificed  principle to expediency and put their own interests before all else. She came to this conclusion in 1902 when, after women were allowed the vote federally, she started the group Women’s Federal Political Association. Unfortunately male politicians quickly began to use the Association for party purposes and when Vida reacted by moving the Association away from one party and to a non political basis the majority of the male members left.

So this was the background to Vida running for parliament in 1903. The election was in December of 1903 and she launched her campaign in October in her home town of Portland. But she began signalling she would be running earlier. Part of her campaign was a letter published in Reviews of Review in August entitled Should Women Enter Parliament?

She opened by, with what The Advertiser described as “a delightful touch of femininity”, immediately answering her own question

“Of course why not?”

She then went on to defend her supposition laying forth the usual key arguments against women’s suffrage, beginning with the idea that there was a lack of precedent. She refutes this by providing several examples from history and going on to discuss the disparity between men who happily accepted a female sovereign, Queen Victoria had died quite recently, but couldn’t accept women in parliament.[5] As her niece LM Henderson wrote Vida “never indulged in empty rhetoric, she always supported her arguments with facts, and could answer almost any question.”[6] Vida was the first woman to stand for parliament in the Empire and naturally enough there was both comment and opposition. The rural papers tended to be more sympathetic than the Melbourne papers.  For example The Avoca Standard ran this piece in November 1903.

“Miss Goldstein presented a very pleasing appearance on the platform at Avoca. She was graceful, pretilly gowned and wore a most becoming hat. During her address she toyed prettily with a beautiful La France rose- a move that added much to the effect. The lady became a favourite with all present almost at once. Her easy delivery of speech, charming voice, modest manner, and the absence of anything masculine, being the chief factors in her favour.”

This piece might be very condescending, but it isn’t hostile.

The Age and The Argus were generally dismissive, but not always. There was also extensive argument as to the legality of women in parliament. But it quickly became clear that even constitutionally there was no argument barring them running. [7]

The press commentary wasn’t limited to articles, there were also cartoons and poetry. An example of the cartoons can be seen below. In which Vida has to be accompanied to the Senate by a chaperone, and all the men dare not disobey her for fear of being seen as discourteous.

vida cartoon

Vida Goldstein Cartoon

from Punch http://goo.gl/wN04hH

There were headlines like “Sweet Skirted Senators” from the Sunday Times and this really quite interesting poem, also in the Sunday Times, on 9/08/1903

Vidi!-Vida!-Vinci!

What a theme

for the scheme

of a beautiful dream

to be there in the Senate with Vida!

What a foretaste of heaven

the Senate would seem

to the Senator sitting beside her.

They say tis a right which can not be denied her!

Let us give her a vote, for we’d gloat

and we’d dote

on a note 

from the throat

of Miss Vida!

You can see it would be very simple; 

for she wouldn’t want advisors to guide her!

And to all her proposals, of course they’d agree

it would be very rude to deride her!

All the House would have nous

to be meek as a mouse!

They would catch it if any defied her!

And it’s certain soft soap

couldn’t hope

to enrope

or to cope

with the scope

of Miss Vida. 

And I can’t

and I shan’t

see the reason we aren’t

to be ruled by good ladies like Vida.

If you vote for your Uncle

why not vote for you Aunt

if the requisite sense is supplied her.

And she

like a he

should be perfectly free

to engage in a sphere that is wider.

If the matter’s discussed,

then we must,

to be just,

give a thrust

to our trust

in Miss Vida.

Ah! but then

gentlemen

when it comes to the ken

of a Senator’s wife, could he chide her

if she kicked up a row with her tongue and a pen

on the boldness of brainy Miss Vida.

For a lass

is a lass

but alas, should it pass

there are ladies who’d call her a spider!

And although we may cheer

still I fear it is clear

we must bid you “Good Morning”

Miss Vida

W.T Goodge[8]

You can make of that what you will of the poem. I can’t decide if it’s derogatory, celebratory or both.

Media aside, Vida campaigned assiduously, but it is unlikely she ever expected to win. She chose to run for the Senate rather than the House of Representatives probably because it would allow her to campaign throughout Victoria rather than just for one seat. Thus spreading her message further. The election took place in December 1903 and Vida polled 51 497 which was surprisingly good considering voting wasn’t compulsory. It was not, however, enough to win the seat. She took defeat well, commenting on the process in January 1904 in Review of Reviews.

I found political sentiment best developed in the labour ranks, among women earning their own living, and among the country women in the leisure classes. Melbourne women are notoriously ignorant of politics. This difference between city and country was the only new fact my campaign taught me. The chief value of suffrage at present is its educational value, I would sooner see women educated in views diametrically opposed to mine than not educated at all… I had against me the combined power of the Morning and Labour papers, deliberate misrepresentation by two of them, lack of finance, and the prejudice of sex. I stood for the cause of women and children, as a protest against the dictation of the press, and against the creation of the ticket system of voting. From men I had most courteous treatment… The chief lesson to be learnt from this campaign was the need for organisation. The Labour Party had the best organisation and their success shows this. Labour seeks to reach its goal mainly by material means; women place a higher value on the spiritual, but (word missing, LMH) will someday see that is righteous alone that exalteth a nation.

She commented later to her niece Leslie M. Henderson that she was terrified of mice and was always afraid that some of her opponents would discover it and let loose some mice on the platform when she was speaking. Thankfully this never happened. [9]

And that was the end of Vida’s first attempt to join Australia’s parliament. She tried another four times to gain office but was ultimately never successful. This was most likely to do with the fact that she always ran as an Independent Woman Candidate. Despite her lack of electoral success Vida Goldstein was a pioneer for women’s rights around the world and she deserves to be as well know internationally as some of the other larger than life figures in the woman’s suffrage movement.

vida older

Vida Goldstein painted by Waterhouse

http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/26335720?q=vida+goldstein&c=picture&versionId=46453732

[1] State Library of VictoriaMS BOX 3097/5(a-c)

[2] From Vida Goldstein’s papers: State Library of Victoria MS MSM 118

[3] From Vida Goldstein’s papers: State Library of Victoria MS MSM 118

[4] From Vida Goldstein 1869-1949: Biographical notes by her niece, Leslie M. Henderson, 1966 January. MS BOX 332/14

[5] From Press cutting book presented to Edith How Morlyn for Women’s Service Library London by Vida Goldstein State Library of Victoria MS BOX 2493/ 5

[6] From Vida Goldstein 1869-1949: Biographical notes by her niece, Leslie M. Henderson, 1966 January. MS BOX 332/14

[7] From Press cutting book presented to Edith How Morlyn for Women’s Service Library London by Vida Goldstein

[8] From Press cutting book presented to Edith How Morlyn for Women’s Service Library London by Vida Goldstein

[9] From Vida Goldstein 1869-1949: Biographical notes by her niece, Leslie M. Henderson, 1966 January. MS BOX 332/14