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Vida Goldstein: The Woman Who Won The Right To Vote In Australia


Australia’s Vida Goldstein was instrumental in getting equal rights for women. She helped win the right to vote for Australian women, two decades before Britain.

Yet while the name Emmaline Pankhurst is still well known in the UK as the woman who helped British women get the vote -- the name Vida Goldstein is not as well known in Australia.

Historian Clare Wright is the writer and presenter of ABC documentary Utopia Girls (about how women won the vote in Australia) and the Associate Professor in history at La Trobe University. She told The Huffington Post Australia the name Vida Goldstein should be celebrated by all Australian women.

Vida in London (white dress). Picture National Library of Australia

“Even though New Zealand won the right to vote the year before us (1893), in Australia, we not only won the right to vote but we also won the right to run for parliament which is something New Zealand didn’t achieve at that time. So there are two huge reasons Vida Goldstein should be a household name here,” Wright said.

Clare Wright. Picture Susan Papazian

Goldstein started her campaign as a young woman, helping her mother, Isabella Hawkins; a suffrage campaigner from Victoria. Hawkins was part of a very progressive movement in the late 19th Century that included feminists, federalists, spiritualists and people known as non-conformists.

Isabella Hawkins got involved in the suffrage movement through doing slum work -- going into the slums of Collingwood and Fitzroy and helping working class women. That’s how they were able to exercise a public role at a time women didn’t have other outlets.

"Hawkins collected signatures for the Monster Petition in 1891 which was a huge accomplishment. The Victorian Government had said: ‘If you show me women want the vote, we’ll introduce a bill into parliament.’

"So, within six weeks, 30,000 signatures were collected all over Victoria. So women like Hawkins pasted all the petitions onto a long roll of cotton and dragged it into Parliament. At that time it was the largest petition ever presented to Victorian parliament," Wright said.

. The Monster Petition. Picture Supplied

"Goldstein earned her political stripes there by helping her mum collect the signatures for the Monster Petition. Then she stepped up further. The petition was unsuccessful; it passed the lower house but not the upper house. This happened about 20 times. The irony was that Victoria was the first state to start the process but the last state to succeed, due to the conservative upper house.

"But that’s when Goldstein decided this is what she wanted to devote her life to; improving the lives of women. She sacrificed a lot. She turned down marriage proposals because she reasoned the only way to work to improve women’s lives is not to become a wife or mother."

. Vida Goldstein. Picture Supplied

Goldstein became a very active campaigner. She set up the newspaper The Woman Voter and, by the time Australia had federated and become the first country in the world to give women full voting, she was the women's leader of the Suffrage movement in Australia.

. The Woman Voter newspaper. Picture Supplied

By 1902 Goldstein went to the U.S. as the Australian representative, to the first International Women’s Suffrage Conference in Washington DC. Wright said Goldstein was treated like a rock star.

"She was giving lecture tours around the country, meeting President Roosevelt who invited her to the Oval Office. She managed to achieve what progressive women all around the world had been fighting for," Wright said.

"After her 1902 tour she came back to Australia and became the first woman to stand for Parliament. She lost but tried four more times. The reason she didn’t win is she insisted on being an Independent. It’s believed if she’d run with Labor she would have been successful. But she was concerned if she stood as a member of the Labor party her message would be watered down. She was there to represent the interests of Australian women and children. She was a purist, not a pragmatic."

Goldstein was the woman British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst turned to for guidance. She was invited in 1911 to speak at all the British rallies. More than 10,000 people heard her speak at Albert Hall.

. Emmeline Pankhurst. Picture Supplied

"She was feted as being the embodiment of the modern woman. She was known for being a fabulous public speaker, beautifully spoken, funny, charismatic, whip-smart, well read and a great writer. She contributed a huge amount and was also involved in the passing legislation in Australia that improved the lives of women and children, the Sunshine Harvester Decision, setting the minimum wage," Wright said.

Wright's essay, Birth of a Nation, has been published in the latest edition of the Griffith Review

"Vida Goldstein was a national hero as well as an international hero and it really is puzzling why, in Britain, the name Pankhurst is so well known and associated with the suffragette movement while, in Australia, not everybody knows about Goldstein's incredible achievements. It's time we celebrated her life and her accomplishments."

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