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The 20th century was a time of great change in the way women were perceived as members of Australian society. A notable example of a person who helped to bring about this change is the feminist Vida Goldstein, who campaigned for women’s suffrage and social reform in regards to gender inequality. She was an influential leader in the history of Australia’s feminist movement, and her actions were critical in the formation of the gender equal society we live in today. Vida was the eldest daughter of Jacob and Isabella Goldstein.
Both were faithful Christians with strong social consciences and growing up around them would have influenced Vida to make the decisions that she did. Isabella was a devoted suffragist, a committed teetotaller, and an ardent worker for social reform. Jacob was involved in a lot of social welfare work. As a founding member of the Melbourne Charity Organisation Society, he believed that charity and poor relief should be scientifically organised, not handed out indiscriminately. He was a part of the Women’s Hospital Committee and he assisted in the promotion of the Cheltenham Men’s Home.
In 1892 at Leongatha, Jacob helped with the project for forming labour colonies as well. Vida’s own career started around 1890 when she helped collect signatures for a Women’s Suffrage Petition that her mother was involved in. During the 1890s, she also became involved in the National Anti-Sweating League, the Criminology Society and other social welfare activities, particularly those promoted by Strong and by her good friend Annette Bear-Crawford who Vida had helped organise the Queen Victoria Hospital Appeal for the Queen’s jubilee in 1897.
Vida did a lot of reading on political, economic and legislative topics and took part in the Victorian parliamentary sessions in which she learned about procedure while campaigning for a large variety of reformist legislation. After the death of Mrs Bear-Crawford in 1899, Vida was undisputed leader of the radical women’s movement in Victoria and made her first public-speaking appearance to support the vote for woman. Initially trained by her friend, she quickly became an impressive speaker, capable of handling even the most abusive of people that may harass her.
It can be said that Vida had these views and wanted to change society because of the people in her life. Her parents would have been very influential as her mother was a feminist and her father, a very committed man. Between the years of 1899 and 1908, Vida’s main priority was the suffrage. She attended a number of conferences such as the International Woman Suffrage Conference in the United States where she spoke, was elected secretary, gave evidence in favour of woman suffrage to a committee of the United States Congress and went to the International Council of Women Conference.
In 1902, women in Australia were granted the Federal vote and on her return from America, Vida became the first woman in the British Empire to be nominated and to stand for election to a national parliament. As an Independent candidate for the Senate in 1903, in her first bid, Vida was proposed and helped by the Women’s Federal Political Association. Regardless of the mockery of her candidacy, at the December election Vida polled 51,497 votes.
Concluding after her defeat that women needed to be more organised, she began educating female voters through the renamed Women’s Political Association, through her own paper the Woman’s Sphere and by lecture tours around Victoria. Once the state was given the right to vote in 1908, Vida returned to national politics and tried another 4 times to gain election to Federal parliament: in 1910 and 1917 for the Senate and in 1913 and 1914 for the House of Representatives. Vida constantly promoted women’s rights.
She helped to found or supported many women’s organisations including the National Council of Women, the Victorian Women’s Public Servants’ Association and the Women Writers’ Club. Vida also worked for many social reforms including equal property rights for man and wife and raising the age of marriage and consent, while supporting new laws on land taxation, food adulteration and the sweating of women workers. Vida raised public awareness of gender inequality through public speaking.
She challenged the stereotypical role given to women by society, by proving that a woman can succeed in a role traditionally given to a man. This includes running for parliament. Despite the fact that she didn’t win she proved that it was possible. Of all the Australian women associated with the emancipation and suffrage movements of the day, Vida was the only one to gain a truly international reputation. In 1911, February, she travelled to England at the invitation of the Women’s Social and Political Union and her speeches drew in vast numbers of people.
The reasons for her failures were to do with how her independent status isolated party supporters and the press was either antagonistic to her, misrepresented her or ignored her. Vida did not score a seat in parliament; however, attempting to do so has only made it easier for other women to attempt this too. Edith Cowan, another leading suffragette, was the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament when she won a seat in the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921.
It goes without a doubt, to say that Vida would have been a major influence to Edith when running for parliament, as this was not long after that Vida had attempted this too. Later on in life, Vida started to become quite obsessive about the belief, which at one point had been her motivation -that ‘Righteousness exalted a Nation. ’ She became very involved in Christian Science as a practitioner or healer and once was a reader and president of its church in Melbourne, which she had assisted in founding. In the last years of her life, Vida lived with her sisters Elsie and Aileen.
She died of cancer at her home in South Yarra on August 15, 1949 and was cremated. Her death passed almost unnoticed and her actions and good deeds were not recognised until later. Vida Goldstein was an influential feminist leader who began the movement, which changed our society into the gender equal nation it is today. While Vida did not live to witness any changes within society, her actions began the movement, which would finally bring gender equality to our society. “It takes each of us to make a difference for all of us. ” -Jackie Mutcheson