Woman Goldstein, Vida Jane

Campaigner, Peace activist, Social reformer, Suffragist, Teacher and Women's rights activist

Written by Clare Wright, La Trobe University

Born in Portland, Victoria in 1869, Vida Goldstein was the eldest of five children, raised in a affluent middle-class home and educated at Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne. Her mother was a child of the Western District squattocracy; her father of Polish Jewish origin with ties to the Polish independence movement, but well assimilated with a prominent role in the Victorian militia. Intelligent, articulate, tall, beautiful and well-groomed, Goldstein was the toast of the Melbourne social scene, receiving numerous marriage proposals. (John Monash was one of her unsuccessful suitors). Goldstein's mother Isabella (nee Hawkins) was an early feminist. A devout follower of Reverend Charles Strong's Australian Church, Isabella undertook good works in the slums of Collingwood. Tagging alongside her mother, Goldstein saw the underbelly of Melbourne's boom economy in the 1880s. She never forgot the scenes of misery and turmoil in the slum houses, where women tended to large families, suffering violence and abuse at the hands of drunken husbands, while babies starved and children resorted to petty crime.

By the early 1890s, Goldstein's lifelong undertaking to improve the lives of women and children was set on course. She vowed never to marry as she believed, justifiably, that her own marriage and child-bearing would make this goal impossible to achieve. To renounce marriage was a life-altering decision, but the real turning point came in 1891 when she assisted her mother in collecting signatures for the Monster Petition for women's suffrage. Suffragists collected 30,000 names in six weeks, making it the largest petition the Victorian government had ever received. As a 21 year old, when other girls of her class were busy attending balls or starting families, Goldstein had become a political activist. Reflecting later on the campaign she identified 'a few very conservative men and a few sheltered women ... Whose interests ended at the garden gate' as the major sources of opposition. 'Very rarely were refusals made by wives of working men and by women who took part in social reform work outside the home' (Argus, 28 October 1937).

Goldstein's fate was sealed in 1899 when, following the death of her friend and mentor, Annette Bear Crawford, she assumed leadership of the women's suffrage movement in Victoria. A year later, Goldstein championed the cause of a young woman sentenced to death for drowning her baby in the Yarra River. During and after the trial, Goldstein organised a media blitz and letter-writing campaign, blaming Victorian-era society, with its sexual double-standards, for Margaret Heffernan's predicament. Not only was Goldstein's first major crusade a success, she had also won vital experience in leading a public campaign.

Having risen to public prominence - a young, beautiful, single woman with guts and determination - Goldstein became a national symbol of the new dawn for women's potential and capacities. She attracted attention because she contradicted all the stereotypes attached to militant women 'small, but not stout, she is not untidy, she is not loud-voiced, she is not pedantic, and she is not terrible' (Daily News , 26 February 1906). In 1902, Australia became the first country in the world to give white women both the right to vote in federal elections and to stand for federal parliament. In the same year, Goldstein was invited to attend an international suffrage convention in America, as Australia and New Zealand's delegate - and the only delegate who could report on living in a fully enfranchised country. Goldstein toured the country, and impressed President Roosevelt with her intelligence and charm.

At the 1903 federal election, Goldstein became one of the first women in the British Empire to stand for election for a parliamentary seat, along with Nellie Martel and Mary Moore-Bentley in the Senate and Selina Anderson in the House of Representatives. None were successful. It was to be the first of five such election campaigns for Goldstein, all contested as an Independent, arguing for 'the necessity of women putting women into Parliament to secure the reforms they required' (Argus, 17 March 1910). She was supported by prominent men like Alfred Deakin and Justice Higgins, who was so influenced by her ideas and writings that he used Goldstein's calculation of a 'living wage' to help formulate the famous Harvester Judgement in 1908 - an international high watermark of industrial arbitration.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Goldstein became the face of Australian feminism. In 1911, she was invited to England to provide inspiration and solace to the thousands of militant suffragettes who were waging an out-and-out campaign to break down the bastions of British power. In Australia, she worked tirelessly as the leader of the Women's Political Association and the founder of the Women's Peace Army, a pacifist organization designed to combat the growing global shift towards war. She also published the Woman's Sphere and later the Woman Voter, a journal devoted to educating women on political issues. She toured the country, fronting rallies and spreading her pacifist ideas. Goldstein was a regular speaker at Yarra Bank mass meetings, where tens of thousands would come to hear her united message of pacifism, socialism, and feminism. As a result of these activities she came to be considered an enemy of the state and subject to security surveillance and censorship.

Goldstein led an almost entirely public life. She lived in humble circumstances in South Yarra with her mother, an unmarried and one married sister. Almost nothing is known about her private life - a situation consistent with her belief that women should be free to lead a life bound by their convictions, not predicated on their emotions. One incident did leave Goldstein reeling. Her much loved only brother Selwyn was killed on the front. Here was the heart-rending proof of the insanity and waste of war that Goldstein had railed against on public platforms across the country.

In 1919, she left Australia for Europe where she wrote extensively - essays and political pamphlets about 'the Australian experiment' and her experience of the suffrage campaigns. Increasingly internationalist in her outlook, she attended the International Women's Peace Congress in Zurich and distributed her materials widely. Returning to Australia in 1922 she was disappointed by what she saw as the political apathy and spiritual void of young women, who knew little of the sacrifices that had been made for their freedom. She decided to bow out of public life, exercising her leadership abilities through the Christian Science church, where she practised as a faith healer. When she died in comparative obscurity in 1949 the League of Women Voters inaugurated an essay prize in her honour (Argus, 22 March 1950).

Published Resources


  • Bomford, Janette, That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman: Vida Goldstein, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, 1993. Details
  • Goldstein, Vida, Woman Suffrage in Australia, reprinted The Victorian Women’s Trust, Melbourne, Victoria, 2008. Details
  • Goldstein, Vida, To America and back, January-July 1902: a lecture by Vida Goldstein, Prepared for publication by Jill Roe, Jill Roe: Australian History Museum, Sydney, New South Wales, 2002. Details
  • Henderson, Leslie, The Goldstein Story, Stockland Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1973. Details
  • Women's Political Association, The Life and Work of Miss Vida Goldstein, Australasian Authors’ Agency, Melbourne, Victoria, 1913. Details

Journal Articles

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources