Vida Goldstein is one of Australian history’s most interesting and accomplished figures. She campaigned for the rights of women—including the vote —and the disadvantaged, opposed conscription and the First World War and stood unsuccessfully for federal parliament several times. She ought to be more widely known. Carolyn Holbrook interviewed the acclaimed biographer, journalist and broadcaster Jacqueline Kent about her latest work, Vida: A Woman For Our Time, in which the author seeks to bring the story of Vida’s life to a wider audience.
‘Charming’ was a word often used to describe Vida Goldstein. You intimate in the book that this description was part of a patronising and limited lexicon that men reached for when writing about women in the public eye. Vida’s excellent grooming was also commonly noted. Reading ‘beneath’ the constrained means by which Vida could be imagined in the early twentieth century, can you give us your sense of what kind of person she was?
‘Charming’ (like ‘clever’ and ‘sincere’) is an adjective with myriad connotations, not all of which are flattering, as I hope I made clear in the book!
I think Vida’s personality had very strong characteristics, some of which became more pronounced as she grew older. She was intensely practical and a good organiser, as seen by the number of organisations she formed and led, as well as the two newspapers she set up. She was a clear and cogent thinker, and a good writer, who knew how to express her views calmly and logically. She was fast on her feet: she knew (as women generally did not) how to handle public meetings and trade ripostes with hecklers. She was witty and elegant. Above all, she had a calm confidence in the rightness of her causes and campaigns, and that never deserted her.
She managed to combine these qualities with a sense of humour, and to express her beliefs, even to hostile audiences, without losing her cool, though she came close very often. Interestingly, she is said to have had some kind of ‘nervous breakdown’ after leaving school. She never wrote in detail about that, but her mother was always anxious about her health. I suspect that her anxiety, if that’s what it was, drove her to make sure that she was never left flat-footed, or left much to chance.
In writing your biography of Vida Goldstein, what sources did you draw upon? Were there gaps and silences in the records? What insights do her papers give into her inner life?
There is quite a lot of material about Vida, in various places. There is a full length biography by Janette Bomford, published in 1993. Vida’s personal papers are in the Millicent Fawcett Women’s Library, which is part of the London School of Economics; there are photographs and copies of her pamphlets and a few other writings in Melbourne’s LaTrobe Library, as well as in the National Library and in the Mitchell Library. And Trove, of course, is a wonderful source of newspaper reports about her meetings and other snippets about her.
Yes, there were silences in the records. Vida’s allegiance to Christian Science is hardly mentioned anywhere, even in her own papers (and because she died in 1949, there was almost nothing about her work to be found in Victorian CS church records). Most of the correspondence she thought worth saving deals with her advocacy and various campaigns; there are small glimpses of a more ‘unbuttoned’ Vida, but she clearly believed that her work was the most important thing about her life, and did not file letters to and from friends. However, she was an attentive correspondent who placed a high premium on friendship, as seen by all the autographs she kept from her trips abroad and her willingness to keep in touch with friends from school. She was widely admired.
She often made light of difficulties: she did not write about the sorrows and disappointments of her life, except in terms of her work, and then she was philosophical rather than bitter. But Vida was a member of a class and generation that believed describing your own problems in writing or print, even in letters to friends, was bad form — and she followed Christian Science training in trying to rise above the problems of her life and work.
You show in the book that Vida was often mocked and belittled in the press, and you compare her public treatment with that of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Can you tell us about the similarities and differences in their treatment, and what conclusions you draw about the contemporary status of women?
Vida’s first campaign for the Senate in 1903 was greeted with astonishment, mirth and occasional derision; as the campaign went on, almost everything she did –from making speeches to wearing ‘fetching bonnets’ – was cause for comment in the press. Less attention was given to what she actually said, and there was little analysis of her policies or beliefs.
Now we have had a woman PM, this is no longer quite the case; attention has had to be paid to the Gillard government’s policies and track record. But Julia Gillard endured the kind of misogyny that dogged Vida for her whole political life. Gillard has said that any young woman who wishes to enter politics had better be prepared for ridicule and hostile criticism. She was speaking for her own generation of women politicians, as well as their predecessors. We are still a country in which many believe, on some level, that women are not the equal of men in political terms.
Class is an interesting companion to gender in the activism of Vida and her mother, Isabella. While some of her associates, like Adela Pankhurst, were inspired by Marxism, Vida seemed to derive her class activism from her religious faith. Can you tell us about the nature of her progressive Christian belief, and how it changed over time?
Yes, Adela Pankhurst and Vida were certainly coming at activism from two entirely different directions. Vida grew up believing in Christian charity — as a middle-class member of Charles Strong’s Australian Church she went out with her mother among the poor and disadvantaged of Melbourne — but help had to be practical, as urged in the New Testament. And when she became a convert to Christian Science, she felt it her duty as a human being to do what she could for those less fortunate. There were plenty of opportunities for Vida to exercise these beliefs.
Vida was implacably hostile towards organised political parties. Where did that hostility come from, and did she run into conflict between her aversion to the party machine and the growing professionalisation of her own political activities?
Vida appears to have inherited her hostility to organised politics from her father Jacob. It is true that — like all the other women who stood for Parliament between 1903 and 1917 — she insisted on being an independent. It should be pointed out that no political party was exactly beating down the doors to have women as election candidates. Commentators then and later expressed surprise and regret that Vida did not join an established political party; Vida herself made no apology for this at any time. She believed that the entrenched vested interests of political parties were inimical to democracy.
Vida seemed to favour finding employment for impoverished women over providing them with charity or welfare. Can this attitude be explained in terms of her Protestant religious beliefs, her middle-class status, or simply a ‘pre-welfare state’ mindset that prized individual responsibility?
I think the answer to this is at least a partial ‘yes’. She believed that the Lord helps those who help themselves, as stated in the Bible; she felt that, given her social status it was her responsibility to do what she could for those less fortunate. I’m not sure about her view of individual responsibility; she passionately believed that it was the duty of government to ensure that all Australians had at least the means of livelihood.
Vida’s activism on issues of gender and class is very recognisable to us in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, her silence on issues of race is noticeable. She was critical of British imperialism, but do you have any sense of her views about the White Australia policy and the experience of Indigenous Australians?
She supported the White Australia policy. She was against immigration on the grounds that those who came here from less fortunate nations would be landed with the worst, degrading jobs, which would not be fair to them. As for Indigenous Australians, as far as I know she never met any (unlike some of her contemporaries, notably Annie Lowe). During her lifetime it was widely believed that Australia’s Indigenous people were dying out.
Vida’s activism seemed to come to fairly rapid stop after the prominent role she took in opposing the First World War, and the two efforts to introduce conscription. Why do you think she stepped back from the public sphere? Was she disillusioned by public life, particularly after so many failed attempts to get elected to parliament?
I think she was just burned out. She had after all made five attempts to enter Parliament while running a fairly comprehensive program dedicated to social justice and legislation to benefit women and children. She also kept up a voluminous correspondence with a large number of people in the US and UK about suffrage issues. I think she wanted to concentrate on the work she was doing for the Christian Science church — to become an accredited practitioner, which she did.
Why do you think Vida is not better remembered? Maybe she was just too controversial and ‘difficult’…
The only thing that would have made Vida ‘difficult’ was her steadfast adherence to what she believed, and the arguments she advanced, in the face of opposition.
Was it difficult to venerate someone who had opposed the First World War when the Anzac legend achieved such sacred status in the decades after?
Yes. An enormous amount of political and social capital was invested in the Anzac legend and its glorification of masculinity and the idea of plucky little Australia, punching above its weight, was helping to support the British Empire.
Perhaps the centrality of her religious faith made her less inspiring to radical activists during the twentieth century?
That could certainly be true. A great deal of radical activism in the latter half of the twentieth century was highly secular.
Your book is subtitled ‘A Woman For Our Time’. Why do you think Vida Goldstein is a ‘woman for our time’? What can we gain from a greater familiarity with her life and activism?
I chose that subtitle partly because of the parallels between Vida’s experiences as a political candidate and those of her female successors. And also because the battles she fought for women, including equal pay for equal work, are still very much with us. It’s true, too, that the values she espoused, and the clarity with which she expressed them, have modern parallels
In summary, I think Vida’s life and activism show that women of Australia cannot afford to dismiss the issues she confronted as belonging solely to the ‘olden days’, because they do not. In examining women’s social and political gains and losses over the last 120 years, it is salutary to see how strongly Vida’s work and preoccupations resonate now.