Culture and heritage

The rockstar feminist you never knew and why we need a statue of her

21 May 2024

She packed out venues on a world tour. US President Teddy Roosevelt was a fan. She won extraordinary rights for Australian women as suffrage spread across the globe.

Meet the audacious leader of the women’s suffrage movement in Australia, Vida Goldstein, and read on to find out why we are raising funds to build and place a statue of her in Melbourne.

In the City of Melbourne, statues of men outnumber that of women by 581 to 10.

To help close the gender gap in statues, Council recently promised to add three statues of notable female Melburnians who could inspire new generations.

We asked the community for suggestions and received more than 1000 public submissions.

Vida Goldstein was the most popular figure put forward by the public.

Vida was also the number one pick of the Statues Advisory Committee, chaired by Professor Clare Wright, Professor of History at La Trobe University.

“It is fitting that Vida will stand strong and upright in the civic landscape, her historical legacy permanently honoured by this statue,” Professor Wright said.

The new statue of Vida will be the first to appear under the new program.

A bronze statue of a woman and a sign that reads NO MORE MALE AND FEMALE RATES - ONE RATE ONLY. A woman in glasses smiles next to the statue
Professor Clare Wright with a statue of another gender equality advocate, Zelda D’Aprano

Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece said Vida was truly one of the most remarkable Australians to have ever lived.

“We are proud to be honouring Vida’s legacy with a statue,” the Deputy Lord Mayor said.

“Vida’s presence in the heart of the city will signal to young people – both girls and boys – that you do not have to accept the status quo, you can push for change and achieve great things.”

“The gargantuan gender gap in statues in Melbourne is beyond embarrassing,” the Deputy Lord Mayor said.

Among the few statues of women in the city right now, you will find gender equality campaigner Zelda D’Aprano at Trades Hall in Carlton and Aboriginal rights activist Lady Gladys Nicholls in Parliament Gardens in East Melbourne.

“There are more statues of fairies and nymphs than there are of actual real women.”

“We are taking action to celebrate the lives of the great women from our history, women who helped build our city.”

You can read more in the Deputy Lord Mayor’s opinion piece in CBD News.

A man in a shirt stands next to a bronze statue of an couple older couple
Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece with statue of Pastor Doug and Lady Gladys Nicholls. Photo: CBD News

Read on to learn more about Vida Goldstein, or jump to sections of interest.

You can donate now to the Vida Goldstein statue fund through the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation.

Vida was coming into her power when South Australian women became the first in the world to win the right to vote and stand for parliament

In a world first, women in South Australia won the right to vote and stand for parliament in 1894.

Women in New Zealand had won the right to vote only the year before.

“The win in South Australia was the most extraordinary victory,” Professor Wright said.

“It set the standard for everything that would come after, in terms of global suffrage: for global history and the history of women’s leadership.”

As a young women’s rights campaigner, Vida was watching from Melbourne.

She had helped to collect signatures for the Women’s Suffrage Petition, and attended Victorian parliamentary sittings to observe legislative processes that would help her campaign strategically on social welfare issues for women.

Vida ran various magazines and newspapers to raise awareness on women’s rights

Vida was good at seeing the link between women’s social issues and their need to be involved in decision-making. She also knew she had to get the word out to women.

Her publications included The Women’s Sphere, which she ran from 1900 to 1905, and The Women’s Voter, State Library Victoria records show.

In these pages, she addressed women’s issues, lobbied for equality in the vote, for women’s property rights, birth control, the creation of a children’s court, and a rise in the age of marriage consent.

Vida Goldstein selling “Votes for Women” newspaper. T. Humphrey & Co. photographer. Date 1912. Source: State Library Victoria

Australia became the first nation in the world to give women the right to vote and stand for parliament. Vida lobbied hard to make it happen.

Australia gave white women the vote and the right to stand for parliament in 1902.

“Australia made international headlines in 1902 when it became the first country in the world to give women the right to vote as well as to stand for election to the national parliament,” the Deputy Lord Mayor said.

“It was a momentous step forward for democracy the world over, it was something that had never been achieved in human history, and it happened right here in Australia.”

“Melbourne’s very own Vida Goldstein was a driving force behind that hard-won change,” the Deputy Lord Mayor said.

Vida was the first Australian to be invited to the Oval Office and meet a US President

After Australian women won the right to vote in 1902, Vida travelled to the United States, where she spoke at conferences, gave evidence to Congress, and met President Teddy Roosevelt.

The President was on board with the idea of women’s suffrage, but he wanted to meet the magnetic woman behind recent advancements in Australia.

“The President met Vida because he wanted to see what a fully enfranchised woman looked like – and fully enfranchised she most certainly was,” Professor Wright said.

Maybe the President also invited Vida to the White House to double-check that she hadn’t “grown an extra head” in the act of gaining the right to vote.

“One of the arguments against women’s suffrage was that if women could vote once every three years, this very act would ‘unsex’ them.

“It was similar to the marriage equality debate. Detractors said the whole of society would fall apart,” Professor Wright said.

It would take another two decades for women in the United States to win the right to vote.

Vida was a rockstar feminist. She packed out venues on a speaking tour of the US and Europe

Fresh from her meeting with the President, Vida resumed her speaking tour of the US and Europe to help keep suffrage on the agenda, Professor Wright said.

“She was a rockstar in her age. Thousands came to see her speak. Her movements were reported in the New York Times, the Boston Globe. She made headlines.”

Vida at the great suffragette demonstration in London circa 1911. Source: State Library Victoria

“It’s appalling that we’ve completely forgotten about Vida and women like her now,” Professor Wright said.

“Vida Goldstein was a remarkable Australian, internationally renowned in her day as an influential political campaigner and strategist.”

Vida first stood for election in the Australian Parliament as an independent in 1903.

Soon after women had won the right to stand for parliament in Australia, 32-year-old Vida put in a bid for a Senate seat.

Despite “ridicule of her candidacy” as the Australian Dictionary of Biography puts it, Vida polled 51,497 votes.

It wasn’t quite enough for her to win a seat. Did she let her defeat get her down? No way.

Instead she redoubled her efforts to educate female voters through the renamed Women’s Political Association, and through her publication The Woman’s Sphere.

Vida ran for public office five times and never succeeded, but she didn’t let that stop her.

“She never broke through the glass ceiling,” the Deputy Lord Mayor said.

“But by god she fired up a global conversation about women’s rights, democracy, wage equality and safety of women.”

Vida inspired Emmeline Pankurst and other suffragists around the world

“As a suffragist and a feminist, Vida was celebrated internationally as a leader of the ‘votes for women’ movement,” the Deputy Lord Mayor said.

“She became a mentor and inspiration for many of the leading suffragists such as Emmeline Pankhurst.”

That’s the Emmeline Pankurst, leader of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union.

Emmeline’s 40-year campaign to give British women the vote finally ended in 1928.

British women were finally given full equality at the ballot box a quarter of a century after Australian women were permitted to join the queue for the ‘democracy sausage’ of their age.

Vida worked behind the scenes to secure a basic minimum wage for every worker

One of the most important judgements in Australia’s modern history has Vida’s fingerprints all over it.

The Harvester case established the right to a basic minimum wage for every worker – another bold reform that gained international headlines.

Melbourne historian Professor Wright unearthed evidence that it was Vida who provided detailed research on living standards.

Vida’s research was essential to the judgement that brought the minimum wage into law.

The judgement famously found that a “fair and reasonable wage” should be enough to support a wife and three children in “frugal comfort” based on the cost of clothing, food, housing and other essentials.

Sounds like Vida’s work.

Read more in this International Women’s Day speech by Lord Mayor Sally Capp.

A seat in parliament is named after Vida Goldstein

An Australian electorate was named after Vida in 1984.

The current sitting Member for Goldstein is independent Zoe Daniel, a former journalist.

The Member for Goldstein’s policies include equality and climate action: the issues for our day in much the same way that suffrage was the issue of Vida’s day.

She spoke recently in Parliament on the importance of honouring Vida Goldstein with a monument of her own.

“Public statues reflect how a society values its women and men.”

“Excluding women sends the message that their contributions throughout history are not as important as those of men,” the Member for Goldstein said.

“And, if there are no women to literally look up to, how will girls and boys see the sexes as equal?”

You can help make this Melburnian a household name. Donate now to the Vida Goldstein statue fund through the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation.

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