A pioneering Australian feminist and the wrestle for the vote

But it was her mother, Isabella, from whom she inherited and with whom she shared the powerful social conscience and acute awareness of social inequality and injustice that was to be the driving force of her life.

Goldstein at 18 was a well educated, sociable and pretty girl. Doing the rounds of ‘‘Marvellous Melbourne’’ society in the 1880s, she had several proposals of marriage and turned them all down. Kent is refreshingly brisk about this aspect of her subject’s life; Goldstein never married, then or later, and she does not seem to have gone through any agonising love affairs.

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In her middle years, her close friendship with fellow-activist and campaigner Cecilia John caused some gossip and disquiet among her old friends, but as Kent points out, ‘‘Vida never identified as lesbian, although Cecilia John did. At no time did Vida ever refer to John except as a friend and travelling companion; whether their relationship was more than that, we do not know.’’

Other than this, there is a refreshing absence from this book of any preoccupation with Goldstein’s romantic and sexual proclivities and practices, if indeed she had any. What makes her a good subject for a biography is her decades of participation and influence in public life, and it is her public life on which Kent keeps a steady focus throughout.

But we also see plenty of Goldstein’s personality: she comes across as a charming, quick-witted, energetic and supremely rational creature with the enviable gift of remaining immaculately dressed while travelling by train across country Victoria on speaking tours and election campaigns and living out of one small tin trunk.

As the economic depression of the 1890s set in, Goldstein decided, with her three equally well-educated sisters, to open a school. Over the six years that the school was operational, Goldstein became increasingly interested in politics and by the age of 30 was deeply involved with the suffragette movement at state, federal and international levels. In 1900, she established and edited the influential paper The Australian Woman’s Sphere, as ‘‘a vehicle to educate and inform Victorian women … and to keep them up to date with the state of women’s suffrage around the world’’.

She was well respected by her contemporaries in the suffrage movement, on good terms with the Pankhursts in Britain and with Susan B Anthony in the US. By her early 30s, she was sufficiently well known as a gifted and charismatic speaker to score regular invitations to international women’s conferences and conventions.

She made repeated attempts to be elected to Parliament, at first in Victoria and later federally. Kent makes it clear that her failures in these elections were largely down to her determination to stand as an independent rather than join any party; as a progressive feminist internationalist, she was not prepared to compromise her beliefs or lie about them.

Kent’s narrative style is quiet and clear, but there is the occasional and parenthetical quip or barb from today’s vantage point, and the book concludes on a note of real sadness that it has taken so very long for women in Australia as elsewhere to reach even the limited degree of gender equality that we can claim now.

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