Vida Goldstein and Australasian Suffragists in the International Sphere


From the papers of Bessie Rischbieth (National Library of Australia) 

From Syndey Review of Books:

There’s a story that keeps being told. It goes like this: it’s 1902, and the inaugural International Woman Suffrage Conference has drawn women from around the world to Washington, DC. It’s a historic meeting of nations, and the star of the show is a willowy 33-year-old from Melbourne. Her name is Vida Goldstein and she’s there to represent Australia and New Zealand, two nations riding high on their trailblazing political achievements. New Zealand gave women the vote in 1893, South Australia in 1894, Western Australia in 1899. Now, in 1902, the new Commonwealth of Australia is about to grant white women the right to vote and stand for federal parliament – a world first. The two British settler colonies are leading the world in democratic innovation and women’s rights.

Goldstein, the personification of these achievements, is heralded in Washington as a ‘light bringer from the southern seas’. She’s befriended by the likes of Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She’s even invited to tea at the White House, where she enjoys a private audience with an ebullient president Teddy Roosevelt. After a hectic fortnight in the capital, Goldstein embarks on a national speaking tour – and is so inundated with invitations that she ends up spending six months on the road, spreading word about Australasia’s trailblazing achievements.

In recent years, this tale has become a touchstone of histories of antipodean democracy. The memorable vision of the ‘Australian girl in the Oval Office’ is recreated in Marilyn Lake’s Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform (Harvard, 2019) and You Daughters of Freedom: The Australian Women Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World (Text, 2018) by Clare Wright (who is my La Trobe University colleague and podcast co-host), as well as in articles, radio documentaries and podcasts. Now, it makes a further appearance in two new releases: Jacqueline Kent’s biography of Goldstein, Vida: A Woman for Our Time, and James Keating’s Distant Sisters, a history of fin-de-siecle ‘suffrage internationalism’ that explores how Australasian suffragists like Goldstein engaged with the international sphere.

The tale of Goldstein in DC is, unquestionably, a true story. Everyone agrees on the basic facts of what happened in 1902. Our girl Vida wowed the US president. But historians are divided over what it means. What, precisely, should we draw from this episode? What does this Federation-era snapshot tell us about Australia’s relationship to the wider world? And what is Goldstein’s place in larger histories of Australasian suffrage and democracy?

“Storying the Suffragists”, Yves Rees, Sydney Review of Books

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