Review: Yves Reeson suffragists

Storying the Suffragists

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?

Kent and Keating present very different answers to these questions. For Kent, the story is exactly what it seems: evidence of Australian global leadership and proof of Goldstein’s status as the emblematic figure of the Australian suffrage movement. Keating, by contrast, queries this celebratory reading. For him, Goldstein was an outlier, the rare Australasian suffragist who forged meaningful connections on the international stage. As such, her 1902 triumph in Washington was less evidence of Australian leadership than an indication of potential for leadership and influence that would, in truth, never be realised. For Kent, Goldstein is the story – the subject of her biography and the key figure of Australian suffrage. For Keating, Goldstein is the exceptional figure whose celebrity obscures a truer, more complex story.

Although Kent and Keating are both concerned with suffrage and democracy in Federation-era Australia, their books are worlds apart in terms of style and argument. Kent’s is a history for a general audience that reproduces familiar narratives about Goldstein and her times. Vida aims to popularise Goldstein’s story among contemporary feminists and their allies. Keating, meanwhile, in keeping with his scepticism towards the Goldstein mythology, has given us a work of determined historical revisionism. But this is very much an academic book written for fellow historians rather than a general readership.

Vida: A Women for Our Time is the latest offering from a veteran editor and biographer, whose previous subjects include Julia Gillard, writer Kenneth Cook, editor Beatrice Davis and pianist Hephzibah Menuhin. It’s a go-to-whoa biography, a narrative chronicle of a life, that aims to rescue suffragist, politician and activist Vida Goldstein (1869–1949) from her putative disappearance from popular memory. Goldstein ‘is not particularly well known outside scholarly circles,’ Kent claims in the introduction, before going on to demand: ‘why haven’t we heard more about her?’

Is it really the case that Goldstein has fallen from view? By some measures, we’ve heard quite a bit about her in recent years. Goldstein was a central character in Wright’s and Lake’s recent histories. Wright’s book was a bestseller. Goldstein’s photograph adorned the front cover of Lake’s history. Goldstein also featured in two recent in ABC TV documentaries (Utopia Girls in 2011 and The War That Changed Us in 2014), and was profiled in an episode of Hindsight on ABC Radio in 2012. There’s even a federal electoral division named after Goldstein, encompassing Melbourne’s blue-chip bayside suburbs of Beaumaris, Brighton and Sandringham. She’s hardly been forgotten.

It is true, however, that Goldstein has been the subject of only one previous full-length biography: Janette Bomford’s That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman, published by Melbourne University Press in 1993 (a book listed in Kent’s bibliography though unacknowledged in the text). Almost three decades later, during which transnational and settler colonial perspectives have transformed Australian history, there’s certainly scope for a new biography.

After all, Goldstein was a woman who reshaped the Australian political landscape during its formative years. In the early 1900s, she was Victoria’s and arguably Australia’s preeminent suffrage leader; in 1903, she became the first woman worldwide to stand for national parliament; and over the next fourteen years, she made five unsuccessful electoral bids. Goldstein also founded and edited The Woman’s Sphere, a suffrage journal; helped popularise Christian Science; was recruited by Emmeline Pankhurst to inspire Britain’s suffragettes, and led pacifist and anti-conscription campaigns during the first world war. She was a respected contemporary of Alfred Deakin, Sir John Monash, Stella Miles Franklin and many other luminaries. Such was Goldstein’s stature and influence, it’s troubling – though not surprising, given the enduring masculinism of our historical imagination – that it’s taken until 2020 for a second comprehensive biography to appear.

More’s the pity, then, that Kent’s work fails to deliver. Vida is a missed opportunity to produce an authoritative account of Goldstein’s life and times for the twentieth-first century. The book may well increase Goldstein’s celebrity, but it lacks the archival depth and authorial insight that characterised recent biographies of Goldstein’s contemporaries, such as Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (2017), Jill Roe’s Stella Miles Franklin (2008), and Desley Deakin’s Judith Anderson (2019). These biographies each combine academic rigour with readability, at once accessible to non-historians yet firmly lodged on a bedrock of deep scholarship.

Brett, Roe and Deacon spent years – or even decades – plumbing the archives and pondering their subject. Kent, meanwhile, makes no bones about her heavy reliance on Trove, the National Library’s online database of digitised periodicals. As historian Lara Putnam explains, the riches available on such databases are in many ways a trap. The ease of digital search is an illusory shortcut to the onerous task of making sense of the past. We can easily fool ourselves into thinking we’ve obtained understanding at the click of a finger. In reality, all we have is information, largely devoid of context. It is that context, that hard-won understanding of the world in which Goldstein moved, which is missing from Kent’s work.

Kent’s minimalist footnotes and bibliography, combined with chapters laden with undigested chunks of quoted text, testify to a research process that skates the surface of an extremely complex life and equally complex period in Australian history. (This impression is only enhanced by finding one of my own articles from The Conversation paraphrased in the final pages.)

Poorly substantiated claims abound. Words and phrases like ‘obviously’, ‘clearly’, ‘must have been’, ‘certainly’ and ‘must have known’ are frequently used. Goldstein’s mother’s attitude towards marriage was, we are told, ‘undoubtedly’ shaped by her own mother’s experiences of abuse. Was it really? How do we know? It may well have been. It’s certainly credible. But there’s no evidence presented to support this claim, implying there’s nothing ‘undoubted’ about it. To suggest otherwise is to overstep the limits of our ability to know the past.

Later, we’re told that Goldstein and her mother ‘certainly would have been’ in the audience of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House when it premiered in Melbourne in 1889. Again, really? They may indeed have attended the production. But there are also a hundred reasons why the Goldstein women might have given Ibsen a miss. In the absence of hard evidence to support this claim, it seems far from ‘certain’ – especially since, as Kent admits, ‘neither [were] particularly interested in the theatre’.

This is not to say we cannot speculate in regards to the silences of the archive. Gesturing towards possibilities, scenarios that might have been, is all well and good – even for the most academic of historians. Yet speculation must be transparent; we need to make it abundantly clear when we do not, cannot, know for sure. Otherwise we mislead the reader, taking them down a path of presumptive and potentially harmful supposition.

Vida is also plagued by repetition. For instance, a quoted letter on page 132 is presented again as new material on page 134. Meanwhile, the final chapter details the election of Australia’s first female federal parliamentarians in 1943, only for the same history to be retold ten pages later in the epilogue.

If Kent’s research can be queried, so too can her argument. For Kent, Goldstein was Australia’s original female politician, ancestor to the likes of Julia Gillard, Sarah Hanson-Young, Julie Bishop and Penny Wong – the founder of a lineage of political heroines accursed by conservatives and misogynists. Goldstein’s five unsuccessful electoral bids are narrated as the prehistory of the toxic parliamentary sexism that ultimately felled our first female prime minister in 2013.

This presentist framing will doubtless attract readers. By drawing a direct line between Goldstein and Gillard, Kent makes suffrage history unambiguously relevant. If nothing else, Vida makes a forceful case why today’s women and feminists should care about a long-dead lady in a bustle and oversized hat.

But does this packaging distort the message? The parallels drawn between Goldstein and Gillard, which culminate in a four-page ode to Gillard in the epilogue, are dubious. Gillard’s recurring presence in this Goldstein biography has no logical basis, given the absence of any meaningful connection between the two women. Their political careers played out a century apart, in very different worlds. They did not even belong to the same political party. Crucially, Goldstein refused to affiliate with any party, instead urging women to band together beyond party politics. For all five electoral bids, she stood as an independent. To my mind, the strongest bond between Goldstein and Gillard is that both had Kent as a biographer.

Was Goldstein really, as Kent insists, ‘a woman for our time’? This is the claim made in the book’s subtitle and repeated in the introduction. As Kent writes, the book ‘seeks to show how much Vida was not simply a woman of her times, but someone whose views and beliefs are refreshingly contemporary–and who is equally a woman of our time.’ Certainly, Goldstein campaigned for female suffrage and pacifism, and came to embrace socialism. But she was also – as Kent makes plain – a white, middle-class Christian Scientist who supported the White Australia policy, endorsed eugenics, fetishised the supposed racial kinship between ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in Australia and the United States, and feared that the first world war’s death toll threatened the ‘British race.’ All in all, hardly a model for a progressive in the age of Black Lives Matter and the Uluru Statement.

This is not to say that Goldstein was uniquely racist or reactionary. On the contrary, her positions on White Australia and eugenics were bog-standard among progressives and the labour movement in the early 1900s. As Lake elucidates in Progressive New World, Australian progressivism was built on the logic of settler colonialism and white supremacy. Most of Goldstein’s contemporaries held similar views; the White Australia policy had bipartisan support until the 1960s.

But while Goldstein’s race politics were unexceptional in fin-de-siecle Australia, she was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a woman for ‘our time’. She was rather a woman of her own times, and is best understood on those terms. Goldstein was a progressive, no doubt, but progressivism in 1905 was worlds apart from what travels as ‘progressive’ in 2020.

To suggest otherwise in an ahistorical gesture does a disservice to the complexities of both Goldstein’s own life and our own troubled present. It reduces a multifaceted human into a cipher, stripped from the context that made her life meaningful. It also collapses the ‘feminism’ of the 1900s (which wasn’t even called feminism) into the feminism of the 2020s, and deludes us into the thinking that the past can offer easy lessons or role models for today.

Instead of plumbing history for heroes, we must face up to the uncomfortable truth that white suffragists like Goldstein helped create and sustain the settler colonialism and white supremacism that define modern Australia. As historians like Patricia Grimshaw have documented, suffrage leaders both fought for white women’s rights and actively inhibited the rights of Indigenous women. They were freedom fighters and freedom takers, women browbeaten by patriarchy who also possessed racial and often class privilege that was wielded to harmful effect. Goldstein and her ilk were complex figures, remarkable pioneers and activists but also flawed humans ill-suited to the role of modern heroine.

Kent’s silence around this uncomfortable truth haunts her biography. We meet Goldstein the trailblazer who fell victim to misogyny, valiant ancestor to Gillard – but not Goldstein the white feminist, whose willingness to prop up and benefit from structural racism would be echoed by countless others up until the 2020s.

James Keating examines the suffragists on their own terms in Distant Sisters, a monograph written primarily for an academic audience. Originally from New Zealand, Keating is my near contemporary in the small world of Australian gender historians. For years, he’s stood out as one of the few cisgender men to attend meetings of the Australian Women’s History Network or participate in gender sessions at the Australian Historical Association annual conference. Now, in his first book, Keating sets out to make his own mark on the field. His project is to interrogate the purported internationalism of the Australian and New Zealand suffrage movements between the 1880s and the outbreak of the first world war.

To do so, he makes creative use of previously neglected archives. These include local branch records of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the pages of short-lived women’s journals such as Woman’s Voice (1905), and the correspondence of second-tier suffragists like Mary Steadman Aldis and Madge Donohoe. Keating does not eschew the delights of Trove, but also has a nose for hidden archival treasure and a stomach for the hard graft of contextualisation. This new research illuminates the full diversity and complexity of the Australasian suffrage movement, bringing to life a lost ecosystem of female activism that bridged local, national and international communities.

Most significantly, Keating questions the truism that early Australasian suffrage equated to global engagement and leadership. In an implicit riposte to Wright and Lake, whose recent books documented Australasian influence in Britain and the US, he ‘troubles the reflexive celebration of transnational activism.’ Instead, he insists that ‘antipodean women never fulfilled the leading role’ promised by Goldstein’s 1902 White House triumph. By looking beyond such moments, and viewing the suffrage movement as a whole, Keating concludes that ‘antipodean women played a circumscribed role in the international struggle for women’s suffrage’ and had ‘strained relations with the international suffrage movement.’ His is a history of unfulfilled promise, a story of missed opportunity and internecine struggle.

Yet while Distant Sisters places the accent on failure, the book does not deny the real transnationalism of the suffragists. Suffragists cultivated global connections, but these were fragile. They pursued international correspondence, but it was fragmentary. They travelled overseas, but in small numbers and not always to great effect. They sought to influence global women’s meetings, but were stonewalled. Internationalism had limits.

Keating’s qualified narrative forms part of a backlash to two decades of transnational history that fetishised movement, networks, webs, connection. After a spate of triumphalist accounts of transnational connection, he provides a history of frustrated bonds and fragile ties. It makes for sober reading. On almost every page, we are confronted with fresh examples of failure and frustration, a chronicle of unrealised potential that is documented step by dispiriting step. The mood is further lowered by an excess of historiographical critique. Betraying its origins as a PhD thesis, a genre in which up-and-coming scholars jostle for their own patch of expertise, Distant Sisters is weighted down by jibes at the shortcomings of other historians. But beneath, Distant Sisters is fresh and necessary, a razor-sharp collection of ‘messy stories’ that warn against simplistic readings of the past to the suit the imperatives or trends of the present.

Keating’s argument plays out over five chapters, each focused on a specific arena of women’s activism. We start with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the US-born behemoth of the women’s movement that powered suffrage campaigns throughout Australasia. Although, as a global organisation, internationalism was central to its identity, Keating shows that internal politics inhibited the international export of Australasian suffrage tactics.

The book also features chapters on suffrage correspondence and the women’s press, which each conclude that international engagement was more fragmented and perfunctory than previously assumed. A similar story is told of the travels of Australasian suffragists. Although Keating acknowledges the much-storied travels of Goldstein, he focuses on other figures whose experiences complicate existing narratives of Australasian celebrity and influence. Three examples from the 1890s are centred: South Australian reformer Catherine Helen Spence in the United States, Pakeha suffragist Kate Sheppard in Britain, and Temperance Union leader Elizabeth Webb Nicholls travelling across the Australian colonies. The decade before Goldstein set sail, these three women helped pioneer feminist political travel. Each used ‘political experience to inspire women in distance places’ and attempted to leverage their foreign credentials ‘to further domestic causes.’ Once more, Keating concludes that the results of this endeavour were mixed, ranging from raging success to humiliating failure. Political travel was on the whole a risky endeavour, contingent upon many variables, including ‘the political cultures of their destinations’ and ‘personal compatibility with those they encountered’. Goldstein’s 1902 triumph was far from the norm.

Distant Sisters also offers a comprehensive examination of Australasian involvement in the international women’s movement, focused on the International Council of Women (the ICW, established 1888) and the International Women’s Suffrage Organisation (the IWSA, established in 1904). Overall, antipodean participation in such forums was ‘lacklustre’. Until the end of World War I, Australians and New Zealanders were ‘notable by their absence.’ They attended IWSA conferences and ICW congresses in small numbers, and sometimes didn’t attend at all. How to explain this state of affairs? Keating asks. If antipodeans were indeed the world leaders they claimed to be, why were they not present in these meeting rooms?

For Keating, the most compelling answer is what Goldstein termed the ‘utter absence of national feeling’. Australian suffrage campaigns had been organised along colonial and later state lines, and these loyalties persisted after Federation. The nation existed in law but was not yet an imagined community that captured hearts and minds. This was a barrier to entering the international fray, where organisations such as the ICW and the IWSA were structured around national women’s organisations, which would not exist in Australia until the Australian Federation of Women Voters was set up in 1921. In the absence of a viable nationalism (at least until the 1920s), antipodean suffrage internationalism struggled to thrive.

This analysis is compelling, yet is structured around the assumption that formal organisations like the IWSA were the true arena of ‘suffrage internationalism.’ But what about the movers and shakers identified by Wright and Lake? This group included Goldstein, but also Catherine Helen Spence, Nellie Martel, Muriel Matters, Dora Meeson Coates and Alice Henry – all of whom won celebrity and shaped opinion beyond Australasia. Did their indisputable leadership not constitute ‘suffrage internationalism’?

For Keating, these were isolated individuals who lacked institutional power and remained reliant on fickle personal networks. Does this nullify their significance? They may indeed have operated outside powerful institutions, but it doesn’t follow that their individual activism was devoid of power or influence. They were just operating on a different plane, finding success on different terms. Keating is to be commended for drawing attention to the limited engagement with the ICW and IWSA – but it’s important to keep in mind there are many ways to measure ‘suffrage internationalism’. On some measures, antipodean suffragists did very well indeed.

Goldstein wowing Roosevelt is certainly not the whole story. And Goldstein is no feminist heroine – at least not without caveats and qualifications. But nonetheless, her time in the spotlight merits continued attention. Vida in the Oval Office, Vida helping to constitute White Australia, and Vida despairing over the ‘absence of national feeling’ that kept suffragists focused on local struggles – these are all fragments of a larger canvas upon which sits the complete history of Australian suffrage and democracy. Piece by piece, our understanding deepens.

Whilst both Kent’s and Keating’s books will satisfy their very different readerships, there remains a largely unmet need for feminist histories that bridge academic and popular audiences – much like the Roe and Brett biographies. In this moment of renewed feminist activism, when hard-won feminist gains are under threat from the economic fallout of Covid and the ideological warfare of conservative governments, it’s more vital than ever to cultivate widespread understanding of the complex histories of this movement. Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom and Michelle Arrow’s award-winning The Seventies: The Personal, the Political and the Making of Modern Australia are two recent models. Both books are exemplary works of storytelling and of scholarship. Over coming years, hopefully, more historians of women and gender will follow in their footsteps.