Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Vida Goldstein & Theodore Roosevelt
When the first International Women’s Suffrage Alliance conference convened in Washington in February 1902, Australia’s representative was its most prominent radical feminist, Vida Goldstein.
Vida was then 32, “slight in figure and attractive in personality”, a vigorous campaigner whose platform eloquence and ready wit drew large audiences to hear her speak. She fought for a range of social justice issues but suffrage was her main focus.
Australian women had already won the vote in some states and all white women had been guaranteed voting rights in national elections in the deal that forged Federation. American suffragists could only view such achievements with awe. Addressing the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives, Goldstein told the honourable gentlemen that some Australian women had been voting in municipal elections since before she was born. And they had not, as American anti-suffragists argued would inevitably be the case, banned alcohol and shut down the saloons.
Elected conference secretary, she was invited to the White House to meet President Theodore Roosevelt.
Born into a wealthy New York family, Teddy Roosevelt had become president after the assassination of William McKinley the previous year. Roosevelt was a bluff, jaw-jutting exponent of strenuous masculine endeavour, a big-game hunter, trust buster and war hero whose policy was to speak softly and carry a big stick. He was also an early champion of women’s equality. While a student at Harvard, he’d written his thesis on the subject, arguing that married women should not have to assume the man’s name.
When Vida was ushered into his private office, Roosevelt was issuing instructions, with “one foot on a chair, slapping his knee for emphasis”. He cordially welcomed Miss Goldstein and “expressed his great interest in the advanced politics of Australia”. There were Australians among his Rough Riders, he told her. Were they any good, she asked? Excellent, declared the president.
In August, Goldstein returned home to be greeted at the wharf with the news that the Franchise Act had just been signed into law.
But there was still much to be done. Her star burnished by overseas endorsement, Vida proceeded to storm the speaking circuit with ‘To America and Back’, a feminist travelogue illustrated with magic-lantern “limelight views”. At the 1903 election, she ran for the Senate, Australia’s first female federal candidate. She got decent numbers but no cigar. In 1912, after two terms as president, Roosevelt established the Bull Moose Party. Its platform included votes for women. But it took until 1920 for American women to win the vote. Then they closed the saloons.