In the archives of The Women’s Library London the first ever political campaign by a woman politician is conserved. This valuable archival material, carefully preserved for posterity by Vida Goldstein, tells of her first political campaign in 1903 when as a woman of thirty-four she set out to win a Senate seat in the Australian Federal Parliament.
Her campaign was followed enthusiastically by women and men around the world with The Age newspaper reporting on 11 August 1903:
‘The people of Australia must be well aware that, in this matter, the eyes of the whole world are upon them.’
Vida Goldstein’s challenge in 1903 Australia meant she had to deal with thousands of years of discrimination to win over the public. At the heart of her campaign was her recognition of the power of visual technology, making Vida Goldstein the first politician in history to use visual technology for political purpose and gain.
The whirrings of the technological age had only just begun with photography and the (now defunct) ‘Limelight/Magic Lantern’ technology, a forerunner to the movie business, today a massive industry. Vida Goldstein elected to employ both. Radical and innovative, she made herself known, bringing in the crowds and spreading the message that women and men should be equal politically, legally and in society.
Vida Goldstein’s political photograph – the photograph used on all her campaign material and provided to media and supporters – was expressly designed for political distribution. She was the first in the world to do this, seeing the importance of how she was portrayed visually and that it was vital to exercise control over her own image. Greatly sought after, her photographs were reproduced in newspapers passed among journalists and between ordinary people, making her a political pop icon. She was the ‘first woman in the world standing for political office’.
Straddling high and low culture and championing the importance of appealing to every ‘level’ of the polity – ‘high’ and ‘low’, Vida Goldstein maximised the Magic Lantern or Limelight stereopticon technology, which involved projection through the use of lime as a light source of two still images on glass slides resulting in three dimensional images. This took skill and perspicacity, as well as care and attention to technicalities: the medium was sometimes prone to bursting into flame.
Vida Goldstein’s carefully crafted political campaign ignited the public’s imagination, attracting hundreds to each session. Calling it a ‘chat’, showing 52 stereopticon slides entitled To America and Back and charging a ‘silver coin’ for admittance, she primed the population for political revolution by aligning herself to the most powerful man in the world, United States’ President Theodore Roosevelt. Her description of her meeting with Roosevelt meant that the public immediately saw her as a powerful woman with powerful friends. Roosevelt was ‘the ally’ but also an ally who objected to ‘political corruption’: in this Vida Goldstein was and was seen by many to be encouraging and bringing on board ‘good men’.
‘I met President Roosevelt last year. I could not be in his presence for five minutes without recognizing his strength of character. You know that you are speaking to a man of dominating and magnetic personality. His whole public career has been one of continual work, of storm and stress, for he has been the uncompromising enemy of social and political corruption.’
Vida repeated the stereopticon lecture over and over again in towns and cities across Victoria and the neighbouring state of South Australia, recognising the power of conflating the two messages, as is evident in her own words:
‘I believed that people would come to my meetings out of curiosity to see the wild woman who sought to enter Parliament. They came, they saw, I conquered – that is, my arguments did.’ (V. Goldstein, 1943)
Injustice and discrimination were central to Vida Goldstein’s campaign, as in her statement:
‘We thought that we lived under a democracy, but it was a male-ocracy and the fact is that women want our political customs changed so that they can have a say in matters themselves.’
But just as print media is vital to the success or otherwise of a political campaign or politician so it was for Vida Goldstein. So skilled was she that her every word, gesture and political repartee was recorded. Yet as her campaign successfully gained ground the media men and their powerful counterparts throughout society embarked on a vicious campaign to discredit her:
‘The candidature of Miss Vida Goldstein for a seat in the Federal Senate can scarcely be taken seriously by the electors, but it nevertheless calls for comment. In the latter event it would perhaps be the best thing that could happen to the “emancipation” of “woman” movement if the temerity of this venturesome young lady was made to suffer the stern and effective discouragement of monetary penalty.’
This was a reference to the fact that if a candidate won fewer votes than a set minimum, the candidate’s ‘registation’ or ‘nomination’ fee would be forfeit.
Similarly the Warnambool Standard newspaper was clearly unapologetic about what they saw as the ‘problem’ – namely, that Vida Goldstein was a woman, so on 3 December 1903 saying:
‘The principal objection raised against her candidature is that she is a woman, and this is the feeling that she has to overcome if she is to be included amongst the successful.’
Despite doing extremely well in garnering votes, Vida Goldstein was unsuccessful in gaining a seat. She blamed the print media for her failure – particularly The Age. In 1904 she wrote an analysis of the campaign, concluding:
‘The world moves slowly my masters, woman’s world especially, but it does move, and that’s something to be thankful for.’
Vida Goldstein’s political campaign led the way for the women who have followed. Just over one hundred years later Australia has voted their first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Nevertheless, albeit one hundred years later the discriminatory residue lingers strongly.
In the latest turn of events Prime Minister Gillard continues to be vilified by the media with Alan Jones, a radio personality well-known in Australia, suggesting:
‘Julia Gillard should be put in a chaff bag and thrown out to sea.’ (1)
And from the leader of the opposition Tony Abbott:
‘The trouble with Julia Gillard is that she just won’t lie down and die.’ (2)
Just as with Vida Goldstein the vilification centers on the Prime Minister’s being a woman – the world indeed ‘moves slowly’. Nonetheless, it does more. And just like Vida Goldstein Julia Gillard has said:
‘I will not lie down and die.’ (3)
Karen Buczynski-Lee © July 2012
Karen Buczynski-Lee is a Filmmaker, Writer and Researcher. This contribution based her MA (Research) Film and TV thesis, entitled ‘Mourning Becomes Electric: Vida Goldstein Takes On Politics’ and ‘When Vida Met the President: A Documentary Drama – Film Script’.
Editor’s Note: Karen Buczynski-Lee’s researches led her to find a small book written by Vida Goldstein, which had been mislaid amongst the Melbourne State Library stacks and out-of-print for decades. Karen Buczynski-Lee succeeded in having the Victorian Women’s Trust (VWT) reprint it for sale and distribution to schools and libraries: the VWT acknowledges it as the most successful production the VWT has ever managed, and the book continues to be reprinted regularly.
(1) Alan Jones quotation: www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsaVpepMyA8 (accessed 2 August 2012)
(2) Tony Abbott quotation: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/julia-gillard-wont-lie-down-and-die-says-tony-abbott/story-fn7x8me2-1226370429139 (accessed 4 August 2012)
(3) Prime Minister Gillard quotation: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/national/pm-offers-olive-branch-to-sydney-after-g20-snub/story-fncynkc6-1226426336093 (accessed 4 August 2012)