Books & Literature

Book Review: Vida, by Jacqueline Kent

BIOGRAPHY: Vida Goldstein was an advocate for women’s rights, a campaigner for peace, fought for the distribution of wealth, and a trail-blazer who provided leadership and inspiration to innumerable people.

Full of interesting historical details, but ultimately unsatisfying

Jacqueline Kent is perhaps best known as the author The Making of Julia Gillard and in this biography of Vida Goldstein, she frequently refers to the issues and difficulties Gillard faced in her time as Prime Minister. The biography is packed with illuminating historical detail from Goldstein’s life and times. She was an energetic teacher, an inspired writer and magazine publisher, and a devoted Christian Scientist.

Her situation as a comfortably off, middle-class white woman in Melbourne is well documented in Kent’s biography. She was the eldest child of a complex family with an Irish-Jewish father. She never married, living most of her life in the family enclave and campaigning tirelessly for social justice for women and children for over 30 years. She stood for election as an independent, becoming the first woman in the Western world to stand for a national Parliament, in Victoria, for the Senate, in 1903. 

The assertion that Goldstein’s beliefs are “refreshingly contemporary” is hard to justify. While women are still fighting for equal rights and peace as she did, she also feared the horrific death toll of WWI would threaten the ‘British race’, espoused eugenic theories, and supported the White Australia Policy. These positions were not controversial at the time, with the White Australia Policy being supported across the political spectrum until the 1960s, but they would clearly be unacceptable in a political candidate today. 

While this biography may well bring important details of Goldstein’s life and works to a contemporary audience, the book suffers from too many unverified assumptions surrounding these events. Too often Kent asserts her subject ‘clearly’, ‘obviously’, or even ‘must have known’ for all these claims to be credible. I was also irritated by the author’s use of comments in parentheses used to draw what she considered parallels between Goldstein and Julia Gillard.

Kent makes far too much of the tenuous comparisons between Goldstein’s five failed attempts at election and politicians such as Gillard. Suggesting Goldstein was the first of Australia’s heroic women politicians who were criticised for their gender and clothes rather than their policies and was ‘the founder of a lineage of political heroines accursed by conservatives and misogynists’, which led ultimately to the downfall of our first female Prime Minister, is, of course, used to justify the subtitle A Woman for Our Time. But it also has the effect of taking Goldstein’s life and achievements out of their historical context in conflating the feminism of her time (which didn’t even deserve the name) with today’s troubled feminism. We must not be misled into thinking that the past experiences can offer easy solutions for today. 

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Penguin Random House
Released: September 2020
RRP: $34.99

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