Vida Goldstein’s 1903 election campaign: Exposing the influence of the press on Australian politics

Natasha Walker and Catherine Dewhirst explore the machinations of the Australian press during Vida Goldstein’s 1903 election campaign.

One hundred and twenty years ago, the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 passed universal suffrage for British subjects over the age of 21. The federal election of 1903 thus became a landmark political event in which those white women who qualified took up their right to vote and stand for election. 

Portrait of Vida Goldstein (190-). Image via National Library of Australia.

While initially reluctant, Vida Goldstein was one of four women campaigning from August 1903 to enter politics and one of three for a seat in the Senate. She polled 51,497 votes on 16 December, just over half the votes of winning candidate William Trenwith and well above three other male contenders. 

The result, Goldstein declared in her conciliatory speech, was ‘virtually a victory’. In the same breath, she reasserted that she had represented ‘the best interest in the nation – the home’ but had also run ‘as a protest against press domination and the creation of the vicious system of machine politics’.

The election and Goldstein’s life have attracted much scholarly attention. In particular, historians and literary critics such as Farley Kelly, Norman MacKenzie and Jenny Mulraney offer much from their discussions on the approaches of the mainstream and popular press. Yet, the issue of the political power of the press and ‘machine politics’ remains largely unexplored. 

Goldstein’s feminist periodical, The Australian Woman’s Sphere (1900-1905), and other publications, as well as reportage by The Age (1854-) and The Argus (1846-1957), reveals not only the strong public support she gained but also how her campaign exposed deliberate tactics to disparage fair play for political influence.

As we argue in our recent book chapter, analysis of the 1903 election ‘amplifies the complex relationship of how the virtual victory emerges from the sudden shared space of the first Federal election with equal suffrage, and the often-overlooked exchange between minority and mainstream newspapers.’ 

‘A Senatorial Sister’, Punch, 14 August 1903, p. 16. Image via Trove, National Library of Australia.

The issues of ‘press domination’ and ‘the vicious system of machine politics’ first emerged shortly before Goldstein’s candidature was announced in August 1903. The Argus published an article explicitly titled, ‘Women Candidates for Parliament: Are they eligible?’, questioning Minister for Home Affairs Sir William Lyne’s introduction of the 1902 Bill by suggesting women’s lack of fitness to hold office. 

Of note is Goldstein’s quick response, ‘Should Women Enter Parliament?’, in the 20 August 1903 Review of Reviews. Goldstein addressed a series of arguments against women’s inclusion. By the time she was campaigning in Prahran, The Age and The Argus had begun discrediting her by focusing on her economic plan. 

The Age acknowledged that Goldstein’s ‘sympathies were with the protectionists’, but claimed: ‘Too much, she thought, was made of the fiscal question. Free-trade was not free, and protection did not protect.’

While implying she did not understand economic policy, she was accused of being ‘an opportunist’ and ‘unsound on the fiscal issue’, and patronised as having taken ‘the privilege of her sex – of changing her mind’. Goldstein had, of course, launched her campaign as an unwavering protectionist.

What the media and politics more broadly appear to have been blind to at this time was Goldstein’s aim for placing her economic agenda of ‘the interests of the home’ on par with ‘manufacturing, farming, mining and labouring interests’. She made this argument clear in Prahran when asked why women should enter Parliament:

‘You return pastoralists to look after the interests of the landed proprietor, merchants to guard the rights of the traders, and Labour members to watch industrial affairs. Do you not think it is time someone went into Parliament to guard the sacred rights of women and children?’

For Goldstein, ‘the home’ was central to the significant social and domestic contributions of the family, women and children within the nation’s economic framework, not least through the issue of equal wages for women. Her campaign manifesto on fiscal responsibility, protectionism and free trade was published in The Australian Woman’s Sphere.

The Australian Woman’s Sphere, Vol. 1, No. 1, September 1900. Image via State Library of New South Wales.

The misrepresentation of and misinformation about Goldstein’s political campaign in the mainstream press reflected the practice of ‘party machine’ politics. One feature of this practice was the preferential ‘ticket’ voting system, advertised in both The Age and The Argus

The Australian Woman’s Sphere had much to say on these ‘tickets’, printed by The Age and The Argus to coax readers to follow for their own political preferences and friends.

Earlier in 1903, Goldstein’s newspaper had advised readers to be wary of supporting established political parties, which men, who would ‘simply help perpetuating the old order of things’, monopolised. The newspaper then informed readers of the personal and self-serving reasons the mainstream press for promoting such candidates: 

‘The influence of a great newspaper may be a power for good, but it may also be, and sometimes is, a power for evil. We advise women voters to exercise their own judgement, and certainly not to be influenced by so manifestly unfair a paper as the “Age” has proved itself to be’.

Vida Goldstein selling the Votes for Women newspaper, 1912. Silver gelatin photograph by T Humphrey & Co. Image via State Library of Victoria.

It is important to note that the approach The Australian Woman’s Sphere took instead was based on educating women through this new responsibility. It offered guidance: check you are on the electoral roll; the address to contact if not; what to do on polling day; what the ballot papers would contain; how many candidates to vote for; and even providing a “Mock Election”.

Goldstein commented on The Argus’s post-election criticism in her 1904 Review of Reviews article: ‘The Argus maintained that, having had all the advantages of being “a pioneer,” my failure to secure a bigger vote does not augur well for the future of lady candidates’. This was curious, according to Goldstein, because: 

‘a pioneer of a movement labours under overwhelming disadvantages, and I was no exception to the rule. I had against me the combined power of the morning and labour papers, deliberate misrepresentation by two of them, a considerable lack of the sinews of war, and the prejudice of sex… I stood for the sake of a cause, the cause of women and children; I stood as a protest against the dictation of the Press, against the creation of the ticket system of voting, and I am proud to think that over fifty thousand people in Victoria supported me in what seemed at the outset a most unpopular crusade’.

The critical message of Goldstein’s campaign – that women and children were an integral part of Australia’s politics and economics – confronted the male-dominated landscape of the press and politics. However, she also exposed a misogynistic culture within two leading newspapers, aimed at influencing voters’ political participation, which defied democratic ideals. 

Have ‘press domination’ and ‘machine politics’ dissolved in 119 years since women first took to the polls and could stand for election? More than half a million Australians think not on the former, and women and men continue to speak out publicly against what Vida Goldstein identified long ago as the barriers to a healthy, respectful and inclusive representative government.


Original chapter: Natasha Walker and Catherine Dewhirst, ‘“Virtually a Victory”: The Australian Woman’s Sphere and the Mainstream Press during Vida Goldstein’s 1903 Federal Candidature’, in Catherine Dewhirst and Richard Scully (eds), Voices of Challenge in Australia’s Migrant and Minority Press, Palgrave Series of the History of the Media (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), pp. 193–219.


Natasha Walker is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Queensland. Her research focus is the transnational influence of the first-wave feminist press in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. She plans to further investigate how women communicated their aims for equality and world peace on a transnational scale through feminist print media during her candidature.


Catherine Dewhirst is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Southern Queensland. She has published on Italian-migrant communities, the migrant press, archival histories, memories and life-narratives of families, and women’s experiences in the early 1900s. Her recent publications include two co-edited books with Richard Scully, The Transnational Voices of Australia’s Migrant and Minority Press (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and Voices of Challenge in Australia’s Migrant and Minority Press (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).

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