3 Australian women who made history you should know about

3 Australian women who made history you should know about

A suffragette who became one of the first women in the British Empire to stand for election to a national parliament.

A talented swimmer who took on the surfing world and won.

A resistance fighter whose unwavering campaign for land rights would extend further than her lifetime.

This International Women’s Day, celebrated La Trobe historian, author and podcaster Dr Clare Wright let’s us in on the stories of three game-changing women every Australian should know about.

Let’s get to know these three remarkable women.

Vida Goldstein – Social reformer and suffragette

A woman who smashed the glass ceiling in the political landscape of her time, Vida Goldstein is a leader to remember. Though hers may not be a name you’re familiar with, Goldstein has well and truly earned her place in Australia’s history books.

As Dr Wright puts it:

“I will always have a place in my heart for Vida Goldstein. She was the woman with whom I was most familiar before starting research for You Daughters of Freedom. I had already featured Vida in two television documentaries I’d written for the ABC (Utopia Girls, 2012; The War That Changed Us, 2014) and she was the subject of a long scholarly article I published in the international Journal of Women’s History.”

Vida is a force to be reckoned with; to my mind, as important a figure in Australian history as Alfred Deakin.”

Dr Clare Wright

After a childhood spent in the rural towns of Portland and Warrnambool in Victoria’s south-west, Goldstein moved with her parents to Melbourne at the age of eight.

A social reformer, Goldstein fought for women’s rights and was a major player in the suffrage movement. She even traveled to the United States of America to speak at the International Woman Suffrage Conference in 1902, the same year (white) women in Australia achieved the right to vote at Federal level. While she was there, Goldstein spoke to a committee of the United States Congress and attended the International Council of Women Conference.

Next on the agenda after Goldstein’s return from the U.S. was Federal politics. Running as an Independent candidate for the Senate in 1903, Goldstein became one of the first women in the British Empire to stand for election to a national parliament.

Although she was ridiculed for her candidacy, Goldstein landed more than 51,000 votes (almost 5% of the total ballots). She also landed another place in the pages of Australia’s history.

In the following years, Goldstein stepped up to run as a candidate for Australian parliament several times. A staunch anti-war campaigner, Goldstein also also founded the Women’s Peace Army.

Fanny Balbuk – Resistance fighter and land rights campaigner

A brave figure who fought long and hard for her rights and the rights of her people, Noongar Whadjuk woman Fanny Balbuk left her mark on history.

As modern day Perth, then known as the Swan River Colony, began to change during colonisation, Balbuk’s world as she knew it changed too.

Balbuk’s losses were significant. The lives of members of her extended family were taken and her community was disenfranchised. Balbuk was prevented from accessing food, living her culture and accessing her country. Wetlands were drained and the lands Balbuk and her family had hunted on for generations were built over.

Even Balbuk’s own mother’s grave was reportedly enclosed behind the gates of Government House, inaccessible to Balbuk and her family.

She decided to take a stand.

Balbuk became one of the most prominent figures of her time, protesting loudly at Government House and knocking down fence palings with her digging stick. She was known for her unwavering campaign against the occupation of her home in the early days of the Frontier Wars in Western Australia.

Histories of the land shared by Balbuk and documented by self-taught anthropologist Daisy Bates would significantly contribute to the ultimate 2006 Noongar Native Title Claim.


Isabel Letham – The ultimate Australian female surfing trailblazer

Before the horrors of World War I, in early 1900s Edwardian Australia, the Archbishop of Sydney was advocating for sex-segregated beaches – that is, separate beaches for women and men.

It was at this time, that a young woman stood on the shores on Sydney’s Freshwater beach, surf board in arm, preparing to break all the rules.

The only child of Scottish immigrants, Letham was born in Sydney in 1899, just two years before federation. Letham’s mother, influenced by first-wave feminism, supported her daughter’s surfing. Her father, however, initially objected, but later changed his mind upon seeing his daughter’s determination, even crafting Letham her own redwood surfboard.

“I had been brought up to stand on my own two feet at a very early age,” Letham later said in a radio interview. And stand on her own two feet, she did.

In the summer of 1914-15, Hawaiian swimming champion and Olympian Duke Kahanamoku visited Freshwater beach to give a surfing demonstration. He chose Letham as his partner in the spectacle of tandem surfing.

The two could be seen gliding along the waves, in an athletic show of strength and skill. It was an event that would go on to solidify Letham as a bona-fide celebrity of surfing. It was also one that the laws of segregated beaches, if allowed, may have prevented.

Dr Clare Wright’s Shooting the Past podcast episode ‘The Glide’ reveals the rise and career of Letham in detail. In the podcast, La Trobe academic Dr Anne Rees reveals the photograph of Letham riding that wave represents the “last hurrah for progressive Australia that existed in the 15 years or so between Federation and World War 1, before the militarism and the death and the grief of WW1 starts to take hold”.

Post-World War I, a shift in surfing culture saw women’s participation in the sport largely blocked for much of the twentieth century. Women were denied membership to surf life-saving clubs, and were harassed and intimidated in the water – a downwards trajectory when compared to progress before the war.

Letham died in 1995, aged 95, 80 years after she stood on the shoulders of Duke Kahanamoku. But not before she could watch Pam Burridge win the first-ever Australian women’s surfing championship in 1980.

Now, watching women grab a board and paddle out the back is no longer a novelty, a spectacle or a threat, thanks to Isabel Letham and other female surfing trailblazers just like her.

Speaking to the exclusion of women from histories, Dr Wright says:

“‘You can’t be what you can’t see’, goes the saying. It’s not a truism. How many more history enthusiasts might we have if students could read themselves into the past?

“How many more female activists might we have if girls knew that women in the past were agitators, critics, risk-takers and rebels? And how many more boys might grow up to be men who respect women, if women’s past actions and ambitions were recognised, valued and rewarded?

Discover more prominent Australians in Dr Clare Wright’s podcast, Shooting the Past.

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