This Women’s History Month, ExpertsDirect would like to celebrate the contributions and achievements of women who have significantly influenced our ideas of a more inclusive and just society. Here, we recap the lives of three women whose work in the law and the community has shaped our contemporary times for the better.
Vida Goldstein (1869—1949)
Vida Goldstein was born in Portland, Victoria, the daughter of an Anglo-aristocratic mother from Victoria’s Western District and a Polish Jewish father who had associations with the Polish Independence movement.
Goldstein was educated at Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Victoria but cut her teeth as a political thinker and debater through her self-study of social, economic, and legislative subjects. Her intellectually rigorous approach to activism was supported by a commitment to understanding the real-world complexities of campaigning and government decision-making. She attended Victorian parliamentary sessions and actively agitated for reforms in legislation. In 1891, she assisted her mother in collecting signatures for the Monster Petition for women’s suffrage. By 1899, she had become the Victorian leader of the radical women’s movement.
In 1902, Goldstein travelled to the United States to present at the International Woman Suffrage Conference, where she spoke in favour of suffrage to members of the U.S. Congress. Partially under her popular political influence, Australia became one of the first countries to give white women the vote. Upon her return to Australia, Vida became one of the first ever women in the British Empire to be nominated and to stand for election to national parliament.
Goldstein would then extend her concern for equal rights for women to a concern for equal employment, property, and educational rights more broadly. Goldstein’s 1907 paper “Socialism of today – An Australian view” set out the costs of living for a man and his family of the lowest wage bracket. The article famously led to Justice Henry Higgins’ 1908 Harvester Judgement, which introduced into Australian legislation the legal concept of the minimum wage.
Goldstein’s political influence was in large part generated by her remarkably inexhaustible commitment to editing political publications, educating women by touring the country with lectures, and establishing women’s collectives which provided access to skills education and academic resources. She would campaign for election to Federal parliament four more times (1910 and 1917 for the Senate, and 1913 and 1914 for the House of Representatives) as an Independent Woman Candidate.
Her staunchly independent and Pacifist stance on war would prevent her from gaining election, though her internationalist and equality-focused influence is reflected in her successful lobbying for legislative reforms for several decades.
Shirley Colleen Smith (1924—1998)
Shirley Colleen Smith (also known as ‘Mum Shirl’) was born in Erambie Reserve in Cowra. Her earliest years as a Wiradjuri Aboriginal woman were spent with her parents (drovers and Erambie mission Aboriginal councillors) and her grandfather (an Aboriginal elder who displayed a strong spiritual connection to Country).
Smith credits her lifelong struggle with epilepsy, and the kindness shown to her about her seizures, as the source of her sensitivity to the importance of communal care and responsibility. After moving to Surry Hills in Sydney with her then-partner, Smith’s brother was sent to prison. Over the course of her brother Laurie’s incarceration, Smith would visit the prison regularly, counselling her brother as well as other prisoners. When asked about her relationship to other prisoners she spoke to, Smith would answer “I’m his mum”.
These visits would continue after Laurie’s release and mark the beginning of Smith’s prolific career in welfare work. Her assumption of the role of carer and mentor within her community became recognisable to prison authorities as well as to the Child Welfare Department and Newtown police in Sydney NSW. She took up paid work at Argent’s Box Factory and Aboriginal Medical Services, all the while distributing a larger portion of her income to support those in need around her, and bringing up over 60 children by the early 90’s.
In the 1970’s Smith’s work in the community evolved into direct political activism. She was a key figure in the Aboriginal land rights movement, campaigning in 1970 alongside Ken Brindle and Elsa Dixon to obtain land rights for the Gurindji people. The campaign would lead in 1984 to the granting to the Gurindji people of inalienable freehold title over the contested land and become recognised as one of the first significant victories of the Indigenous Australian land rights movement.
Smith would later also become instrumental in the establishment of the Aboriginal Legal Services, the Aboriginal Medical Service (created in collaboration with Fred Hollows and others), the Aboriginal Black Theatre, Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Aboriginal Children’s Service, and Aboriginal Housing Company. Smith famously spoke alongside Gough Whitlam at campaign events for the Australian Labor Party in 1972.
Smith received an Order of Australia and an Order of the British Empire in 1979.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933—2020)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York, USA. In her earliest years she excelled in school and studied at Cornell University on a full scholarship.
After graduating in equal first place from Columbia Law School in 1959, Ginsburg, with the assistance of her professors, secured a clerkship in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, which then had only hired women as secretaries. She later worked as Assistant Professor at Rutgers School of Law and obtained tenure in 1969.
In the 70’s, Ginsburg began to focus more heavily on gender discrimination law and litigation. Her early academic publications include a brief to the American Civil Liberties Union (‘ACLU’) on an Idaho state law which provided that men should be preferred over women when electing administrators for people who died intestate. This work would lead to a role in establishing the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, which further expanded the scope of her research into gender discrimination in US Law.
Ginsburg was a Judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington in the 1980’s. In 1993, U.S. President Clinton elected Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her judgements have reflected a marked concern for issues of gender discrimination in U.S. Law, as well as a tendency to author and recite strong forthright dissenting opinions on issues of access to affordable healthcare and the extent of corporate responsibility.
Ginsburg famously wrote the majority judgement in United States v Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996), which argued against the presumption in a military institution admission policy that women were unsuitable for an education centred on military training. She lambasted the policy for its application of “generalisations about ‘the way women are’, estimates of what is appropriate for most women”, which not only failed to justify denying opportunity to women of appropriate remarkable talent, but also overlooked the plain fact that military training would be unsuitable for most college students of any gender.