In 1911, Australian suffrage campaigner Vida Goldstein visited London to support the British suffragette movement. On 23 March, she spoke to a crowd of 10,000 people at the Albert Hall.

In the audience was my great-grandmother, Edith Gardiner, wife of a shopkeeper in East Ham. Edith was so inspired that she immediately migrated with her young family to Melbourne. There, she joined Vida’s campaigns and played a key role in the Women’s Peace Army (WPA) and anti-conscription movement during the First World War.

Madge led the United Women’s No Conscription Procession in 1916.

I grew up with stories of the time her daughter, my great-aunt Madge, then ten years old and carrying the dove of peace, led the huge 1916 Women’s Procession against conscription through the streets of Melbourne. I have newspaper clippings of that day, and the most recent biography of Vida Goldstein features photos of Madge and her dove of peace (above), and of her sister Connie at work on the WPA’s Women’s Farm.

But where was Edith?

Nobody mentioned her. She was Vice-President of the WPA and a close confidant of Vida, but my great-grandmother rarely appears in newspaper articles about the WPA or the conscription debates. The Woman Voter reports that she spoke in front of a crowd of 80,000 on the Yarra banks on the day of the procession, but only the words of her more famous friends, middle-class allies such as Goldstein, Adela Pankhurst and Cecilia John are reported. Edith, the assistant grocer’s wife from Carlton, is almost always absent.

Even in family stories, she is a phantom. This project aims to trace Edith’s presence, and in doing so, to cast light on the complex and astonishing politics of the era.

It was an extraordinary generation of women, with seemingly boundless intellectual capacity and energy. For Vida and Edith, pacifism and women’s suffrage were linked to combating “social evils” such as violence against women, poverty, venereal disease, prostitution, and unemployment. After the war years, they further embraced Christian Science and campaigned for temperance, while Adela Pankhurst first joined international socialism and then moved to the far right, and Cecilia John focused her energy on promoting Eurythmic Dance.

Seventy years later, I was elected Women’s Officer of the Australian Union of Students (alongside its President Julia Gillard, later Australia’s first woman Prime Minister, and Vice-President, Gayle Tierney, now a State Government minister) and thrust into the centre of feminist politics in the 1980s. We worked in Lygon Street Carlton, a block away from Edith’s former home above King & Godfree. As Edith’s great-granddaughter, I was conscious then of being part of a new generation of feminists, of going further, of breaking down more barriers, of fighting for the same – but different – freedoms. Or so we thought. Through the women’s liberation and socialism then queer movements, my own life traced a political trajectory that was a complex and often naive reflection and rejection of those earlier feminists.

Sisterhood is an experiment in biography, social history and memoir, attempting to locate and interrogate traces of my family members as well as my own memory, and to reflect on the nature of feminist and pacifist movements in the years of the Great War and then again in the final decades of the twentieth century; and ask what meanings and messages they may hold for women today.

It will read, in other words, like an accessible story about a search for traces of my great-grandmother, but in fact act as a meditation on the history of suffrage and pacifism, and their influences on my life and Australian women generally.

Sisterhood is supported by a State Library Victoria Creative Fellowship.

International Women's Day rally, 1970s

International Women’s Day rally, 1970s