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Ackermann, Jessie A. (1857–1951)

by Ian Tyrrell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Jessie A. Ackermann (1857?-1951), traveller, journalist and social reformer, was born possibly on 4 July 1857 in Frankfort, Illinois, United States of America, daughter of Charles Ackerman(n), and his wife Amanda, née French. Jessie supplied these details in old age, but in the 1890s she claimed to have been born in 1860 in Boston, Massachusetts. She grew up in Chicago and then moved to California, where in 1880 she studied at the University of California, Berkeley, but did not graduate. In 1881 she began working as a temperance organizer for the Independent Order of Good Templars in California. She moved to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in 1888, undertaking a mission to British Columbia and Alaska.

In 1889 Ackermann was appointed round the world missionary for the American-based World's W.C.T.U. (founded 1884), and travelled via New Zealand to South Australia. Here she spent three months, during which she galvanized the recently founded local W.C.T.U. branch, before moving on to China. Next year she returned to Australia. Building on small, existing unions, she organized W.C.T.U. affiliates in all colonies and became in 1891 inaugural president of the federated Australasian W.C.T.U., Australia's largest women's reform group.

Using lantern-slide techniques, Ackermann lectured widely in cities and outback towns, speaking on travel and temperance and advocating equal political, legal and property rights for women. 'The true dignity of labor is being taught to girls', she wrote in 1894, 'and the world is beginning to look with discredit upon women who hang helplessly on men, instead of doing their own work, and, if necessary, earning their own living'. She won a devoted following. Her message constantly emphasized the need for women to obtain the vote and use it wisely, and she has been described as 'a major voice in the Australian suffrage movement'.

Ackermann visited South East Asia about September 1892, came back to Australia in 1893 then left for southern Africa in early 1894. Ill from tropical fever, by October next year she had returned to Chicago, where she became an assistant pastor in a Baptist church in 1896. After 1900 she resumed her travels, this time to Europe, where she lived in London, and became world's president of the Girl's Realm Guild of Service, a Church of England organization. For this body she returned to Australia in May 1907. After five months she moved on to Wellington, New Zealand, in October before proceeding to England.

In May 1910 Ackermann was back in Australia. On this visit she worked as political organizer in Western Australia for the Australian Women's National League. Tirelessly moving about the State, she set up A.W.N.L. branches and urged women to exercise their right to vote. Despite her efforts on behalf of the Liberal government of Frank Wilson, the Labor leader John Scaddan won the election in October 1911. Ackermann resigned and left Australia for the last time in December. During the preceding twenty-two years she had spent some five years in the country and by her own count written 420 newspaper articles and 5949 letters, distributed 60,000 leaflets and delivered more than 2500 speeches.

Ackermann also gave many newspaper interviews, and wrote The World Through a Woman's Eyes (1896) and What Women Have Done with the Vote (1913). Her most important book, Australia From a Woman's Point of View (1913), recorded her forthright impressions of her Australian W.C.T.U. work and travels, and was a significant commentary on the position of women in Australia in the early twentieth century. By the time she moved to Johnson City, Tennessee, in the 1920s she claimed she had circumnavigated the globe eight times. In the 1930s she lived mostly at Los Angeles, California.

Tall, vigorous and, by her own admission 'good-looking', Ackermann never married but in 1902 was engaged to a Russian count who died in a snowstorm; close female admirers corresponded with her. A strong supporter of world peace and the anti-opium agitation, she had been world's superintendent of the W.C.T.U.'s anti-opium department in 1893-95. She also served the World Order of Rechabites and in 1906 was made a fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. Ackermann died on 31 March 1951 at Sierra Lodge Sanitarium, Pomona, California, and was cremated. She was honoured in 1962 by being made a memorial member of the World's W.C.T.U. Devotedly Christian in her youth, she suffered (both financially and emotionally) at the hands of a Christian confidence man in the late 1920s but still claimed at the end of her life that her 'business' was 'religion'.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Cherrington (ed), Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem, vol 1 (Westerville, US, 1925)
  • I. Tyrrell, Woman’s World Woman’s Empire (North Carolina, USA, 1991)
  • Audrey Oldfield, Woman Suffrage in Australia (Melb, 1992)
  • Kirsten Lees, Votes for Women, the Australian Story (Syd, 1995)
  • Pacific Ensign (San Francisco), 13 Oct 1892, p 2
  • White Ribbon Signal, 1 Nov 1894, p 7, 1 Dec 1894, p 5
  • Jessie Ackermann papers (Sherrod Collection, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee, United States of America)
  • Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (Australasia), convention reports, 1891, 1894, 1897 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Ian Tyrrell, 'Ackermann, Jessie A. (1857–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ackermann-jessie-a-12764/text23023, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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