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Jackson, Alice Mabel (1887–1974)

by Heather Radi

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Alice Mabel Jackson (1887-1974), journalist and editor, was born on 15 October 1887 at Ulmarra, New South Wales, fourth daughter and seventh of eight children of William Archibald, a schoolteacher from the New Hebrides, and his native-born wife Clara Amelia, née Baker. After finishing her education at the Sacred Heart Convent, Highgate, Perth, Alice entered the Western Australian teaching service in 1906. Her duties included needlework, on which her inspectors gave mixed reports (she once failed cut-out), but her lessons and discipline were generally commended. In 1914 she was appointed to Kalgoorlie Continuation School and in 1916 to Goldfields High where the inspector found her 'very satisfactory': her teaching of English, history and geography in the junior school was 'thorough, skilful and successful', she was 'a good disciplinarian', and she had rendered 'good service' as editor of the school magazine.

At Mount Lawley, Perth, on 3 May 1916 Alice married with Methodist forms Samuel Henry Jackson (d.1968), then on leave from the 44th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. He had taught at Perth Boys' Central School. In World War I he won the Military Cross and French Croix de Guerre. Alice's teaching appointment 'lapsed on account of marriage', though she was reappointed to Goldfields High on a weekly salary. She resigned in 1918 and moved with her husband to Sydney where their two children were born. Samuel had retrained as an accountant. It was later claimed that his business failure, occasioned by the Depression, was the reason for Alice's return to paid employment, but she had done so before that.

She was an occasional contributor to the magazine, Triad, and in April 1926 was appointed to edit Cobbers, a companion publication aimed at a younger readership. It failed to attract advertisers. The proprietor Leslie Woolacott closed Cobbers and announced that Mrs Jackson was joining Triad. Having 'spread herself frequently on the Plain English and Red Pages of the Bulletin', she 'transferred all her literary activities from the Ancient and Respectable Weekly to the Youthful and Skittish Monthly'. The photograph which accompanied this announcement depicted a youthful-looking 40-year-old, with a smiling expression, a plump face, slightly prominent teeth and thick, dark, softly waved hair. Publicity for the defunct Cobbers had emphasized her 'lovable personality' and her 'acute mind well salted with humour'.

Triad promoted itself as Australian in sentiment and cosmopolitan in outlook; at that time it was publicizing birth control. Mrs Jackson wrote book reviews and features. Following a change in the magazine's ownership, she briefly contributed to Beckett's Budget before its transformation to a sex and scandal sheet. In 1928 Samuel Jackson was in Wellington, New Zealand; Alice may have taught there.

Back in Sydney, Mrs Jackson was reported to have worked for Smith's Weekly and the Sunday Times. She moved to the Daily Guardian where she introduced (1930) the 'Shopping Bureau', a daily column featuring good buys and bargains. Reader participation was encouraged by cash prizes for 'wise buying'. In February 1931 she took the 'Shopping Bureau' to the Daily Telegraph. Four months later Smith's Weekly employed her to head a team of women reporters working on an expanded women's section which would include news and editorial comment, as well as the 'shopping bureau' and other service items. The promise was not realized: the novel features were dropped, and the women's section was contracted and confined to household hints, fashion and gossip. Jackson left within six months. George Blaikie named her among several 'bright women', recruited to Smith's, who 'promptly declared that they would sick up if they had to write social pap, and set about outwriting the male journalists on every subject anyone cared to name'. In January 1932 the Daily Telegraph announced that it was introducing a special weekly section for women, under the direct supervision of Mrs Jackson. As Sydney proprietors bought and closed newspapers and started others, and journalists lost their jobs, Alice remained employed. In the forced toings and froings she gained broader experience than might otherwise have been possible.

The Australian Women's Weekly began in 1933. Jackson joined it from the start, while working out her notice at the Telegraph. The first issue of the Weekly appeared on 10 June. Its founding editor George Warnecke informed readers in November of Mrs Jackson's appointment: 'When The Australian Women's Weekly sees genius it goes after it'. In a celebratory history, Denis O'Brien singled out her 'flair . . . for editorial administration' as her eventual contribution to the Weekly's success. He credited Warnecke with the larger achievement of devising the innovative concept—the Weekly was to be as much newspaper as magazine, with special reports on topical matters, and it would give primacy to women journalists.

Jackson had no official designation, but was in effect second-in-charge. She edited and wrote items for 'Points of View', covered selected events and occasionally reviewed theatre (Beatrice Tildesley was the regular theatre reviewer). Jackson relieved Warnecke of much of the day-to-day administration. With the launch of a Victorian edition in September, and other interstate editions soon after, the production schedule was tight and complex. The Weekly was printed on an old press belonging to Labor Papers Ltd. As circulation increased, the need for new machinery became urgent and in December 1934 Warnecke went abroad to choose it. Jackson was left with immediate editorial responsibility. Warnecke did not return until November 1935 and subsequently worked mainly on the Telegraph. He remained nominally in charge of the Weekly, but Jackson was effectively editor. She formally succeeded him in April 1939. By then the Weekly's editorial hierarchy was entirely female.

The new, high-speed press incorporated rotogravure equipment and gave the Weekly a technical edge on its competitors. When the new plant had been installed in December 1936, the magazine's print-run was sixty-four pages, sixteen in full colour. Because the Weekly had already outsold its rivals, its remarkable early performance owed more to editorial skill than to printing technology. Circulation rose by 60,000 while Warnecke was abroad and in 1939 exceeded 400,000. The respective contributions of titular and de facto editor cannot be precisely identified. Some of the Weekly's more enduring features were clearly Warnecke's initiatives. He organized a London office through which came European news and a flood of stories about the royal family; he bought 'Mandrake the Magician' cartoon strips and a mass of Hollywood material; and he negotiated rights to best-sellers for serialization. Jackson oversaw the smooth transition from local to national production, establishing editorial offices in other capital cities and arranging an Australia-wide coverage of news attuned to the resonances of nationalism.

Through its reportage of women taking up new work, joining together for reform, protesting on behalf of particular groups (for example, Aboriginal women denied choice in marriage), accepting challenges (such as pioneer air flights) and 'making do', the Weekly forged links between Australian women and the hitherto largely masculine image of being Australian. The enterprise of Australian women became a Weekly staple, even if an article entitled 'Australian Girl Trains Racing Cheetahs' was an extreme example. The Weekly covered balls and fashionable weddings, but its cartoonists often scoffed at high society. There were other elements in the editorial mix: the stuff of dreams—royal pageantry, Hollywood lifestyles, romance, beauty and high fashion—and quantities of practical advice, from recipes and dress-patterns to sexuality. Jackson aimed for a broad readership. O'Brien summed up her term as editor under the heading, 'Gloves go on', and claimed that she gave the Weekly a comfortable, middle-class respectability. But that is to miss the point. What the Weekly did under Jackson was to enable women to see themselves within a national tradition. Myths of national character and Australian achievement became accessible to them. The emotional force of nationalism underlay the magazine's success.

In an easy transition to wartime conditions the Weekly tailored its news content to war needs and the maintenance of morale. The magazine was leaner as a consequence of newsprint rationing and less vulnerable to competitors. By the end of World War II circulation would exceed 600,000. O'Brien alleged that the Weekly was 'unashamedly propagandist', but, as Helen Wilson observed, it made a 'conscious effort to put down those prejudices about what was feminine and masculine, to show that femininity was compatible with independence, military activity and heavy manual work'.

The editor's personal contribution to the war effort was to help run the Australian Women's Weekly Club for Servicewomen, opened in January 1943. She was co-president with Gretel Packer, wife of (Sir) Frank who was managing director of Consolidated Press Ltd, the Weekly's publisher. The club provided dormitory accommodation, evening entertainment, meals and a beauty parlour. In 1941 Consolidated Press had conducted a 'Bundles for Britain' campaign, collecting clothes for air-raid victims. Jackson was accredited as a war correspondent and travelled to England in September to inaugurate distribution. She came briefly under official scrutiny when an intercepted cable revealed her report of the 'willingness' of British prisoners of war to work for the Germans. It is unlikely that there was any consequent action. Her husband was on full-time duty with the Australian Military Forces. As temporary lieutenant colonel, he held staff positions in Sydney and was a deputy-director (from 1943) of the security service. Mrs Jackson toured defence establishments in Western Australia and Port Moresby in 1943. She went abroad again, in 1945, to report on the United Nations conference at San Francisco, United States of America, and to inspect war damage in Europe.

Jackson's situation as editor changed subtly after the war. Packer was a 'hands on' owner and, while war work had taken him away from his newspapers, demobilization brought him back to the office. Jackson was under pressure to enlarge the quota of advertising. That was a familiar battle and not in itself sufficient to arouse her disaffection. The recruitment of Mary Hordern, Packer's sister-in-law, to write fashion reports may have alienated Jackson, especially when linked to the Weekly's sponsorship of an annual parade of Paris fashions, a scheme about which she was not enthusiastic. Increased proprietorial interference with content was rumoured. When offered the post of editor of the rival Woman's Day (Woman's Day and Home) in 1950, Jackson accepted and moved to Melbourne. By then the Weekly's circulation was nearing 750,000.

Under Jackson the Weekly had become an arbiter of style and fashion, but she always dressed conservatively. Known to familiars as 'Mrs J', she required her reporters to attend social events appropriately attired and she persuaded her employers to pay a dress allowance. No evidence suggests that she valued the homemaking role for herself. The Jacksons shifted house several times. When Samuel was in the army, Alice moved into a city apartment near her office. Her staff respected her and several went with her to Woman's Day. She left that magazine after fifteen months. Alice had understated her age and, at 64, may have been tired. Her return to Sydney followed her husband's retirement and his ill health. He had been employed with the Department of External Affairs from 1947 and had served in Japan where he was also Australian representative on the United Nations Temporary Commission on Korea. Mrs Jackson's only other paid employment was as publicity agent for Romano's Restaurant.

Survived by her daughter and son, Alice Jackson died on 28 October 1974 at Meadowbank, Sydney, and was cremated. Her memory was overshadowed by the reputation of her successor Esmé Fenston as the Weekly's editor. Fenston was ideally placed to benefit from the advent of quality full-colour equipment and the expansion of consumerism in the 1950s. Basic to her attainment, however, was the prior establishment of a national distribution system which made the Weekly attractive to advertisers. That had been Jackson's achievement.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blaikie, Remember Smith's Weekly? (Adel, 1966)
  • R. S. Whitington, Sir Frank (Melb, 1971)
  • D. O'Brien, The Weekly (Melb, 1982)
  • H. Radi (ed), 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • Triad (Sydney), 10 Oct 1926
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 1933-50, esp 14 June 1947
  • Woman's Day, 1950-51, especially 18 Sept 1950
  • Newspaper News (Sydney), 1 Jan 1934, 1 Aug, 2 Oct 1950, 1 Oct 1951
  • Media Papers, 15 Feb 1982
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Jan 1968, 29 Oct 1974.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Heather Radi, 'Jackson, Alice Mabel (1887–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jackson-alice-mabel-10597/text18827, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 25 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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