Jessie Ackermann: the globe-trottin’, god-fearin’ witness to the Australian women’s movement

“There is nothing in life that can compare with the delights of thinking. To grasp an idea and travel with it through a long process of evolution; to live with it, cherish it, compelling unfoldment that reveals hidden treasures, to run along with it, although the chase ends in mental chaos where one lands in the solitudes and waste places of thought, is joy unbounded. The journey often leads over some hitherto untrodden way which reveals food for the brain, enlargement for the soul, and inspiration for the battle of life.”

Few American women have blazed as many trails as Jessie Ackermann, who visited more than fifty countries and is believed to have circumnavigated the world eight times between 1889 and the late 1920s, when she returned to the United States and hung up her traveling bags for good.

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Ackermann spent most of her life as an international missionary for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union — but it’s important to note that temperance advocates outside of the United States had different goals from their American counterparts, who were laser-focused on Prohibition. It’s more accurate to characterize Ackermann as a women’s right activist than as an alcohol zealot. In Australia, the country where Ackermann spent the most time, the temperance movement was primarily aimed at giving residents more local control over liquor licenses and to helping women become less vulnerable to harm from their husbands and fathers, whether those men were alcoholics or not.

Now, Ackermann was a Bible-thumper, there’s no doubt about that. She was critical of women who were more preoccupied with fashion than with good works, and she wrestled to reconcile her own complicated opinions about women who balanced careers with family responsibilities. (Ackermann herself never married.) But she was also one of the first Americans to document the global rights and conditions of women, and her books and articles offered unique insights into the successes and failures of women’s movements around the world.

Ackermann’s first book, The World Through a Woman’s Eyes, was published in 1896 and recounted adventures during her first two world tours. She visited Hawaii’s Molokai leper colony, visited adventure novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, interviewed ex-convicts on Tasmania, befriended the concubines of the Japanese emperor, toured opium dens in China, and much more. While on the road, she also wrote 420 articles for American newspapers, delivered 870 public lectures, and made 447 “informal addresses.” Ackermann also estimated she was a guest in “nearly two thousand homes” during the trip, though it’s impossible to know if she was exaggerating.

In 1913, Ackermann published her landmark work, Australia From a Woman’s Point of View, based on four extensive journeys in Australia over the course of roughly twenty years. At the time, Australia was a country of particular interest for women’s rights advocates; in 1902, it became the first country to grant formal citizenship to white women, including the right to vote. (Aboriginal women did not receive the right to vote until  1962.) Ackermann’s book offered a rare look at life for white Australian women in the decade after their successful suffrage movement — and her accounts of Perth and other Australian cities served as a warning to American women that the struggle for cultural equality would likely continue long after the fight for legal equality ended.

Ackermann gave several public lectures, often in churches in small, rural communities. Her talks about economics, morality, and social issues regularly packed her venues but caused consternation among elites unaccustomed to listening to a woman on such topics. She was often asked by clergy members not to visit particular towns — and whenever she was, that’s the town she went to next. Her travels exposed her to a wide range of communities in Australia, and she met women from all classes and backgrounds.

In her book, Ackermann described in great detail the lives of female typists, rural teachers, and other “business girls.” Though domestic service paid well in Australia, Ackermann found it was an unpopular profession among young women, primarily because maids were often mistreated. “How any woman with a daughter, or even a conscience, can send another mother’s daughter into the face of ruin as coolly as she would turn a cat or stray dog away from her door, is one of the forms of barbarism which even the democracy of a new country has failed to stamp out,” Ackermann wrote as a rebuke to women who punished servants that attempted to have their own families, too.

Ultimately, Ackermann concluded that the significant wage gap between men and women was a major barrier to their equality. “Although women in Australia enjoy a partial equality with men in relation to citizenship, a sense of justice has never extended so far as to include the same standard for the sexes, either in pay for services or a similar code of [labor] laws for men and women,” she wrote.

However, she was just as convinced that such barriers were destined to fall. “Prejudice in the matter of girls and professions is still rampant, but as a desire increases to qualify by higher education, their right to practise will gradually become more generally recognised. Strange to say, although women have the vote, a large majority of men are decidedly of the opinion that girls should be restrained from what constitutes really scientific advancement. But for all of that, the business girl must come more fully into her own under the steady evolution of this new social order.”

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