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‘The World through a Woman’s Eyes’: Jessie Ackermann and women’s mental mapping at the turn of the twentieth century

When first introduced to the concept of historical mental mapping, which aims to reconstruct shifting spatial imaginaries of continents and countries, I was struck by the overwhelming dominance of men’s accounts as source material. Was it fair to assume that women throughout history perceived the arrangement of the world’s spaces – countries, continents, regions and borders – in the same way as their male counterparts? This conundrum reminded of Jessie Ackermann, the peripatetic American temperance missionary who I came across in my research on the Australian temperance movement. Rooted in evangelical Christianity and a commitment to temperance and women’s advancement, and informed by decades of international encounters, Ackermann’s mental map was self-consciously gendered, thoughtfully considered and unusually well-documented. Could she provide insight into the kind of gendered mental maps intellectual history is missing out on?

In 1889, Jessie Ackermann (1857-1951) began work for the international branch of the prominent the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), an anti-alcohol, pro-suffrage organisation founded in the interests of ‘God, Home and Humanity’. Although she would visit almost every continent in the course of her campaigning, Ackermann spent the largest portion of her time in Australia, where she where she worked to establish new WCTU branches and led efforts towards women’s suffrage. Ackermann’s most well-known publication, Australia from a Woman’s Point of View (1913), records her impressions of turn of the century Australian life and is thought to be the first book about Australia written by a woman. Her other books, The World through a Woman’s Eyes (1896) and What Women have done with the Vote (1913) both take the form of a series of sketches of women’s experiences in diverse locations around the world.[1]

Ackermann believed in and promoted the concept of an international sisterhood linking all countries, one which imperfectly transcended entrenched racial, cultural and spatial divides. Her overarching concern for ‘all women in all lands’, to whom she dedicates The World through a Woman’s Eyes, in some ways overrode traditional divisions of nation, race and class. In this book, women in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australasia are ‘sisters’ linked by female experience concerns, regardless of the many differences in customs and conditions which she describes. This internationalist vision was heavily influenced by the WCTU’s millenialist brand of Protestant evangelism. The Union’s global outlook and international bent was rooted in late nineteenth century Methodist culture, characterised by a mandate to ensure the salvation of souls all over the world and a corollary emphasis on women’s foreign missionary work.

Despite this apparently egalitarian view of an international sisterhood, Ackermann’s mental map nevertheless reflected existing racial hierarchies and assumptions. Major historians of the WCTU have commented on the organisation’s complicated complicity in Anglo-American cultural imperialism around the end of the twentieth century.[2] In a matter-of-fact way, Ackermann referred to the need to ‘lead these people to a higher civilisation’ when referring to Alaskan indigenous women, demonstrates unabashed assurance in her ‘civilising’ mission as a white American woman.[3] In her laudatory depiction of the potential of the Tasmanian colony to become ‘one of the greatest republics’, moreover, Ackermann neglects the near-genocide of Tasmanian Aboriginal people which continued to occur at the hands of settlers.[4] On the other hand, Ackermann shared with many WCTU women an awareness that white colonisers often harmed Indigenous communities and that there was as much vice, if not more, in Europe and the United States as in their colonies.[5] This perspective, gained first-hand and shared with many WCTU women, prevented any unambiguous spatial divide for Ackermann between barbarity and civility, or a straightforward reproduction of dominant spatial imaginaries.

A sketch of Ackermann’s mental map of the world she experienced and engaged with incomplete without an analysis of her perceptions of home – the so-called ‘woman’s sphere’. As an activist for an organisation which constantly negotiated the contested gendered domains of private and public, Jessie Ackermann was unsurprisingly closely concerned with the literal and metaphorical spaces of the home. The World through a Woman’s Eyes, a title promising a grand adventure of a global scale, begins with a tour of American women’s diverse home living situations. Later in the book, Ackermann’s experience of each country’s ‘home life’ seems to greatly colour her overall impression of the region and its closeness to the Anglo-American world. She demonstrates her engagement with a greater-than-literal concept of ‘home, as well as essentialised imperialist tropes, ’ when she complains that ‘Like all the countries of the Orient, the Chinese have no such word as ‘home’ in their language; just what ‘house’ literally expresses.’[6] The home was on the map, not only as the neutral opposite of the public sphere but as a zone of action, negotiation and important social change.

There is no way of knowing with certainty how Jessie Ackermann visualised the world in which she lived. However, based on analysis of her writings and speeches and those of her contemporaries, we can tentatively reconstruct a mental map in which a spirit of women’s solidarity and evangelical Christianity imperfectly linked nations divided by geography and culture, and in which differing standards of civilisation complicated but did not eliminate culturally imperialistic hierarchies of countries and continents. It was a vision of the world in which binary, large-scale divisions of space into civilised and uncivilised, public and private, did not make sense, and in which the imagined and physical space of the home held value and interest. Ackermann’s mental map troubles male-dominated spatial narratives of orientalism, colonial domination and top-down structures of empire in the white world, and could serve as a starting point for further research into larger and more diverse groups of women. She reminds us to reject the idea that either men’s beliefs can be safely assumed to be shared by women, or that women’s views, even if different from their male counterparts, do not sufficiently matter to be included in our histories.

Author: Ruby Ekkel

Biography: Ruby Ekkel is currently completing her MLitt in Global, transnational and spatial history at the University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on women’s suffrage history, Australian nineteenth century history, and environmental history. The publication of her honours thesis about the women’s temperance movement in the Victorian Historical Journal won a Victorian Community History Award in 2020.

[1] Jessie Ackermann, Australia from a Woman’s Point of View (London, New York [etc.] Cassell and company, limited, 1913); Jessie A. Ackermann, The World through a Woman’s Eyes (Chicago: [s.n.], 1896); Ackermann, What Women Have Done with the Vote (New York, W. B. Feakins, 1913). 

[2] Patricia Grimshaw, ‘Settler Anxieties, Indigenous Peoples, and Women’s Suffrage in the Colonies of Australia, New Zealand, and Hawai’i, 1888 to 1902’, Pacific Historical Review 69, no. 4 (2000): 553–72; Tyrrell, Woman’s World/Woman’s Empire, 81-113. 

[3] Ackermann, The World through a Woman’s Eyes, 27. 

[4] Ibid, 92.

[5] See for example Ackermann, 34. 

[6] Ibid, 142, 27.