Jessie A. Ackerman was featured in Prominent Women of Illinois published in 1932 by the Illinois Woman’s Press Association. She was often referred to throughout her life as the most traveled woman in the world by her peers. From those travels she worked as a social reformer, authored books, was a journalist and lectured advocating for women’s rights as well as the plight of humanity throughout the world. Her books were filled with her personal experiences. In The World Through a Woman’s Eye (1896), she wrote about her mission in Alaska and the deplorable conditions of native women there. Her other titles included What Women Have Done with the Vote (1913), Australia from a Woman’s Point of View (1913), with her impressions and commentary on the role of women in Australia in the early twentieth century; the Autobiography of a Woman’s Soul and twenty-eight Journals of Travel. She financed her travels from her writings and lecturers. Jessie had the distinction of being the only woman fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical society.
She was born of English and German descent to Charles Victor and Amanda (French) Ackerman, in Frankfort, Illinois, on July 4, 1857. The 1870 census records her parents with Jessie, at age 13, along with her siblings Amelia (15), Frances (9), Mary (5), and William (2) in the City of Chicago’s 13th Ward. Years later, Jessie would have Amelia’s name inscribed upon a gavel along with the phrase, “She Lived, Loved and Served” and presented to IWPA in memory of her sister. For many years the gavel, IWPA’s first, was a treasured artifact of the Association. In 1993, the organization, the founding arm and an affiliate of the National Federation of Press Women (NFPW), presented the gavel to the NFPW Executive Board where it remains to this day.
During her youth Jessie had been greatly influenced by her mother who participated in the Great Crusade of the 1870s that led to the formation of the W.C.T.U.. Jessie would receive training at an Independent Order of Good Templars lodge at a young age and gave her first lecture before she was thirteen. By 1880, Jessie had moved out west as a student at the University of California at Berkeley where she studied law and theology. After graduating, Jessie found a place in the progressive reform movements that were emerging at the time. She became an employed lecturer and organizer for the Templars. It was also during this time that she joined the W.C.T.U. movement in California. In 1888, Jessie accepted Frances Willard’s request undertaking a mission to Alaska and British Columbia to expand the union’s work there.
With the lasting success of Jessie’s mission to Alaska, Frances E. Willard, president of W.T.C.U. and a founding member of IWPA, offered her the position of second world missionary for the W.C.T.U. in 1888. On January 29, 1889, Jessie set sail from San Francisco, California, on what would be her first of many journeys as the second round the world missionary for the W.C.T.U. (1888 to 1896) traveling around the globe to promote the cause of temperance and the welfare of humanity. During her trip she founded local branches for the W.C.T.U. in each of the countries she visited including the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to Siam (Thailand), Japan, China, New Zealand and Australia. During a return trip to Australia in 1891, she became the inaugural president of Australia’s largest women’s reform group for the W.C.T.U.. Jessie’s main mission was temperance reform, though she is better known to Australian women’s historians as a pioneer of women’s suffrage there.
Working from within the largest women’s organization in the world allowed her influence to extend to thousands of women across the globe on the social issues that affected them most. Jessie shared with IWPA, “I have just completed my second tour of the world. It covered a period of eight years and the great distance of 200,00 miles. I was a guest in some two thousand homes, rich and poor, high and low. I have seen life in all its varied forms and under all conditions but through it all I have seen few contented women – so few they could be counted on the fingers of one hand.”
Minutes from the W.C.T,U, annual meeting in 1894, show Jessie was back in the United States that Fall to begin a lecture series with more than 200 engagements. It was during this time she also signed a contract with Ladies Home Companion to write several extensive articles on her world journeys.
As Jessie began plans for her next world journey, with growing concern for her health, Frances Willard requested Jessie travel to England to rest at the home of Lady Isobel Somerset. Somerset had been a long-active member within both the W.C.T.U. and IWPA during the years she lived in Chicago She remained a close associate to Willard and was retained on the honorary roll of IWPA after her return to England. During her stay with Somerset, Jessie was made aware of the plight of the poor, especially women in London and was unable to remain idle. Instead, she went undercover with a different identity to live with and as the poor. Reported by the IWPA in tribute to Jessie, they wrote of her experience, “On the streets she sold matches, shoestrings and flowers; with a donkey and cart she peddled vegetables; she procured a rented baby and a grind organ, begging her living with a tin-cup.” Speaking of her experience Jessie stated, “ Since then I have never wanted an unnecessary thing and I never wear jewels or an ornament, for the misery of such conditions entered my very soul.”
Back in Chicago in 1896, after traveling for nearly a decade, Jessie again challenged social norms of her time by becoming an ordained Baptist minister the following year with her own congregation as the assistant pastor for the Fourth Baptist Church.
In 1907, she made her third visit to Australia as the World’s Organizing President of the Girl’s Realm Guild of Service and Good Fellowship. The guild, which was founded by the Bishop of London in 1900 in connection with the Girl’s Realm Magazine, organized privileged young girls to use their status to serve others. Here Jessie saw the opportunity to connect social reform with the next generation through education.
For a time in the 1920s, Jessie had moved to Johnson City, Tennessee to write and rest from her international travels. It also allowed her the opportunity to work with teachers at the local college before resuming her travels to China. Through the 1930s she worked as a Peace Envoy for the Universal Peace Union.
Always restless, Jessie would return to the United States spending time in Los Angeles and Chicago, writing a Biography of Travel and for foreign newspaper syndication.
She died at age ninety-one on March 30, 1951, in Baldwin Park, California.