Jessie MacKay: “Poet and crusader”

We celebrate the 130th year of women's suffrage in New Zealand with a series of posts about local suffrage campaigners.

"Poet and crusader", "a pioneer", "passionate feminist" - just some of the words and phrases used to describe poet, teacher, journalist and suffragist Jessie Mackay who died on 23 August 1938. 

Jessie was born to parents Robert Mackay and Elizabeth Ormiston 15 December 1864 at Double Hill Station above the Rakaia Gorge in Canterbury. She was to be their eldest child after their first-born baby, Walter, died in the immigration barracks in Lyttelton shortly after the couple arrived from Scotland in 1863.

Jessie was home-educated and from an early age had a keen awareness of social injustice around the globe. She was educated for two years at Christchurch Normal School and trained as a student teacher before accepting a position as head teacher at Kakahu Bush School in 1887. She taught in other schools in the Canterbury region before ill health caused her to give up the profession.

Having worked as a journalist for a couple of years in Dunedin in the late1890s, Jessie resumed her focus on journalism post teaching. She wrote for the Otago Witness for thirty years campaigning on issues close to her heart including suffrage, penal reform, Irish & Scottish independence and temperance.

From 1906 Jessie held the position of 'lady editor' for the women's section of the Canterbury Times. Under her direction these pages had a more political and reforming nature which tied with Jessie's involvement with the National Council of Women, the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the suffrage movement.

Jessie wrote a number of pieces for the journal White Ribbon, the magazine of the New Zealand Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (NZWCTU). Jessie also wrote for Jus Suffragii, Monthly Organ of the International Suffrage Alliance up until the last year of her life.

Jessie met Kate Sheppard in Christchurch and through the commonality of their interests in women's rights and the temperance movement, a lifelong friendship was formed.

Writing poetry was a constant throughout Jessie's life and her poems were published in newspapers across the country. Her first compilation of poems 'The Spirit of the Rangatira, and other ballads' was published in 1889 and her last, 'Vigil' in 1935. Copies of her works are held at Tūranga, Tuakiri | Identity, Level 2.

As a number of articles noted after her passing, Jessie Mackay pioneered the expression of the New Zealand spirit and linked it with a love of Scotland, the land of her ancestors and she was viewed as a gifted and original poet. The year before her death, when Jessie turned seventy, she received a testimonial signed by hundreds of friends and admirers, in acknowledgement of her contributions to building up a literary tradition in New Zealand

For a more detailed account of Jessie Mackay see her biography in Te Ara


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Fiona, Family History Librarian