Jessie Mackay was born on 15 December 1864 at Double Hill station, above the Rakaia Gorge in Canterbury, New Zealand. She was the eldest child of Elizabeth Ormiston and her husband, Robert Mackay, a shepherd who managed successively the Double Hill, Raincliff and Opuha Gorge stations in Canterbury. Jessie was educated at home until 1879, when, at the age of 14, she went to Christchurch to train as a teacher at the Christchurch Normal School. She taught at Kakahu Bush School from 1887 to 1890 and at Ashwick Flat in 1893–94. In 1898 she moved to Dunedin where she began working as a journalist, but returned to Christchurch in 1902 to take up a position at Inveresk School.
When illness forced her to abandon the teaching profession in 1904, Jessie Mackay developed her career as a journalist. She had been writing a fortnightly column for the Otago Witness from 1898, and only returned to teaching, reluctantly, for financial reasons. She was to continue to write for the Otago Witness for 30 years. In 1906 she was appointed 'lady editor' of the Canterbury Times. When that paper closed in 1917 she turned to free-lance writing, contributing to the White Ribbon, the journal of the Women's Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand, and to British feminist journals such as Jus Suffragii, Votes for Women and the Common Cause, and writing for the weekly Time & Tide as New Zealand correspondent.
From 1911 Jessie Mackay shared a cottage at New Brighton, and later a larger home in the Christchurch suburb of Cashmere, with her younger sister, Georgina, who like Jessie never married. Their mother had died in 1897 and the following year Robert Mackay's business partner was declared bankrupt, leaving the family in financial difficulty. Jessie supported herself and her sister financially by her journalism, but she was equally occupied with political activity and writing poetry. She was involved in the suffrage movement in Christchurch in the 1880s and 1890s as a member of the WCTU, and is said to have collected names for one of the petitions seeking women's franchise. Through her journalism she campaigned for prohibition and penal reform, against vivisection, and for a number of feminist causes including the need for women in Parliament, better pay for women, and the recruitment of women into the police force. A pamphlet published in 1928, entitled The girl of the drift, discussed the social and moral responsibilities of women. Jessie Mackay was active in the National Council of Women of New Zealand from its inception and was one of three women who initiated its revival after 1916.
Just as strong as her feminism was her belief in home rule for Scotland and Ireland. Her parents had brought with them to New Zealand a wealth of Scottish culture and their children's early education was imbued with the myths, stories and legends of Scotland. In late 1921 Jessie Mackay left New Zealand on a trip to England, Ireland, Scotland and the Continent and in January 1922 attended the Irish Race Congress in Paris as a New Zealand representative of the Society for Self-Determination for Ireland.
Although this was her only visit to Great Britain, Jessie Mackay's affinities with Scotland in particular were as strong as those of someone who had been born there, and as a poet she is best known for her ballads based on Scottish legends. Her first volume of poetry, The spirit of the rangatira, appeared in 1889 when she was 25. Over the next 20 years she published three more volumes: The sitter on the rail (1891), From the Māori sea (1908) and Land of the morning (1909). The demands of making a living meant that she could not write as much as she may have wished, however, and it was another 17 years before she produced The bride of the rivers (1926). Her last volume of poetry, Vigil, appeared in 1935.
A number of Jessie Mackay's ballads have strong women as their focus. Her recognition of oppression and affinity with the oppressed are also evident in poems such as 'Cry of Armenia', and in a number of others which have a Māori theme. At a time when many people believed that the Māori were a dying race, Jessie Mackay saw that Māori culture had value, and that the so-called 'degeneration' of the Māori was the fault of European activities and not the result of some intrinsic weakness of the race. These beliefs are expressed most clearly in 'The charge of Parihaka', 'Departure of the Timaru volunteers for Parihaka' and 'Henare Taratoa', in which the New Zealand wars are seen to have been caused by Pākehā greed and violence. Mackay also used the ballad form to retell a number of Māori myths, including 'Rangi and Papa', 'Rona in the moon' and 'The noosing of the Sun-God'. Her best-known ballad, however, is 'The burial of Sir John McKenzie', which was published in the 1908 volume From the Māori sea. McKenzie, a Scottish immigrant and farmer like Mackay's own parents, became minister of lands in the Liberal government in the 1890s. His battles for reform of land tenure, which curtailed the power of large landholders and allowed small farmers to acquire land, appealed to Jessie Mackay's sense of justice.
Her passionate belief in social justice was balanced by a keen sense of humour. The early books of poetry contain a number of lighthearted yet perceptive pieces, such as 'Lament of the mateless stocking', a poem written in mock-heroic form in which the stocking left behind mourns the loss of its partner, and 'The old bachelor's lament'. Occasionally she used this sharp wit against those she saw as her opponents; in 'The sitter on the rail' she chastised those who refused to take sides on issues such as women's suffrage.
Jessie Mackay was connected with a wide range of literary people in both New Zealand and Australia. She corresponded with A. G. Stephens, the editor of 'The red page', the literary page of the Sydney-based Bulletin, in which a number of her poems were published, and with Australian writer and literary critic Nettie Palmer, who with her husband, Vance Palmer, was a major influence in Australian literary life particularly in the 1920s and 1930s. She counted among her close friends the writers Blanche Baughan (who also lived in Canterbury) and Eileen Duggan. In 1897 she presented a handwritten manuscript of over 100 poems to Edward Tregear, himself a poet and at that time head of the Department of Labour. A number of these poems were subsequently published in Land of the morning. She also knew the novelists Edith Searle Grossmann and G. B. Lancaster, to whom, along with Baughan and Stephens, she dedicated Land of the morning.
In 1934, on the occasion of her 70th birthday, Jessie Mackay was presented with a testimonial signed by writers, friends and admirers from New Zealand and elsewhere, as 'a demonstration of appreciation and affection'. The journalist and novelist Alan Mulgan wrote to the minister of finance, Walter Nash, in 1936 asking that pensions be awarded to Jessie Mackay and James Cowan in recognition of their contribution to New Zealand letters. Of Jessie Mackay he wrote: 'In addition to being a poet who has written some of our best lyrics, she has been a crusader all her life'. Pensions of £100 a year were granted. By this time Jessie Mackay was ageing and frail; but she was still writing, and still caring passionately about those causes to which she had devoted her life. Her last volume of poetry was published only three years before her death, at Christchurch, on 23 August 1938.
In the year of her death the New Zealand centre of the writers' organisation PEN established the Jessie Mackay Memorial Prize for verse. Her work was included in a number of anthologies of New Zealand poetry which were produced in her lifetime, and in the anthology edited by Robert Chapman and Jonathan Bennett in 1956. However, her exclusion from the 1960 Penguin book of New Zealand verse, edited by Allen Curnow, limited awareness of her contribution to New Zealand literature among later generations of readers. Mackay's place in the history of New Zealand poetry has been considerably under-recognised. As, in E. H. McCormick's assessment, the spiritual representative of a new generation of writers who emerged in the late nineteenth century, Jessie Mackay preceded the 'flowering' of New Zealand poetry in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet without her and others like her, who created an audience for it, that flowering would not have been possible. In her poem 'The gray company', from Land of the morning, Mackay described those who come 'Before the pioneers' – Huss who preceded Luther, Galileo who preceded Newton. The gray company do not know the companionship that the pioneers know: 'But the gray, gray company / Stood every man alone'; they experience 'scorning', 'jeering' and 'strife', and they pave the way for the pioneers. It is an apt description of Jessie Mackay's own place in the history of New Zealand poetry.
Jessie Mackay saw herself first and foremost as a poet. She cared about her literary reputation, and it is that reputation by which she has been judged in succeeding years. But an assessment of her life and work must place her creative writing in the context of the political activity and journalism to which she also devoted her life. Like other women writers of her time, such as Robin Hyde, Jane Mander and Edith Searle Grossmann, Jessie Mackay had to earn her living to support herself and her relatives and tried to write in the spaces in between. Earning a living was in itself hard enough in a society where this was not an accepted pattern for women. She wrote to A. G. Stephens in 1903: 'When ruin overtook us four years ago, I had to take on a double sort of life – half woman's, half man's work. It is hard for even the most sympathetic man to understand how hard it is for a woman to obtain the conditions a man writer commands as a matter of course. Nobody's fault, you know, just the pains of transition.' Added to this constraint on her time for writing was the political activity in which she immersed herself. To see her only as a poet, or only as a social activist, is also to fail to recognise the interaction between these aspects of her life. Jessie Mackay was not alone in seeing imaginative writing as a vehicle for persuading others to a cause. Her crusading spirit informed her poetry, and her poetry is a record of all the causes she held dear.