Jane Grey (Cannon) Swisshelm was born on December 6, 1815, in the still-small town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to parents of Scotch-Irish descent. Her family were strict orthodox Calvinists (Covenanters), and the religion greatly shaped her views of the world. She briefly attended the Edgeworth School, located in Braddock’s Field, which was the first educational institution for girls west of the Allegheny Mountains (founded in 1825), but was concerned with how secular it was.
In 1836, Jane married James Swisshelm, a farmer. Their marriage was rocky, and James could easily be seen as tyrannical. After two years on their farm in the areas of Pittsburgh now known as Swissvale and Swisshelm Park, they moved to Kentucky, where Jane witnessed first-hand the horrors of slavery. Her faith had already instilled an abolitionist sentiment in her, but seeing slavery in action sealed her resolve to work to end slavery in all forms.
“We hold that American Slavery is a combination of all crimes against God and Man – ‘the sum of all villianies’ – that it is contrary to the revealed will of God and the Constitution of the United States, and as Christians and Patriots all men are in duty bound to labor for its immediate and utter extinction.”
– Jane Grey Swisshelm
Jane left her husband behind when she returned to Pittsburgh in 1839 to care for her dying mother. Her mother, knowing of the marriage problems, ensured that James would have no legal access to Jane’s modest inheritance. This allowed Jane a certain amount of financial independence rarely available to women of the time. Eventually, Jane divorced her husband in 1857.
Her first forays into public writing took the form of stories and poems sent into the anti-slavery paper, Spirit of Liberty. After Spirit of Liberty folded, she founded her own abolitionist newspaper, the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter, in 1847, as a weekly publication. At its peak, it had a circulation of more than 6,000. She used the paper for fight for women’s property rights and suffrage, and against slavery and capital punishment. In 1850, she became the first female reporter to be granted the privilege of sitting in the US Senate press gallery.
“We hold that as women have as much at stake in the prosperity of government, and are often called upon to suffer more than men from war and other political evils…she has an inalienable right to a voice in the management of state affairs.”
– Jane Grey Swisshelm
In 1851, despite the fact that it would be more than 60 years before the 19th Amendment passed, granting (white) women the right to vote, Jane ran for Mayor of Pittsburgh. She received three votes.
In 1857, after divorcing James, Jane moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota, where she founded the St. Cloud Visiter to continue publishing her views. She was particularly critical of Gen. Sylvanus Lowery, a resident who owned slaves in the free territory. A group of his supporters stormed her office, broke her printing press, and threw the pieces into the Mississippi River. Undaunted, in 1858 she began the St. Cloud Democrat. In 1863, she sold that and volunteered as a nurse for the Union Army in the Civil War.
Though far better known for her abolitionist work, Jane was an early feminist and suffragist. She used letters that women wrote to her as fodder for her papers – using the letter writers’ examples as stories to build support for women’s rights to inherit, vote, own property after marriage, and more. Though she did not live to see it, it was largely her influence that pushed Pennsylvania in 1887 to pass a law allowing married women to inherit and own property independent of their husbands. (A law had been passed in 1848, but was struck down in 1852 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.)
Lest we are tempted to make her into a saint, we have to see the whole person. In 1862, while Jane was living in Minnesota, a group of Dakota Indians attacked and killed some white settlers. The Dakotas were starving, as the federal government was late on delivering its promised food and funding. Jane used her press to call for the deaths of all Indians – whether involved in the attack or not – and continued the demonization of them for five solid weeks.
Jane moved back to the Pittsburgh area in the late 1860s, where she discovered that her ex-husband had sold off parts of their property without her knowledge. She successfully sued him, gaining ownership of the old Swisshelm farm.
Jane published her memoirs, Half a Century, in 1880. She passed away on July 22, 1884.
For further reading:
Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life, 1815-1884, Sylvia D. Hoffert, 2004