Swisshelm, Jane Grey (1815–1884)

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Swisshelm, Jane Grey (1815–1884)

American newspaper publisher, abolitionist and suffragist. Name variations: Jane Grey Cannon. Born on December 6, 1815, in Wilkensburg, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; died in Pennsylvania in 1884; daughter of Thomas Cannon and Marcy (Scott) Cannon; studied briefly at Edgeworth Boarding School, Braddock's Field, Pennsylvania; largely self-educated; married James Swisshelm, in 1836 (divorced 1857); children: one daughter, Mary Henrietta Swisshelm (b. 1851).

Started newspapers in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Washington, D.C.; wrote memoir, Reminiscences of Half a Century (1880).

Jane Grey Swisshelm was born Jane Grey Cannon in Wilkensburg, a small frontier town in Pennsylvania, in 1815. Her Scottish-Irish parents, merchant Thomas Cannon and Marcy Scott Cannon , had seven children, but only Jane and her sister Elizabeth Cannon survived into adulthood. Raised a strict Presbyterian, Jane was largely self-educated, spending just six weeks at the Edgeworth Boarding School in Braddock's Field, Pennsylvania. After her father died when she was seven, she taught lacemaking to help the family finances, becoming a schoolteacher at the age of 14.

In 1836, against the advice of her mother, she married James Swisshelm, a devout Methodist and domineering, manipulative man. Life with him and his mother was so difficult that for a time early in her marriage Swisshelm lived in self-imposed exile in a hut on her mother-in-law's property. The couple moved to Louisville, and while her husband's business ventures failed, her own thrived; Swisshelm built a successful corset-making business and, back in Pennsylvania after nursing her dying mother for a year, taught at a female seminary in Butler. During this period of separation from her husband, Swisshelm's love of reading and natural talent as a writer inspired her to publish anonymous articles in a local newspaper. Returning to married life and her husband's family farm outside Pittsburgh, Swisshelm began her career in journalism by contributing stories, poems and articles to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh newspapers.

With the help of her mentor Robert M. Riddle, editor of the Pittsburgh Commercial Journal, Swisshelm launched her own paper, the Saturday Visiter [sic], in Pittsburgh in 1848. In order to finance this venture, Swisshelm used the proceeds from the sale of her mother's house. Her husband's demand that this money be turned over to him motivated Swisshelm to join Lucretia Mott and Mary A. Grew in lobbying the Pennsylvania legislature; in 1848, the right of married women to own property became law.

Juggling the demands of motherhood (her only child, Mary Henrietta, known as Nettie, was born in 1851) and her newspaper work, Swisshelm became known nationally for her editorials among proponents of the abolitionist cause. She also published practical advice (in her "Letters to Country Girls" series) and advocated equal education and property rights for women, though she resisted affiliation with any of the suffrage movement's organizations. Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Daily Tribune, hired her as the first woman correspondent in Washington, representing both his paper and her own. On her 1850 visit to the capital, Swisshelm discovered that women were barred from the Senate Press Gallery. After successfully campaigning for equal rights for women reporters, Swisshelm became ensnared in Washington gossip; an unsubstantiated report she ran in the Visiter (alleging that presidential nominee Daniel Webster had fathered interracial children) compromised her relationship with Greeley and the Tribune, and she returned to Pennsylvania.

Swisshelm's marriage was very unhappy. She later described it as 20 years "without the legal right to be alone one hour." Her husband and mother-in-law coerced her into giving up painting and reading, and Swisshelm's natural independence of spirit was progressively crushed. Not content with forbidding her to read any book except the Bible, her husband even tried to sue Marcy Scott Cannon's estate for the time his wife had spent nursing her. In 1857, Swisshelm left him and was divorced for desertion. Selling her paper, she and her daughter moved to Minnesota, where she had family, and began publishing another anti-slavery paper, the St. Cloud Visitor. Her press was destroyed by political opponents led by hard-line Democrat General Sylvanus B. Lowry, the paper's financial backer, who disagreed with her abolitionist views and her support for the candidacy of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. Undeterred, Swisshelm closed the paper and re-launched it as the St. Cloud Democrat.

An energetic speaker, Swisshelm addressed the Minnesota house in 1860 and its senate in 1862 on abolition and women's rights. The wit and intelligence of her editorials and speeches won her respect, but the strength and radical nature of her opinions made her a controversial figure. "Millions of women in this country are condemned to the most menial drudgery," she wrote. "But let one aspire to use her mental powers—and O! What a fainting fit Mr. Propriety has taken! Just to think that 'one of the deah creatures' should forsake the woman's sphere." While she championed the rights of African-Americans, Swisshelm's opinions on Native Americans were more in keeping with populist views of the day. She once referred to them as "lazy, impudent beggars." When the Sioux attacked prairie settlements during the Civil War and 38 of their leaders were hanged in retribution, Swisshelm, on a lecture tour of the East, argued in favor of even more severe punitive measures; ironically, her first attempts at journalism in the 1840s had been articles condemning capital punishment.

In 1863, Swisshelm ended a lecture tour in Washington, D.C., and decided to stay there, selling her Minnesota paper. She served as a nurse in military hospitals and was offered a clerkship in the War Department. In 1865, she began a third newspaper, the Reconstructionist, but her differences with Andrew Johnson's administration cost Swisshelm her clerkship and led to the paper's bankruptcy, a failure repeated in 1866 after the launch of her "liberal sheet" The Wasp. Advised by friends Mary Todd Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton, Swisshelm sued for a share of her late ex-husband's estate and retreated from public life to her native Pennsylvania.

A small, pretty woman, Swisshelm was an idealist and activist who was often perceived as an eccentric. Still active in public speaking even after her retirement, she became a thorn in the side of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), and was tolerated rather than welcomed on its finance committee in 1877. Feisty to the end, and regarded as a maverick by many in the women's suffrage movement, Swisshelm was critical of the NWSA in her memoir, Reminiscences of Half a Century, published in 1880. She died in 1884 and was buried in her native Pittsburgh.


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Paula Morris , D.Phil., Brooklyn, New York