Jane Grey Swisshelm | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Women

Jane Grey Swisshelm

Her journalistic style was inflammatory - in every sense of the word.

When writer and editor Jane Grey Swisshelm walked into her St. Cloud, Minnesota newspaper office in 1858, she discovered her printing press burned, her type thrown into the Mississippi River, and an ominous note that warned her to stop challenging the local political order or she would face an even "more serious penalty." Jane had published in her liberal paper, the St. Cloud Visiter, stories criticizing a group of prominent St. Cloud politicians who were keeping slaves in free areas of the state.

Undeterred by threats, Jane gathered a group of friends who rallied around her and helped replace the ruined equipment. Less than two months later, she resumed publication.

This kind of unwavering determination is representative of so much in her life. Born in 1815 as one of seven children in a tight-knit Calvinist family in Pittsburgh, by the time she was twelve, she had lost her father and four siblings to tuberculosis. As a result, she shouldered a great deal of responsibility as a child and worked to help her mother support the family.

In 1838, Jane married farmer James Swisshelm and for nearly twenty years struggled to make an unhappy marriage work. The couple clashed constantly on issues of religion, property and living arrangements. They eventually divorced.

Jane spent her professional life in positions typically designated for men. In 1847, she honed her bold writing style while editor of the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter, a radical abolitionist newspaper. She went on to edit three other newspapers, freelance for major publications like the New York Times and hold numerous speaking engagements. She used these venues to speak out for women's rights, the temperance movement, abolition, integration of schools and the idea of equal pay for equal work.

Jane also ventured into politics. She spent a few years living in Washington, D.C., as a clerk in the War Department Quartermaster General's office. While there, she also founded and edited a paper called The Reconstructionist in which she voiced her political views and criticized what she called then-president Johnson's leniency towards the secessionist states. Here, too,her presseswere set aflame.

While Jane accomplished a great deal and was well-known among her contemporaries, she remains a fairly obscure historical figure. Much of this may have to do with the simple matter of geography - Jane spent much of her life in small, Midwestern towns. As a result, she was never attached to any of the famous activist groups of her time period. Finally, for reasons we will never know, Jane decided to burn all of her personal papers prior to her death in 1884, leaving an incomplete record of her life and accomplishments.

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Information for this section was contributed by Dana Kellogg Repash.

Dana Kellogg Repash is a graduate student studying history at Villanova University.

Image Courtesy of Library of Congress

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