March is designated as “Women’s History Month” a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society. This month we honor one such woman with ties to Indiana County - Jane Grey Swisshelm.
Swisshelm was born in 1815 with family ties in Indiana County, though her birth place is not listed. At eight her father died leaving the family in “straitened” circumstances, or in other words, her mother and older siblings were forced to find work to support themselves. This was not easy to do in the 1820s, as job opportunities for women were very slim. Jane worked as a manual laborer and teacher until she married James Swisshelm in 1836. At this time, the Swisshelms moved to Pittsburgh where Jane became an “outspoken opponent of slavery.” She wrote many articles for newspapers such as the “Spirit of Liberty” and the “Journal” before starting her own paper in 1848, the “Saturday Visitor,” through this periodical Jane was able to voice her opposition to slavery as well as her opinions on women’s rights. Several years later, in 1856, Swisshelm moved to Minnesota where she established yet another paper, the “St. Cloud Visitor.” Apparently her “bold utterances” in this publication were so inflammatory that a mob destroyed her office and threw her printing press into the river. Fortunately, this did not stop Jane Swisshelm, who began publishing in another journal in St. Cloud.
When the Civil War broke out, Jane moved to Washington, D.C. and was one of the first women to respond to the call for nurses on the front. It is said that at the battle of the Wilderness in Fredericksburg she had charge of 182 badly wounded soldiers and, without assistance of physician or surgeon, saved them all. She wrote extensively on the poor conditions of the soldiers on the front and the difficulties in tending to them. After the Civil War, Jane retired to Swissvale, where she remained an advocate of human rights and wrote an autobiography titled “Half a Century” in 1881. She passed away in 1884 at the age of 68.
This information was taken from her obituary, and though quite flattering, leaves out some very important details of her life, namely her work as a feminist and supporter of women’s rights. It’s possible that her activism stemmed from being forced into a job at the age of 8, that seeing her mother struggle as a result of her father’s untimely death made her question the status quo. Regardless of the reasons why, it is clear from other sources that she spent her adult life fighting, not only for the abolition of slavery, but also for the fair and equal treatment of women.
She was the first woman in the United States to found her own paper and used her words to support the antislavery cause as well as equal rights for women. She called herself a feminist, but disagreed with some of the more prominent feminist ideas of the time. She argued that for women to wear pants, for example, was simply a recognition that they were more significant than dresses in society. She was a divorcee, interestingly not by her choosing, rather James filed for divorce from her on the grounds of desertion. She moved to Minnesota with her daughter but without her husband. It may be that her opinions on women’s rights, as well as slavery, ignited the mob that destroyed her office in St. Cloud, yet in the obituary it was only her abolitionist views that mattered. It was the Minnesota legislature that asked her to go to Washington, D.C. as they thought her the best voice to convince President Lincoln not to commute the sentences of prisoners of the Great Sioux Uprising. She vehemently disagreed with the “so-called” surgeons who were supposed to be healing the soldiers during the War, and described in graphic detail their “work” and the trials she faced in finding aid for the men. After the war, she spent much of her time in writing as well as lecturing the cause of women’s rights.
It is telling that her work as a feminist was swept under the rug in her obituary. While her role as an abolitionist was quite commendable, it was simply not fashionable to be an advocate for women’s rights during the 1880s. In a time where women were not able to own property, sign contracts, earn a wage for themselves, or file for divorce without the help of a man, Jane Swisshelm was only lauded for her role in the anti-slavery movement. However, she, like many other women, fought through words and actions to bring changes to the laws that governed women and their role in society. We cannot ignore the struggles that women endured throughout the 19th century to bring the women’s rights movement to a head in the 1910s. Women, like Jane Swisshelm, who fought for equal rights during the 1840s cannot be overlooked and should not be forgotten.