An Imperfect Suffragist–Jane Grey Swisshelm

Looking back from our perch a hundred years after American women got the right to vote, it’s easy to wonder why it took so long. Allowing women to vote did not cause an upheaval in politics. Neither the fears of frivolous “petticoat rule” nor the hopes for a new, uncorruptible electorate proved true. The political parties continued to nominate men and push for positions that were pretty much the same as the ones they had supported for generations.

Jane Grey Swisshelm

Some women had predicted a new, more just society would be brought about by giving women more rights. Lucy Stone, an early suffragist, wrote “I believe that the influence of women will save the country before every other power”. Things did not work out that way.  Learning more about the women who worked on suffrage helps us understand the mixed motives and beliefs that shaped events.

Jane Grey Swisshelm was one strong believer in women’s right to vote who expected far less of women than Lucy Stone did. Swisshelm thought women were not ready to enter the main arena of politics. She suggested that they earn the vote slowly by proving they were capable of exercising the right wisely in a local setting. “Women should not weaken their cause,” she wrote, “by impracticable demands. Make no claim which could not be won in a reasonable time. Take one step at a time…and advance carefully.”

Jane Grey Swisshelm was born in 1815 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father and sister died when Jane was eight years old and she grew up in poverty as her mother struggled to support the family. When she was 20 years old, Jane married and moved to Kentucky with her new husband. Here she first encountered slavery and was horrified by the cruelty she saw around her. She was especially outraged by a neighboring slaveowner who impregnated his female slave and then sold his children into slavery.

Jane’s response to what she saw in Kentucky was to write articles for the local press. As the popularity of her articles grew, she decided to start her own paper, but soon discovered some of the disadvantages of being a woman in the business world. The editor for whom she had been writing immediately asked whether her husband approved of Jane working. Then he said she would have to work in the office with him. The idea of working with a man in an office was scandalous, but the editor was a careful gentleman.  They worked in the same office together for ten years, but whenever Jane was there, he drew up the shutters so the room could be seen from the street; and he never offered to walk her home or anyplace else unless he was accompanied by his wife. Jane played her role by deliberately not dressing fashionably and trying to play down her attractiveness. The first copy of her paper Pittsburg Saturday Visiter (She deliberately used an old-fashioned spelling of the word.) was printed on Jan. 20, 1848. It soon gained many readers and Jane moved on to bigger things.

Many of Swisshelm’s articles were about abolition and the struggle over the Fugitive Slave Law. She wrote to Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, one of the most influential newspapers in the country. He hired her to go to Washington and write dispatches for his paper, so she became the first woman to sit in the reporter’s gallery of the United States House of Representatives.

As Swisshelm’s work as a journalist continued, she became a force in anti-slavery circles as well as a part of the women’s rights movement. She was strongly interested in women’s economic rights, an interest brought about in part because her husband claimed that he had a right to the property she inherited from her mother. The couple divorced in 1857 and Jane moved to Minnesota with her daughter to pursue newspaper work. Working in St. Cloud, she campaigned against a local politician, Sylvanus Lowry, who owned slaves despite the fact that Minnesota was a free state. Eventually the quarrel became so bitter that Lowry raised a group of followers who burned her newspaper office and destroyed her business.

Swisshelm was always a strong supporter of freedom for slaves and justice for free Blacks, but her feelings for other groups were not so strong. She did not believe that Indians native to Minnesota had any right to the territory and deplored the fact that they resisted the incursion of settlers. When the Dakota Indian War broke out in 1862, she was appalled at the slaughter of several hundred settlers by the Indian “savages” as she called them. The Indians had been promised money for the land they gave for settlement, but Swisshelm saw no reason why they should be paid. She called for the extermination of all Indians who resisted the incursions of white settlers and she travelled to Washington D.C. to urge Lincoln to punish the Indians more. In recent years many Minnesotans have called for the removal of all monuments and tributes to Swisshelm because of this blot on her record.

Dakota War 1862

Swisshelm’s trip to Washington led her to volunteer as a nurse during the War and she served until the war ended and she got a government post. Afterward she started a newspaper, the Reconstructionist, but when she printed articles critical of the new president, Andrew Johnson, she lost her job and her newspaper.  

So what should we think of Jane Grey Swisshelm? She was undoubtedly a reformer who supported many good causes, especially abolition and women’s rights. But she was also a cantankerous voice against other good causes, opposing rights for Native Americans, and quarrelling with other suffragists over how women should gain their rights. Much of what we know about Swisshelm is found in the autobiography she published in 1881 called Half a Century. It has recently been republished and is available as a free Kindle book on Amazon. If you read the book it will introduce you to a strong, brave, but maddening woman who argued and fought her way through many of the most troublesome issues of the 19th century. Women’s suffrage, like many reforms, was finally won not by heroic angels, but by a mix of women with strengths and weaknesses that both helped and hindered their cause.

One thought on “An Imperfect Suffragist–Jane Grey Swisshelm

  1. What a powerful and thoughtful post! We NEED to be reminded that even people who advocate for justice in some areas can be terribly UNJUST in others. Yes, just as you write, we are all a mixture and we should not expect anyone to be perfect role model. Thank you for another enlightening and valuable post!

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