Let's Learn from the Past: Jane Grey Swisshelm

January 12, 2012 12:00 am

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Jane Grey Swisshelm

Pittsburgh native Jane Grey Swisshelm was an influential journalist, outspoken abolitionist and, above all, a fierce advocate for women's rights during the Civil War.

Born Jane Grey Cannon in 1815, she grew up in a community that now bears her name, Swissvale, and was inspired by stories of her Scottish ancestors' rebellion against the British centuries before. Her father died when she was very young and she learned independence and responsibility early in life. She married James Swisshelm at age 21 and moved to Louisville, Ky., where she saw firsthand the terrors of slavery in the South. Shocked at what she saw, Swisshelm returned to Pittsburgh and began to write stories and poems for Neal's Saturday Gazette, The Dollar Newspaper and The Spirit of Liberty under the pen name "Jennie Deans."

Outspoken and defiant, Swisshelm believed that no American should be deprived of the right to liberty, regardless of skin color or gender. She took particular issue with personal property ownership, a power that was, by law, transferred to a woman's husband upon marriage. Against her husband's wishes, Swisshelm launched a campaign to fight for women's rights to own property. The debate spurred the proposal of the Pennsylvania Married Woman's Property Law in 1848, which was eventually rejected by the state Supreme Court.

Not to be deterred, Swisshelm continued to fight for human rights and started her own abolitionist newspaper, the Pittsburgh Saturday Visitor. Her work led to a position as the first regular female correspondent for the New York Tribune, where she continued her battle against slavery and fought for women's rights.

In 1863 at the height of the Civil War, Swisshelm served as a nurse for wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C. After the war, she spent her remaining years as a freelance reporter and a nationally recognized public speaker on behalf of women's rights. Three years after her death in 1887, the Pennsylvania state legislature finally passed the law Swisshelm had fought strenuously for -- the right for married women to own property.

Visitors to the Heinz History Center can learn more about the important roles Pittsburghers played during the Civil War as part of the long-term exhibition "Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation." For more information, visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org.

First Published 2012-02-09 19:31:53
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