Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life, 1815-1884

Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life, 1815-1884

Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life, 1815-1884

Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life, 1815-1884


Nineteenth-century newspaper editor Jane Grey Swisshelm (1815-1884) was an unconventionally ambitious woman. While she struggled in private to be a dutiful daughter, wife, and mother, she publicly critiqued and successfully challenged gender conventions that restricted her personal behavior, limited her political and economic opportunities, and attempted to silence her voice.

As the owner and editor of newspapers in Pittsburgh; St. Cloud, Minnesota; and Washington, D.C.; and as one of the founders of the Minnesota Republican Party, Swisshelm negotiated a significant place for herself in the male-dominated world of commerce, journalism, and politics. How she accomplished this feat; what expressive devices she used; what social, economic, and political tensions resulted from her efforts; and how those tensions were resolved are the central questions examined in this biography. Sylvia Hoffert arranges the book topically, rather than chronologically, to include Swisshelm in the broader issues of the day, such as women's involvement in politics and religion, their role in the workplace, and marriage. Rescuing this prominent feminist from obscurity, Hoffert shows how Swisshelm laid the groundwork for the "New Woman" of the turn of the century.


Jane Grey Swisshelm may have been married to a farmer, but she was no ordinary farm wife. Nor did she, like most farm wives, pass through life quietly and in relative obscurity. During the mid-nineteenth century, her name appeared in newspapers across the United States. She supported the antislavery and woman’s rights movements from the podium and in print, and, despite the fact that she was a woman, she actively participated in local, state, and national political affairs. She was so well known as a journalist and a reformer that when she died in 1884, editors and their readers chronicled her life, extolled her virtues, lamented her death, and did what they could to preserve her memory.

When a good and gifted woman—one who has blessed
humanity with her devotion to grand principles—passes
away, she leaves a space that is not easily filled. Espe
cially is this true when that woman’s name is a house
hold word, because of her love, not only for her sex but
for all humanity

Frank G. Thompson to the Chicago Evening
Journal, July 24, 1884, p. 2.

There is no other woman including Apassia among
the ancients, and Pompadour among the moderns who
exerted so powerful an influence on contemporary
events as has Mrs. Swisshelm

Mrs. Swisshelm,” St. Paul Daily Globe, July 26,
1884, p. 4

The story that they collectively told was both dramatic and compelling. Jane’s background was humble. She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1815, the granddaughter of a weaver and the daughter of a Scotch-Irish Covenanter Presbyterian chair maker, Thomas Cannon, and his wife, Mary Scott Cannon. Jane grew up in a tightly knit, rigidly orthodox Calvinist community whose members believed in original sin and the inevitability of eternal damnation for all except God’s chosen few.

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