Tag Archives: jane grey swisshelm; abolitionism; fugitive slave act; Covanenters; swisshelm park; swissvale; wilkinsburg; saturday visiter; woman journalist

Be the Change #23 – Be Like Jane

We’re going back in time this week, to 19th-century Pittsburgh.  If you’re a Pittsburgher, the name Swisshelm will ring a bell with you.  That’s right:  the namesake of Swisshelm Park and Swissvale Borough.

Jane Grey Swisshelm was born in Pittsburgh in 1815.  A committed Covenanter Presbyterian, Jane took her Christianity very seriously – and actively.  While still a child growing up in Wilkinsburg, she circulated a petition advocating the abolition of slavery.  As a young wife, she began submitting articles and poems to abolitionist newspapers. That alone would have been unusual for a woman of her time, but Jane took it a step further.  In 1847, at age 32, Jane founded her own newspaper, the Saturday Visiter (sic), funding it with her small inheritance. She was the first woman to sit in the US Senate press gallery.

The perspective of the the Visiter was feminist and fiercely abolitionist.   Jane was an adamant opponent of the Fugitive Slave act, and her passionate editorials were so influential on Allegheny County judges that no fugitive slaves were sent back South from Allegheny County after 1848.

As you might imagine of such a strong-minded woman, Jane’s marriage didn’t last.  In 1857, she left her husband, and in 1860 he divorced her on the grounds of desertion. She continued to publish the Visiter, and began another career as a public speaker advocating abolition of slavery and women’s property rights.  During the Civil War, she volunteered as a battlefield nurse.

Jane died in 1884 and is buried in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Cemetery.

You don’t have to be a Presbyterian or a journalist or a feminist or a civil rights activist to be like Jane.  What I love about Jane, and the reason she is the subject of my next book, is her passion and commitment. She states in her autobiography that when she was confirmed at age 16, she made a covenant with God to “spend my whole life in any labor he should appoint, without a sign of the approval of God or men.”  She was, by all accounts (including her own), a difficult, stubborn woman.  But she had a deep moral passion that we could all emulate.  Be like Jane:  find a cause outside yourself that you are passionate about and commit yourself to action – even in the face of disagreement and disapproval.