I find that, sometimes, I read so much about certain people that I feel that I know them, often as well as I know people who I am acquainted with in life. My first contribution is just such a person, one of the most prominent women feminists, one whose name is notable for its lack of recognition, Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm.
Jane fascinates me because she was so incredibly strong-willed and unyielding. Even as a feminist, she ardently disagreed with many platforms taken by the mainstream of feminism, regarding much of the feminist movement as silly and irrelevant. For instance, one strain of feminist thought, at the time, had it that the big difference between men and women was the fact that men wore pants, so feminists were encouraged to wear bloomers, a feminine undergarment split in the middle so a woman’s legs were divided. To quote from her autobiography, “Half a Century,”
while men were defending their pantaloons, they (i.e. feminists) created and spread the idea, that masculine supremacy lay in the form of their garments, and that a woman dressed like a man would be as potent as he.Strange as it may now seem, they succeeded in giving such efficacy to the idea, that no less a person than Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was led astray by it, so that she set her cool, wise head to work and invented a costume, which she believed would emancipate woman from thraldom. Her invention was adopted by her friend Mrs. Bloomer, editor and proprietor of the Lily, a small paper then in infancy in Syracuse, N.Y., and from her, the dress took its name—“the bloomer.” Both women believed in their dress, and staunchly advocated it as the sovereignest remedy for all the ills that woman’s flesh is heir to.
Jane was born in 1815, to strict Calvinist family, In 1836 married James Swisshelm. The couple moved to Louisville, Kentucky and it was not long before she became involved in the campaign against slavery and became a member of the Underground Railroad. In 1848 Swisshelm established her own anti-slavery newspaper, the Pittsburgh Saturday Visiter. Swisshelm also used the newspaper to advocate women’s rights. She was also paid $5 a week by Horace Greeley for contributing a weekly article for the New York Tribune. On 17th April, 1850, Swisshelm became the first woman to sit in the Senate press gallery.
In 1858, Jane moved to St. Cloud Minnesota, where she established a newspaper called the “St. Cloud Visitor.” In 1860, her paper was sacked and burned by a pro-Slavery Mob, for her support of the Dred Scott decision and the emancipation of the Slaves who were annually brought to Minnesota by Southern tourists summering in Minnesota. She moved across the river to St. Paul, where she set up another newspaper.
In 1862 occurred the Great Dakota (Sioux) Uprising, where almost 1000 Minnesotans were killed by the Dakota Indians, upset because their promised supplies had not been delivered by the government. Once suppressed, the local military condemned 330 Indians to be hung, for depredations. President Lincoln commuted all but 33 of these, and the Minnesota Legislature voted to send Jane to Washington to argue against the commutation; though Jane was ardently anti-Slavery and ardently feminist, she hated the Indians for their depredations, and felt that they were simply freeloading off of the government.
In Washington, she was offered a position in the government. While waiting for the appointment to take effect, she became aware of the pitiable state of medical care available to wounded soldiers during the American Civil War. She became a nurse, and immediately earned the enmity of the doctors, because the rate of survival of her patients was higher than that of many of the doctors, and she had no problem upbraiding the doctors for their methods. She actually listened to the patients, treated their symptoms with common sense and, in that vein, developed new treatments for Pyaemia, Gangrene and other forms of Septicemia which were considered fatal at the time. Her treatments were adopted by some of the doctors, but opposed by many others, and if it were not for the friends she had in high office, her successes would have succeeded in having her removed as a nurse.
In all, Jane was an independent thinker, whose opinions were her own. She refused to allow popular opinion to sway her, but stood for what she believed. Her opinions were sometimes objectionable, as her advocation of the hanging of the Dakota warriors of the 1862 uprising, but they were her own opinions, and she stood by them.