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Pioneer of Progressivism | Jane Swisshelm

Learning from journalist Jane Swisshelm


By: Rachel Card




Journalism has served as a medium for activism since its inception, as evidenced by revolutionary texts and writers throughout history. This is in part why I decided to go into journalism at the Mayborn School of Journalism, because it holds the powerful accountable by keeping the public informed. 19th century writer and activist Jane Swisshelm embodied all of the qualities I would like to exemplify as an aspiring journalist, namely, compassion, open-mindedness and a consummate professionalism.


Her Compassion

Abolitionist journalist Jane Swisshelm

Jane Swisshelm made history by advocating for women’s suffrage and abolitionism through her writings for the New York Tribune and her own papers, paving the way for future activists with journalistic ambitions. She became a staunch advocate for abolition after living for a time with her husband in Kentucky, where she bore witness to some of the horrors of slavery, and used her platform to promote women’s property rights. “Instead of spending my strength quarreling with the hand, I would strike for the heart of that great tyranny,” said Swisshelm in her autobiography, when speaking of the financial limitations placed on women. She endorsed Lincoln during the Civil War years and nursed 182 men following the Battle of the Wilderness, all of whom survived. Compassion as extended toward the majority of humanity is hard to come across even these days, and was hardly the norm in the 1800s, which is what makes this one of the things I find particularly commendable about Jane Swisshelm.


Her Open-mindedness

An illustration of the Battle of the Wilderness

I’ve often heard people defend less ethically inclined historical figures on the basis of them being from another time, but I think the foresight exhibited by Jane Swisshelm shows how flawed that kind of logic is. Progress needs pioneers, and pioneers of progressiveness were brought up in the same time periods as some of history’s most depraved individuals. Jane Swisshelm was honest with herself and others about what was going on in the world, the hallmark of both a good journalist and a true activist. In fact, her criticisms of former President Andrew Johnson were what eventually led to the closure of her last newspaper, and a politically prominent slave owner she had railed against in her paper actually founded one of his own in opposition to Swisshelm’s and even ransacked her office. To this, Jane said only that “dying is not difficult, yielding is impossible.” Despite these setbacks, and despite living in a time where women were for the most part discouraged from being opinionated, she stuck to her guns.



Her Professionalism


Swisshelm did not let a turbulent personal life upset her professionalism. Her father and several of her siblings died of your standard 1800s illnesses, and her marriage and subsequent divorce to James Swisshelm was by all accounts, fraught. In spite of all this grief, Jane still managed to make room in her heart for those on whose behalf she advocated, and establish herself as a formidable writer in the process. Tenacity, compassion and professionalism are still tools of the trade for journalists today, maybe more so than ever, and Swisshelm helped lay the groundwork for these foundations.

In today’s climate, it is more important than ever that the American press remain vigilant, empathetic, passionate and honest. Swisshelm actively worked to promote these qualities in herself and in others, and modern-day journalists take inspiration from her whether they are aware of it or not.


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Rachel Card is a student at the University of North Texas and an opinion columnist for the NT Daily. She is majoring in journalism with a concentration in public relations, and intends to apply her degree toward writing for nonprofits and political organizations. You can learn about her credentials at https://www.linkedin.com/in/rachel-m-card/.









Sources:

Swisshelm, Jane Grey Cannon (1880). Half a Century. Jansen, McClurg. pp. 10–1. Retrieved January 24, 2021.

Hoffert, Sylvia D. (2004). Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Retrieved January 24, 2021.

Kathryn B., Jane Swisshelm: Abolitionist, Journalist, Activist (2017) Retrieved January 24, 2021.

Endres, Kathleen. "Jane Grey Swisshelm: 19th century journalist and feminist." Journalism History 2.4 (1975): 128. Retrieved January 24, 2021.

"A Stanch [sic] Foe of Slavery". New York Times. July 23, 1884. Retrieved January 24, 2021.

Simkin, John. “Jane Swisshelm.” Spartacus Educational, Spartacus Educational. Retrieved January 24, 2021.

Half A Century, p. 102, Jansen, McClurg and Company, Chicago (1880)

Braithewaite, Valerie A. “Defiance in Taxation and Governance.” Google Books, Google.





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