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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Swain, Adeline Morrison
(May 25, 1820–February 3, 1899)

–amateur artist and scientist, suffragist, and reformer—was born in Bath, New Hampshire. The daughter of a schoolteacher, she was given educational opportunities often denied to young women of her time. By 1836 she had completed her formal education, and at 16 took a teaching position in modern languages and art in a female seminary in Vermont. In 1846 she married James Swain, a pharmacist, and in 1858 the couple moved to Fort Dodge, Iowa, a struggling frontier town, where James achieved considerable financial success as a businessman. By 1871 the couple was able to build a showcase home that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

    Adeline Swain, clearly the best-educated woman in the community, made her home the town's social, intellectual, and cultural center. Recognizing the lack of local educational opportunities for young women, she organized classes in French, English, music, and painting. She also organized a children's lyceum to provide cultural opportunities for younger children. She personally was an accomplished artist who won statewide competitions in landscape and still life drawing and painting. A truly renaissance woman, she was a voracious reader who developed expertise in history, theology, and natural sciences. Her interest in science led her to offer classes in the study of the natural flora of the area.

    Swain's scientific interests brought an appointment as a correspondent of the Entomological Commission of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Her most important contribution in that capacity was a report published in 1877 on the Colorado grasshopper that was devastating agriculture in the northern Great Plains and western Iowa. Swain's scientific interests and accomplishments earned her election to membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an honor seldom conferred on a woman at the time, and she was the first woman to prepare and read a paper before that body's national convention.

    The arts and sciences, however, were not Swain's primary interests. She became involved in public affairs and social reforms, with women's rights as her primary political focus. In 1869 she organized the first woman suffrage meeting in Fort Dodge. During the 1870s, she traveled around the state, accompanying nationally recognized women's rights leaders such as Susan B. Anthony, speaking on the issue, and helping to establish local suffrage societies. She was an active participant in the National Women's Congress and the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), and for several years was a contributor to the Women's Tribune, a national publication. In recognition of her more than 40 years of work for the cause, the NWSA elected her vice president for life at its convention in Atlanta.

    The Panic of 1873 and the subsequent depression forced her husband into bankruptcy and brought about the loss of their home and business property. In response, Swain increasingly became involved in politics and in the early farmer' movement. Rejecting the two major parties, she turned to the Greenback Party because of its commitment to monetary reform and its support for equal political and legal rights for men and women. After the death of her husband in 1878, her commitment to the party increased, and in 1881 she accepted the party's nomination for Iowa Superintendent of Public Instruction, becoming the first woman in Iowa to be nominated by a party for a statewide elective office. In the subsequent election, Swain tallied almost 27,000 votes, outpolling the party's male candidates for other offices. In 1884 she was chosen as a delegate to the party's national convention and was an active participant in that event, addressing the assembly from the speaker's platform.

    In religious matters, Swain broke from the mainline denominations because of their traditional stands on women's roles in the church. She identified instead with the Unitarian-Universalist church, the only major denomination of the period to allow women to be clergy. She also became involved with Spiritualism, and the Swain home became the center of Spiritualist activities in the community. In 1874 Swain was elected secretary of the Iowa Spiritualist Association.

    In 1887 Swain, aging and facing increasing financial difficulties, moved to Illinois to live with her brother. She died there in 1899. Her remains were returned to Fort Dodge. In 2000 Swain was elected to the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame.
Sources An obituary appeared in Annals of Iowa 4 (1899), 79. See also Benjamin F. Gue, History of Iowa (1903); Roger Natte, "Adeline Morrison Swain, Early Women's Rights Movement in Fort Dodge," Fort Dodge Today Illustrated Fort Dodge (1896).
Contributor: Roger Natte

Cite as: Natte, Roger. "Swain, Adeline Morrison" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 16 August 2018