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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Kathryn S Gardiner | Published on 6/6/2018

Forgotten Foremothers 

Profiles of Lesser-Known Heroines in the Fight for Women's Rights

“Can you blame me if I’ve learned to think
Your hate of vice a sham,
When you so coldly crushed me down
And then excused the man?”
-from “A Double Standard” by Frances E.W. Harper

Library of Congress LC-USZ62-75978

At the eleventh annual National Women’s Rights Convention on May 10, 1866, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper took the stage. She stood before a gathering of the suffrage movement’s dynamic leaders and gave the night’s most memorable speech.

“You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs,” Harper said to a crowd that included Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott. “I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man's hand against me.”

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, on Sept. 24, 1825, Frances Harper (born Frances Ellen Watkins) was the only child of free African-American parents. Following the death of her mother when Harper was three, she was raised by her aunt and uncle. Her uncle became a tremendous influence in her life—Reverend William Watkins was a civil rights activist and ran the Academy for Negro Youth. Harper studied at her uncle’s school until the age of 13, showing early talent and interest in the written word. At 14, she began domestic work as a seamstress. In the Quaker home where she was employed, Harper continued her education on her own, further developing her writing skills and taking advantage of access to the home’s library.

Her first volume of poetry, Forest Leaves, was published in 1845 when Harper was only 20. (Believed lost, a single copy of the manuscript was rediscovered in 2017.) This was only the beginning a remarkable writing career that would grow to include four novels and nearly a dozen collections of poetry. Harper spoke across the nation as a traveling lecturer for the American Anti- Slavery Society and she was active in the Unitarian Church, which itself supported abolition.

Harper was a woman of action as well as a woman of words. In 1858, she refused to ride in the “colored section” of a segregated trolley car (as Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks would do decades later on Alabama buses) and she was heavily involved in the Underground Railroad, assisting slaves in their passage to free states.

Her travels stopped briefly in 1860 when she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three sons. The couple settled on a farm in Ohio where Harper gave birth to a daughter, Mary, in 1862. As a mother and a homemaker, Harper continued to write and publish. After her husband’s death in 1864, she moved back east with Mary. Now a widow and a single mother, Harper returned to her work for social progress. It was then, in 1866, that she gave her powerful speech at the National Women’s Rights Convention. Famed abolitionist and suffragette Lucretia Mott spoke that same night. She called Frances Harper the embodiment of the new generation of feminists.

Following this event, Harper enjoyed her greatest period of prominence and productivity. She traveled, lectured, and published extensively while raising daughter Mary. She contributed frequently to anti-slavery newspapers and helped found the National Association of Colored Women, serving as its third vice president.

Throughout her life, she remained a sought-after  in women’s rights circles, but she grew increasingly convinced that Black organizations and Black reformers needed to set their own agendas. She was dismayed by the willingness—often eagerness—with which the white-led organizations promoted white supremacy and racist political aims, especially to garner support in the south. (When trying to win over Mississippi and South Carolina, for example, the League’s own founder, Carrie Chapman Catt, said, “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” Her view was not unusual among white suffragettes.)

In 1893, Harper delivered a speech at the Congress of Representative Women at the World’s Columbian Exposition, the famous gilded world’s fair in Chicago. There, she spoke on the power of “woman’s work” and declared that “we stand upon the threshold of woman’s era.”

“In her hand are possibilities whose use or abuse must tell upon the political life of the nation and send their influence for good or evil across the track of unborn ages,” Harper said.

Frances Harper died Feb. 22, 1911, at age 85 at her home in Philadelphia. She was buried in Eden Cemetery, next to her daughter Mary, who died in 1909.

“I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.”

-from “Bury Me in a Free Land” by Frances E.W. Harper