Each week for 26 weeks, I am publishing a post about women who are not widely known but should be—women who can inspire us, teach us, and encourage us to get out of our comfort zones and reach for our dreams. Week 6 of my A to Z challenge introduces us to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
“We are all bound together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul” ~ Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
When we think about the earliest battles for women’s rights in the United States, we often think of women like Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony—all of whom were white middle and upper class women. If women’s suffrage is taught at all, those are the women who tend to be mentioned. If we do think about women of color who were involved in the suffrage movement, Sojourner Truth might come to mind. Yet one name likely to be overlooked is Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
Frances was born in Baltimore in 1825 to parents who belonged to Baltimore’s extensive middle-class black society. When she was orphaned at the age of three, her aunt and uncle took her in. Her uncle, William Watkins, had established the Watkins Academy in 1820. In addition to starting his own school, he was a preacher and an ardent abolitionist. Frances attended the Watkins Academy until she was thirteen, and then took a job as a seamstress for a local white family who owned a bookshop. Whenever she had a free moment, she read books from the shop and worked on her own writing, mostly poetry. She completed her first volume of poetry, Forest Leaves, when she was twenty-one (Bacon).
In 1851 Frances became the first woman instructor at Union Seminary, a school for free blacks in Ohio. She moved from there to a school in Pennsylvania, where she was exposed to the operations of the Underground Railroad. She was invited to live with well-known abolitionist William Still and his family, and while with them, she wrote poetry specifically intended for the antislavery press. In 1854 she published her second volume of poetry, which included an introduction written by William Lloyd Garrison. This book was reprinted at least five times over the next twenty years, and cemented her reputation as a popular black poet who focused on the suffering of women slaves as well as the heroic actions of the women who risked their lives to rescue them (Bacon).
Frances soon became an anti-slavery lecturer, where she increasingly found herself caught between two worlds—the white reform movements of the day, and the reality of life for African Americans struggling to survive. She gave much of the money she earned to support the Underground Railroad. In 1860 she married Fenton Harper, a free black widower with three children. With her savings they bought a small farm in Ohio, where she gave birth to their daughter, Mary. When Fenton died four years later, Frances was shocked to learn that he had been deeply in debt. The administrator of his estate seized her farm to pay his debts, leaving her with nothing, forcing her back onto the lecture circuit.
In 1866 she spoke at the 11th Women’s Rights Convention in New York, describing how she was treated after her husband’s death, an experience that renewed her desire to fight for women’s rights: “Had I died instead of my husband, how different might have been the result. By this time he would have another wife, it is likely; and no administrator would have gone into his house, broken up his home, sold his bed, and taken away his means of support…I say then that justice is not fulfilled so long as woman is unequal before the law” (qtd. in Bacon).
Frances emerged from this speech as one of the few black women to become involved in the women’s movement after the Civil War. However, as the movement began to focus more on suffrage alone, and Frances realized the double burden faced by black women, she turned her focus to the South, where she traveled and lectured on the responsibilities that come with freedom: “I know that the colored man needs something more than a vote in his hand….A man landless, ignorant and poor may use his vote against his interests; but with intelligence and land he holds in his hand the basis of power and elements of strength” (qtd. in Bacon). Her time in the South also exposed Frances to the burden faced by southern black women, many of whom seemed to accept physical abuse and infidelity as part of their lives: “I am going to talk with them about their daughters, and about things connected with the welfare of the race. Now is the time for our women to begin to plant the roots of progress under the hearthstone” (qtd. in Bacon).
After returning to Philadelphia in 1871, she wrote Sketches of Southern Life, a book that was viewed as one of the most accurate depictions of life for southern African Americans. Frances went on to join the American Woman’s Suffrage Association and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She spoke at the International Council of Women in Washington, the National Council of Women, and the Congress of Representative Women. In 1896 Frances played a lead role in organizing the National Association of Colored Women, becoming vice president of the organization. Whether she realized it or not, “her own life as an independent, self-supporting woman who argued for women’s rights without abandoning her impassioned advocacy for civil rights and advancement for blacks was more radical than the positions she espoused and made her a prototype for later black feminists” (Bacon).
Frances died in 1911, nine years before women gained the right to vote. Yet her contributions to both civil rights and women’s rights cannot be underestimated. She deserves to be included in the curriculum of every US history class.
“The world can not move without woman’s sharing in the movement, and to help give a right impetus to that movement is woman’s highest privilege….It is not through sex but through character that the best influence of women upon the life of the nation must be exerted.”
F is for Frances Ellen Watkins Harper—poet, journalist, abolitionist and suffragist.
Bacon, Margaret Hope. “One Great Bundle of Humanity: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911).” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 113.1 (Jan. 1989): 21-43.
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.