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Know Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton? You should also know Frances E. W. Harper

Wmc Features Frances Harper 021418
Frances E.W. Harper

Maintaining the gender inequality that has made the United States what it is requires downplaying sexual assault and harassment. To counter this longstanding tradition, we need all hands on deck. Fortunately, the #MeToo movement has become an example of women working across traditional barriers, including differences of race and class, as it helped inspire #TimesUp. Unfortunately, it also became a reminder that when white women remain oblivious to the work of women of color, they can assume their own efforts to be unprecedented. This erasure is not unique among women, however. The struggle for racial justice has often revolved around black and brown men. In contrast, #BlackLivesMatter distinguished itself with women leaders who prioritize the needs of queer and gender nonconforming people. As this bookworm watches #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter build and strengthen coalitions, my admiration for activist-author Frances Ellen Watkins Harper intensifies. 

Living from 1825 to 1911, Watkins Harper witnessed some of the most tumultuous decades in the United States, and she contributed to the major progressive movements of her day. Her priorities included abolition in the 1850s and 1860s, temperance and public education in the 1870s and 1880s, and voting rights and women’s equality in the 1890s and early 1900s. Still, what may be most striking about Harper’s extraordinary life and career is that she so successfully worked across traditional barriers of identity and affiliation.

Watkins Harper was at least as prominent as abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass, whose name most Americans know. She began lecturing in 1854, and though she was not the first black woman to earn a reputation as an orator (with contemporaries Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman on the scene), she was the first black woman paid by an antislavery society to travel and address audiences of both men and women, both black and white. Her first lecture was at a white church in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where she had an audience of 600 people. Also indicative of her stature: She traveled to 20 cities and gave at least 31 lectures in the first six weeks of the fall of 1854.

Even though she commanded considerable audiences, Watkins Harper remained subject to racism, making her refusal to abandon predominantly white organizations all the more admirable. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton effectively left the American Equal Rights Association because it was supporting the Fifteenth Amendment, which would institute black male suffrage before white women won the vote. Refusing to follow Anthony and Stanton, Watkins Harper noted that she could not rely on white women to prioritize the concerns of their nonwhite sisters.

Indeed, Stanton had drawn a clear line years earlier, in the December 1865 issue of the National Anti-Slavery Standard. She explained that white women had been staunch supporters of securing “freedom for the Negro.” However, in light of emancipation, the Negro is no longer “lowest in the scale of being,” and “it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first.”

Such remarks may have sparked Harper’s 1866 observation: “I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.” Always uncompromising, Harper continued to command respect. She spoke at the 1888 International Council of Women convention. This gathering was organized by Anthony and Stanton’s National Woman Suffrage Association for the purpose of linking women's organizations from around the world. (It still exists today.)

Harper also worked with white women to advance the cause of temperance. In 1874, Harper became a national superintendent for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). In this role, she often dealt with white women’s resistance to interacting with black women at local and national meetings. Many of them treated such interactions as examples of the “social equality” between black and white people that must be rejected. In Harper’s view, such responses confirmed that white women “fail to make in their minds the discrimination between social equality and Christian affiliation.” Nevertheless, she urged black men and women to ignore the shortsightedness of their fellow Americans and embrace the cause.

Watkins Harper was especially revered in African American communities. All over the country, literary societies, social clubs, and community service groups named themselves after her. When the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) emerged in 1896, Harper was among the speakers at its first gathering, and she was elected vice president the next year. She was in her 70s and still working alongside women who would advance progressive causes for decades to come.

Watkins Harper was very much a woman of faith, and she proved an especially impressive leader by working across religious affiliations. She was often consulted by leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, and she frequently appeared in the denomination’s publications. In fact, she wrote three serialized novels for the church’s national weekly newspaper The Christian Recorder: Minnie’s Sacrifice (1869), Sowing and Reaping (1876–77), and Trial and Triumph (1888–89). And yet, she had joined the predominantly white First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia in 1870 and remained active in the faith. Her funeral services were held in the Unitarian church, and in 1992, African American Unitarian Universalists commemorated the hundredth anniversary of her fourth and most famous novel, Iola Leroy, by installing a new headstone on her grave. Harper’s faith fueled her life’s work, and she cared much more about creating a just society that aligned with what she believed to be God’s will than about denominational labels.

Harper’s tendency to disregard barriers of race and religion was mirrored in her refusal to be confined by the boundaries of genre. She was best known as a poet and orator, but she produced fiction throughout her career. She is the author of the first known short story by an African American woman, “The Two Offers” (1859), and in addition to the aforementioned serialized novels, she published the sentimental romance Iola Leroy in 1892. It was the only novel she released as a bound book. Its protagonist can pass as white but refuses to do so because she wants to find her mother more than she wants a husband. When Harper published Iola Leroy, she was 67 years old. It was reprinted four times in four years. 

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper began her remarkable career when many believed that women should not speak in public and that all African Americans should be enslaved. She pushed past those limitations because she wanted to help her country live up to its principles. But her bold vision required not only that she disregard traditional boundaries but also that she encourage others to do the same — so that they might truly see and hear her. Much of her life’s work must continue today; progress remains to be made in public education, gender equality, and so much more. Predicting that, she left a blueprint for working across difference so that we can have all hands on deck.

More articles by Category: Race/Ethnicity
More articles by Tag: Women's leadership, Women's history, Civil rights, African American



Koritha Mitchell
Professor of English
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