A Woman to Know: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

We are all bound up in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse of its own soul. — Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

We are all bound up in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse of its own soul. — Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

(image via The Library of Congress)

When people think of the suffragists who fought for women’s right to vote, they often cite Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, maybe Lucretia Mott or Charlotte Perkins Gillman. These legacies often overshadow the women of color who joined the fight — women like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

Frances grew up in Baltimore as the surrogate daughter to her aunt and uncle, prominent Black abolitionists. After attending school, she worked for a white family that owned the local bookstore. There, her love of writing and reading blossomed. In 1845, when she was just 21, she published her first book of poetry, Forest Leaves. The book became a national sensation, and its popularity led to Frances publishing more poems in anti-slavery newspapers. In 1859, Harper’s Magazine published Frances’s story “The Two Offers,” making her the first-ever Black woman to have a short story published in America.

Frances’s art made her a household name, and she parlayed her high profile into a career in advocacy. She fought for suffragists to include women of color in the fight for the vote. In 1866, she spoke at the National Women’s Rights Convention, asking them to recognize the double bind of racism and sexism women like herself battled daily. Frederick Douglass partnered with her to launch the American Woman Suffrage Association, but the women’s suffrage movement remained torn over this question of Black women’s inclusion.

As she later said of the white women’s tactics:

I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. 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.

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