Sometimes life forces us to choose between two things, putting aside one in favor of the other. That was how 19th-century activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper approached the seemingly conflicting issues of suffrage for black men and women in the 1890s. Harper knew the challenges women faced, but never signed on to the campaigns that focused solely on women’s rights.
Women, she noted in an 1893 speech to the World’s Congress of Representative Women, weren’t being lynched by “cowardly men, who torture, burn and lynch their fellow men.” Women, in their traditional roles as wives and mothers, were best positioned to advocate against all forms of injustice.
Born Frances Ellen Watkins in Baltimore, Md., she was best known by her married name, Harper. The daughter of free blacks, she was orphaned at age 3 and raised by a paternal uncle, William Watkins, and his wife, Henrietta. In the course of her life, Harper traveled widely, and lived in Ohio before settling in Philadelphia in 1870. She came to Delaware County posthumously, when she was buried at Collingdale’s Eden Cemetery because Philadelphia’s public cemeteries were segregated.
Harper’s uncle was a teacher and preacher. Educated by a prominent black minister, he opened the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth in 1820. One student described Watkins as a taskmaster “so signally precise that every example in etymology (word choice), syntax and prosody (rhythm) had to be given as correctly as a sound upon a keyboard.”
Watkins also preached in the black Methodist church, practiced self-taught medicine and worked as a shoemaker. He may be most significant for having turned William Lloyd Garrison against colonization—a proposal to solve racial issues by sending free blacks to Africa. Garrison had joined a colonization group at the age of 25 but, according to historian Margaret Hope Bacon, quit after Watkins convinced him that colonization was mainly a slaveholder ruse to get rid of free blacks. “This led [Garrison] to leave Baltimore and … move to Boston, where he founded The Liberator,” an abolitionist newspaper, wrote Bacon. “It also led to a long friendship between the Watkins family and Garrison.”
At age 13, after finishing her studies, Harper took a job as a seamstress and nanny in the home of a white family named Armstrong, who owned a bookstore. Discovering her literary interests, the Armstrongs encouraged her to read books and write. By 21, Harper had written enough poems to fill a volume, which was published in the late 1840s as Forest Leaves.
In 1851, at the age of 26, Harper left Baltimore to teach at Union Seminary, a school for free blacks near Columbus, Ohio. There, despite her interest in literature, she was assigned to teach “domestic science.” Disappointed, Harper left a year later to teach at a school in York, where she found herself solely responsible for “53 untrained little urchins.” Harper began to question her calling as a teacher.
Meanwhile, Maryland passed a law forbidding free blacks in the North from entering the state, or they would be sold into slavery. When someone ignored the law, was sold into slavery and died trying to escape, Harper discovered a new purpose. “Upon that grave, I pledge myself to the Antiâ€Slavery cause,” she wrote to Philadelphia abolitionist William Still.
Still and his wife invited Watkins to live in their apartment over the headquarters of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society on North 5th Street. There, she wrote poetry, published in 1854 as Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. It sold 10,000 copies in three years. Between the 1840s and 1901, Harper would publish seven books of poetry and prose, the first four of which sold 50,000 copies.
Harper was hired as a lecturer by the Maine Anti-Slavery Society. In 1857, she returned to Philadelphia to work for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society as its official lecturer and agent for Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The following year, Harper began speaking in the Midwest.
During her travels in Ohio, she met Fenton Harper, a widower with three children. They married in 1860 and settled on a farm in Grove City, Ohio, which Harper bought with her savings. Two years later, they had a daughter, Mary. For income, she made and sold butter.
Harper lectured just once or twice during that period. When her husband died in 1864, she discovered that he had been deeply in debt. Even though she had bought the farm, the administrator of her husband’s estate seized it and all of Harper’s possessions.
Harper returned to the lecture circuit with an even broader vision, though she still argued for the rights of blacks. During Reconstruction, Harper traveled throughout the South, speaking in homes and churches and even in the South Carolina legislature. A new theme emerged in her lectures on women’s rights based on her treatment in Ohio. “Had I died instead of my husband, how different might have been the result,” Harper told the 11th Annual Woman’s Rights Convention in 1866. “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.”
Harper was close to other feminists of her time, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, yet was not in lockstep with them. “I do not believe that white women are dewdrops just exhaled from the skies,” Harper said in 1866. “I think that, like men, they may be divided into three classes—the good, the bad and the indifferent.”
In 1869, American feminists split over the proposed 15th amendment to guarantee the vote to blacks. Many insisted that it be rejected, and a new amendment written to enfranchise both women and blacks. Harper thought black rights more urgent. In 1892, the year before she spoke to the women’s congress, 52 blacks were lynched. Political rights, she thought, were blacks’ best defense, and female activism the indispensable tool to provide it—and, eventually, women’s rights, too.
Putting their own interests aside, believed Harper, would gain women and their views more respect. “Men may boast of the aristocracy of blood, may glory in the aristocracy of talent and be proud of the aristocracy of wealth,” said Harper. “But there is one aristocracy which must ever outrank them all, and that is the aristocracy of character. It is the women of a country who help to mold its character, and to influence, if not determine, its destiny.”
So she did just that, by making that difficult initial choice.