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  • Frances E. W. Harper, A Model Citizen Who Couldn’t Vote
  • Koritha Mitchell

As the centennial of ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment inspires commemorations of “women’s suffrage,” the insights of Black women historians prove instructive. Building on forebears, Martha S. Jones insists upon speaking in terms of “women and the vote” to honor those marginalized when conversations revolve around the amendment (671–73). The phrase “women and the vote” sheds light on how people of all backgrounds and social positions thought about, talked about, and organized around voting as one of many political strategies. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is a role model we ignore at our peril, and viewing her contributions through the lens of “women and the vote” helps clarify why.

First, Watkins Harper set standards for herself that did not change based on what others thought or how others behaved.1 At a time when many believed that African Americans should be property and that women should not speak in public, she became the first Black woman paid to lecture for an anti-slavery society (Mitchell, Introduction 16, 51). Moreover, Watkins Harper did not cower as the nation’s leaders expressed their values by making voting dependent upon being a straight white man with property. In a letter to the Anti-Slavery Bugle, she cast herself as “an old maid . . . going about the country meddling in the slaveholders’ business, and interfering with their rights” (23 April 1859).

Watkins Harper operated out of her own definition of the public good, disregarding the narrow vision of those in power. The vote was in slaveholders’ hands, but she did not let that stop her from exerting political influence. She actively put herself in conversations she believed would “help carry on a revolution in public opinion favorable to universal freedom” (Watkins Harper, “Letter,” 21 May 1859, 98).

Committed to “universal freedom,” she was not distracted by the racism of white women pursuing “suffrage.” For instance, Elizabeth Cady Stanton drew a clear line in December 1865. Stanton explained in the National Anti-Slavery Standard 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 [End Page 311] we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first” (qtd. in Mitchell, Introduction 18). Nevertheless, Watkins Harper worked throughout her career with the organizations Stanton and Susan B. Anthony helmed (Mitchell, Introduction 21). Similarly, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union accommodated southern members who wanted to avoid associating with Black people. Meanwhile, Watkins Harper served as the organization’s national superintendent and encouraged African Americans to support it, even as she detailed her white comrades’ shortcomings (Mitchell, Introduction 18, 20; Harper 317–21).

Black men’s sexism also failed to distract Watkins Harper from her goals. In August 1892, Frederick Douglass was asked to suggest women for inclusion in a book titled Noted Negro Women, but he refused to name any, insisting that none were truly “famous.” However, as Brittney Cooper argues, while Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South and Ida B. Wells’s first anti-lynching pamphlet were a few months from publication, “Frances Harper was certainly famous by 1892” (Cooper 61). Furthermore, Harper was his peer, not a potential protégée like Cooper and Wells, as historian Corinne Field would emphasize.

Earlier in life, Watkins Harper navigated paternalism from a true friend and ally, William Still. As Andreá Williams demonstrates, “the antislavery movement marginalized single [Black] women, yet relied upon their labor” (109). As such, Still’s references to Watkins “are tinged with a paternalistic concern” because Watkins lacks “male supervision,” and “he often presents himself as her mentor and guardian despite her acts of independence” (109). Watkins Harper no doubt noticed this, just as she noticed white women’s slights, but she remained focused on doing her part to make the world less hostile for more people.

Second, voting is only one mode of political engagement, so Watkins Harper would have never limited herself to it, just as she never relied on a single genre or form...


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pp. 311-314
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