The unknown history of Seneca Falls: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

An illustrated portrait of suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which extended the right of suffrage to women, but practically speaking, millions of women of color were still barred from the polls.

To reflect on this anniversary, we’re exploring stories from the women’s suffrage movement that aren’t widely known, and that can shed light on the continued fight for gender equality today.

I n 1846, at age 21, Frances Watkins Harper published her first book of essays and poetry, Forest Leaves. She was a young, free Black woman living in Maryland, a slave state. Harper’s early education made her part of a small—but growing—group of Black authors. Her writing skill became her most important tool for social justice reforms.

Rising tensions over the future of slavery prompted Harper to become a reformer. In 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the return of escaped enslaved people to their former owners. Even free Black people like Harper could be captured and sold into slavery. In 1851, she moved north to become a teacher and anti-slavery leader. For Harper, reform was a profession. She supported herself—and, when she married in 1860, her family—by delivering speeches and publishing her writing.

In 1864, Harper became a women’s rights leader after her husband died suddenly and left her with four children and significant debt. Later she wrote that she realized then that “justice is not fulfilled so long as woman is unequal before the law.”

Two years later, she delivered one of her most famous speeches to the Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention. Harper declared: “We are all bound up 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.” Everyone needed to work together to fix social inequality.

Additionally, Black women needed more than just the ballot. Harper proclaimed, “I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life.” She knew that the vote would not solve all of the problems of racism and sexism.

Harper feared that wealthy white women reformers would ignore the problems faced by women of color. She was right to be worried. In 1869, she witnessed Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton oppose votes for Black men. In 1890, Harper lost her position as a national superintendent for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which advocated for the prohibition of alcohol. Despite her efforts, the organization had shifted to focus on winning votes for white women.

Harper’s 1892 novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, called on the Black community to work toward change. Four years later, at age 71, Harper helped found the National Association of Colored Women, the first national group focused on Black women’s concerns. Their motto, “Lifting as we climb,” responded to Harper’s call to action. She became its vice president and worked to advocate for better education for Black children, lobby for stricter anti-lynching laws, and secure the vote for Black women. The group, which still exists today, is part of Harper’s legacy.