Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and the Erasure of Black Women
Updated: Mar 20
When Americans think of Black leaders who paved the way for the many rights and freedoms Black Americans enjoy today, they often think of Martin Luther King, John Lewis, or Malcolm X.
However, few consider the important Black female leaders who fought to improve the lives of Black Americans. Some think of textbook greats such as Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, but many others have been overlooked and underappreciated over the years. One of these greats is Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a poet, writer, journalist, and activist from Baltimore who championed the voting rights for both Black men and women while spreading awareness of the severity of slavery and racism through her literature.
Before Harper became the activist and writer celebrated today, she was an orphan at the age of three and attended Watkins Academy, a school created by her abolitionist uncle. She later held two jobs, including a position as a teacher in Pennsylvania, not too far from her home state, Maryland. While in Pennsylvania, Harper found out she could not return back to her home state due to a new law prohibiting free African Americans from moving to or returning to Maryland after taking a job in another state.
The injustice sparked Harper to devote her life to the anti-slavery movement. She began to use her poetry to display the horrors of slavery and racism through many abolitionist newspapers such as The Liberator and Paper. Her poetry then motivated her to go on tours to give speeches about these topics and read passages from her literature. Her respected position in the Black community led to her being appointed as the sole Black speaker at the 11th National Women’s Rights Convention in 1866.
While the position may seem coveted, it was controversial for Harper. Leaders of the Convention, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, stated black men did not deserve the right to vote before white women due to their inability to understand the U.S. political system. But instead of avoiding their arguments about black men’s voting rights, Harper acknowledges that these women are solely standing up for the rights of white women instead of all women by degrading black men. In her speech, Harper states:
“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. The good would vote according to their convictions and principles; the bad, as dictated by preju[d]ice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, with the winning party.”
While Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is a name hardly seen in textbooks, many argue with the success of Black women in politics, sports, entertainment, and more, believing that the erasure of black women does not occur anymore. Critics of that theory argue that, while black women are now more celebrated for their feats, their erasure from history will still continue due to society’s ignorance of Black women’s struggles.
The erasure of Black women continues in the Black Lives Matter Movement. Like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and other Black activists, many Black women have been spearheading the Black Lives Matter Movement. Still, they are not the first names spoken about during these protests. While many know of Michael Brown, George Floyd, and Trayvon Martin, the names Eleanor Bumpurs, Korryn Gaines, and India Kager usually result in a blank stare.
Black women meet the same fate in the #MeToo Movement. While the movement was created by a Black woman named Tarana Burke in 2006 to help Black women who experienced sexual assault and harassment, it was not until 2017 that the movement started to gain momentum. The movement only gained this momentum when white women began sharing their stories of sexual assault and harassment.
`To deal with black women’s invisibility in the Black Lives Matter Movement, the African American Policy Forum and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies created the “#SayHerName” movement in order to draw more attention toward Black women who have been victims of police brutality. And in the #MeToo movement, the “We, As Ourselves” movement has worked to promote the stories of black women and the sexual violence they have faced with the help of the #MeToo Movement, the Time’s Up Foundation, and the National Women’s Law Center.
But, in order to prevent this erasure of Black Women, the stories or work of black women can not be forgotten. While previous generations let the names Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Claudette Colvin, and Augusta Savage fade into the background, our generation can not forget the names Tarana Burke, Drew Dixon, Patrisse Cullors, Kimberlé Crenshaw, or Aiyana Stanley-Jones.