Frances Ellen Watkins Harper





Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)




Frances E. W. Harper
from Hallie Q. Brown, Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction (Xenia, Ohio: Aldine Pub. Co., 1926), p. 96a.

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1825-1911

By Ida E. Jones, University Archivist at Morgan State University

Abolitionist, author, suffragist

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, abolitionist, author, and suffragist, was born on September 25, 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland, the only child to free born parents, whose names are lost to history. Orphaned at three years old, Harper was raised by her paternal uncle, William Watkins, and his wife, Henrietta Watkins.

William was an important influence on her early intellectual life. He was a teacher, minister, and social critic. He taught at the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth, which Frances attended. He served as a minister to African American congregations within the Methodist Episcopal Church. In Baltimore, the African American Methodist and free communities were source and symbol of activist intentions; both elements shaped Harper and her worldview.

Harper worked to contribute to the Watkins household all the while learning and pursuing an education. Maryland's 1850 Fugitive Slave Law impelled Harper to a lifelong commitment to combat racial injustice. Her work with the abolitionist movement melded into the women's suffrage movement, enlarging her audience. In May 1866, she delivered the speech, "We Are All Bound Up Together," [LINK] before the National Women's Rights Convention. Her speech addressed the implicit racial bias within the women's movement.

The racial vitriol prior to the passage of the 15th Amendment confirmed her observations, resulting in a split of the suffrage movement into two ideological groups: the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). Harper continued her crusade through the AWSA. Ultimately, in 1890, the AWSA and NWSA merged, minimizing Harper's influence and her racialized gendered approach to suffrage. Nevertheless, she continued to publish, speak and advocate from the vantage point of her two-ness, being African American and woman. Harper died on February 20, 1911 and is buried in Edenton Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.


Publications documenting Harper's suffrage activity include: Melba Joyce Boyd's Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E.W. Harper (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press), Gerda Lerner's The Female Experience: An American Documentary (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company); Koritha Mitchell's "Know Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton? You should also know Frances E. W. Harper" (,

Cynthia Neverdon-Morton's Afro-American Women of the South and the Advancement of the Race, 1895-1925 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press), and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn's African American women in the struggle for the vote, 1850-1920 Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press).

Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins "We Are All Bound Up Together - May 1866" (accessed January 17, 2020)

Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins, "Woman's Political Future" (20 May 1893) January 17, 2020)


Photo: Encyclopaedia Britannica at


Full-text of items marked with an asterisk is only available at institutions that subscribe to Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000.


Links to Additional Biographical Sketches

Notable American Women*
Monroe Majors, Noted Negro Women
Dictionary of American Negro Biography*
Women of Distinction
Homespun Heroines


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Link to Scholarly Essay

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: Social Activist by Shirley Wilson Logan

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