Encyclopedia Womannica

Warriors: Frances E.W. Harper

Episode Summary

Frances E.W. Harper (1825-1911) was an activist, author, journalist, orator, poet, and educator known for her fiery speeches and writing on the evils of slavery, and in support of women’s suffrage and temperance.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by Native. For 20 percent off your first purchase, visit nativedeodorant.com and use promo code ENCYCLOPEDIA during checkout.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Our Warrior today fought for abolition, women’s rights, racial justice, voting rights and more. She was a poet, teacher, public speaker, and writer who is considered “The Mother of African-American Journalism.” Let’s talk about Frances Harper. 

Frances Ellen Watkins was born in 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was the only child of free parents, though at that time the state of Maryland still allowed slavery.  When Frances was just three years old, both of her parents died. She was then raised by her maternal aunt and uncle, Henriette and Rev. William Watkins, and took their last name.  

Frances’ uncle was a minister, teacher, activist and abolitionist who had a major impact on France’s life and work. Frances attended his school until she was 13. 

The following year, Francis started working as a seamstress. When she wasn’t working, she was writing. And when she wasn’t writing, she was reading. Frances was bright and curious, and was always looking for ideas to share and stories to read.

In her early 20s, she published articles and poems in her local newspaper. She also wrote pieces for antislavery journals and completed her first book of poetry, called Forest Leaves or Autumn Leaves. 

Then in 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. The Watkins family left Baltimore for Ohio. Francis was the first woman to teach at Union Seminary before moving to Pennsylvania to work with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society. 

In 1854, Francis gave her first public speech as part of the abolition movement. She did such a good job that it launched a two-year lecture tour. 

Her speeches focused on abolition, equality and women’s rights. In 1854, she also  published Poems of Miscellaneous Subjects. The book was quite popular. 

In 1858, one hundred years before Rosa Parks would become famous for a similar action, Francis refused to give up her seat or move to the designated “colored” section of a trolly car in Philadelphia. 

The following year, Francis became the first African American woman to publish a short story in the U.S. Her story, “The Two Offers,” appeared in Anglo-African Magazine. Throughout her life her writings, both fiction and non-fiction, told the story of the African American experience in that era and urged social change. 

In 1860, Frances married Fenton Harper and the couple had one child together. Fenton died just four years after their nuptials. 

Frances’ work continued after the Civil War. She traveled through the South during Reconstruction, teaching former slaves and speaking and writing about their living conditions. Her journey led to her book entitled “Sketches of Southern Life.”  

She wrote and spoke about the need for greater access to education, women’s suffrage, and temperance.   

Frances spoke at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention and urged the women there to fight for Black women’s rights. She said, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblist of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.” 

She was a master writer, talker, and organizer. From 1883 to 1890, she organized for the Nationall Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and she helped to create the National Association of Colored Women in 1894 alongside Ida Wells-Barnett, and Harriet Tubman, among others. . 

The organization sought to advance the rights of African-American women. Their campaigns centered on women’s suffrage, anti-lynching, and fighting Jim Crow laws. The organization still exists today. 

In 1911, Frances died of heart failure at the age of 86. She was buried next to her daughter Mary, who had died two years prior. 

Frances remains a literary legend and one of the most important writers of her time. She was a poet and a passionate activist who used her lived experiences to promote social change. 

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another warrior.

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!