February 3, 2011

Harper: Are there no wrongs to be righted?

In May 1866, featured speakers addressed the annual National Women's Rights Convention, including Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Harper, a well-known poet and civil rights activist, was well-respected and a frequent public speaker. Nevertheless, she began her speech that day: "I feel I am something of a novice upon this platform." She went on:

Born of a race whose inheritance has been outrage and wrong, most of my life had been spent in battling against those wrongs. But I did not feel as keenly as others, that I had these rights, in common with other women, which are now demanded.

Harper emphasized that if white women were considered unequal, as a black woman, she was worse off. Nevertheless, all people are "bound up together," she said, and "society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members." Equating the fight for women's civil rights with that of blacks, she hoped for a nation not with privileged classes, but a population of only privileged people, "whose privilege will be to produce the loftiest manhood and womanhood that humanity can attain." Though she admits merely allowing women to vote will not solve everything, she goes on:

You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs... Are there no wrongs to be righted? ...Talk of giving women the ballot-box? Go on. It is a normal school, and the white women of this country need it. While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America. 

Elsewhere, in her poem "An Appeal to My Countrywomen," Harper wrote:

Men may tread down the poor and lowly,
May crush them in anger and hate,
But surely the mills of God's justice
Will grind out the grist of their fate.

On February 3, 1870, Congress passed the 15th Amendment, allowing black men the right to vote. The 19th Amendment, which extended voting rights to women, would not pass for another 50 years.


  1. What a great blog. I'm sorry that I didn't discover it sooner! I teach at the University of East Anglia in the UK, and I was wondering if you might like to do a guest post for our departmental blog (http://american-studies-uea.blogspot.com/)? I think our students (and other readers) might be interested to hear something about your performances, though anything you'd care to write for an audience broadly engaged with American Studies would be great. Again, a lovely blog. And by the way, are you on twitter?

  2. To tell you the truth, I don't use Twitter because I'm still confused by it!

    I'd love to do something with your blog. My email address is under the "About me" section; please get in touch!