Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a poet, teacher, and civil rights activist. Born into freedom in Baltimore in 1825, she was able to work hard for justice and freedom throughout her life. Harper used her education to fight for civil rights throughout her life. She expressed her passion for social revolution through public speaking and her poetry.
The heart of Harper’s career involved social justice and writing. Harper began writing when she was a child and continued far into her future. She wrote for newspapers against slavery and became known as the “mother of African American journalism” for her prestige in magazine writing. She also wrote many works of poetry, her first book published at the age of 20. Harper is best known for a novel she wrote when she was 67, titled “Iola Leroy,” which is one of the first novels by an African American woman to be printed. She also wrote the first short story to be published by an African American writer.
While teaching in Ohio, she learned of specific racial injustices happening around her. She channeled her pain and frustration into social activism and became part of the abolitionist movement. Harper helped free slaves through the Underground Railroad and traveled around New England as a prominent speaker for the abolition of slavery. Her house even became a stop for the Underground Railroad where she spent time comforting former slaves in their escape and listening to their stories. She spoke of these experiences in her lectures and wrote about them in her poetry, stories, and essays.
In her poem, “A Double Standard,” Harper writes about the complexities of sex, gender, and the social standards that go with them, as evident in this excerpt:
“Crime has no sex and yet to-day
I wear the brand of shame;
Whilst he amid the gay and proud
Still bears an honored name.
Can you blame me if I’ve learned to think
Your hate of vice a sham,
When you so coldly crushed me down
And then excused the man?
That I who fell, and he who sinned,
Shall reap as we have sown;
That each the burden of his loss
Must bear and bear alone.
No golden weights can turn the scale
Of justice in His sight;
And what is wrong in woman’s life
In man’s cannot be right.”
In this poem, Harper writes about exactly what the poem is titled: double standards. Men and women are so closely related when it comes to simply being human, and yet, women tend to be chastised more harshly, shown by, “When you so coldly crushed me down / And then excused the man?” Her voice is clear in this poem and she is not afraid to share how she truly feels about the way society works with women.
Harper was a woman ahead of her time. Her novel included the complications of growing up as a mixed race, and she also believed that women could have happy lives without men. While these are not crazy notions, for the 1800s they would most likely be looked down upon by general society. Harper was extremely successful and stayed true to her passions. Mainstream society did not deter her from fighting for what she believed in, and neither did beliefs against her race or gender.
Harper is a bold example of a “strong woman.” She followed her dreams and pursued her goals. While the windows of opportunity were smaller than they are today, she did not let that stop her from being outspoken and powerful. She benefited from being born into freedom and used that power to help others. Harper is a truly inspiring force of nature.
Samantha is SWSG’s Communications and Social Media intern for Summer 2013. She is originally from the Bay Area and is a University of California, Riverside graduate who recently completed a year of service with City Year Boston. She is an avid reader and writer who is passionate about literature and powerful women all over the world and throughout history.