Speech by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper at the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City
Background: In May 1866, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a leading African American poet, lecturer and civil right activist, addressed the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City. Other speakers included white suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. New York Times columnist Brent Staples (“When the Suffrage Movement Sold Out to White Supremacy,” February 3, 2019) charged that “official suffrage history reduces . . . Harper to a bit player, even though she was central to the struggles for both African-American and women’s rights and delivered what has come to be recognized as a visionary speech on the relationship between the two.” History of Woman Suffrage (six volumes published between 1881 and 1922) by Stanton and Anthony et al report on the 1866 meeting but ignored Harper’s speech. Historian Nell Irvin Painter argues that Harper’s words were “too strong” for white suffrage leaders. They viewed her “polished, self-assured style as antithetical to what they viewed as blackness,” preferring the “uneducated version of black womanhood embodied by the formerly enslaved suffragist Sojourner Truth, who entertained her audiences as she imparted her ideas.”
Instructions: Read excerpts from the speech by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and answer questions 1-4.
- Harper claims that when “the hands of the black were fettered,” white men were also deprived of the liberty. In your opinion, what did she mean by this statement?
- According to Harper, what prevents this “grand and glorious revolution” from reaching its “climax of success”?
- What is Harper’s view on women achieving the right to vote?
- In your opinion, why did some white suffragist react negatively to Harper’s assertion that “white women of America” needed to be “lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness”?
- Harper argued “We are all bound up together”? Do you agree with Harper’s assertion? Explain.
A. I feel I am something of a novice upon this platform. 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 . . . We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the Negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press.
B. Society cannot afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members. At the South, the legislation of the country was in behalf of the rich slaveholders, while the poor white man was neglected. What is the consequence today? From that very class of neglected poor white men, comes the man who stands today, with his hand upon the helm of the nation. He fails to catch the watchword of the hour, and throws himself, the incarnation of meanness, across the pathway of the nation. My objection to Andrew Johnson is not that he has been a poor white man; my objection is that he keeps “poor whites” all the way through. That is the trouble with him.
C. This grand and glorious revolution which has commenced, will fail to reach its climax of success, until throughout the length and breadth of the American Republic, the nation shall be so color-blind, as to know no man by the color of his skin or the curl of his hair. It will then have no privileged class, trampling upon outraging the unprivileged classes, but will be then one great privileged nation, whose privilege will be to produce the loftiest manhood and womanhood that humanity can attain.
D. I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believer that white women are dewdrops 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 prejudice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, with the winning party.
E. You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man’s hand against me. Let me go to-morrow morning and take my seat in one of your street cars — I do not know that they will do it in New York, but they will in Philadelphia — and the conductor will put up his hand and stop the car rather than let me ride.
F. In advocating the cause of the colored man, since the Dred Scott decision, I have sometimes said I thought the nation had touched bottom. But let me tell you there is a depth of infamy lower than that. It is when the nation, standing upon the threshold of a great peril, reached out its hands to a feebler race, and asked that race to help it, and when the peril was over, said, “You are good enough for soldiers, but not good enough for citizens.”
G. 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.